It’s the start of another year, a time that many of us associate with new beginnings; the opportunity to change our behavior for the better; the chance to become healthier, happier, more fulfilled. These good intentions for oneself often take the form of New Year’s resolutions. Even if resolutions aren’t your thing, there will surely come a time in the year ahead when you decide to make a positive change in your life.
While having the intention to make healthy changes is undoubtedly a good thing, sometimes the desire to “improve” or “upgrade” our lives can lead us to beat ourselves up when we don’t adhere perfectly to the course we’ve charted for ourselves. This harsh attitude towards oneself is actually counter-productive to the health and happiness we’re intending to create through our resolutions.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali addresses overcoming negative patterns and behaviors. He explains that these behaviors do not disappear overnight, but may be overcome when worked with step by step. Positive change is possible when approached with a mindset of patience and self-compassion.
When we decide we want to make a change in our lives, often we are identifying a negative behavior that we want to alter. However, sometimes instead of seeing it as simply a behavior or habit, we see it as an inherent part of ourselves. Then when we mess up, or falter, or fail to change, we believe there is something fundamentally wrong with us. Rather than surrendering to this self-denigrating attitude, we can take a step back and see the distinction between our behavior and our true selves.
Patanjali uses the image of the self as a luminous diamond. Over the course of our lives, this bright jewel becomes clouded over by our experiences and by conditioned thoughts and behaviors. We consequently forget the inner brilliance that still exists under the layers of dirt and dust. The practices of yoga are intended to rub off layer by layer the coating that clouds the clarity and radiance of the true self.
As you work towards changing a behavior, it may be helpful to come back to this image of your behavior as a layer of dust obscuring the brilliance that lies at your core. You don’t need to completely overhaul yourself; you just need to do a little dusting.
Rather than berating yourself each time you slip up, it’s more conducive to change to see the mistake as an opportunity to learn. It’s also an opportunity to practice compassion towards yourself; to recognize that while you’re making your best efforts to be healthy and happy there may be missteps along the way, and that’s okay.
During times when I’m working to make a change in my habits or behaviors, I often turn to these words of Pema Chodron from her book The Wisdom of No Escape:
"When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying, ‘If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.’ ‘If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person.’ ‘If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person’…The point is not to try to change ourselves. [The] practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest."
As you work towards uncovering that bright jewel at your core, be kind to yourself. Acknowledge the inner source of wisdom, strength and resilience that inspired you to make a healthy change. Look inside yourself honestly, openly and with true compassion.
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.