Yoga – The Ultimate Keystone Habit
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit” ~ Aristotle
There has been a surge in recent years exploring the science and psychology behind habits – how we build new habits and how we extinguish unhealthy ones. One of the most interesting books to come out of the research is Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habit’, in which he introduces the fascinating concept of ‘Keystone Habits’.
Keystone habits are habits with super-power transformative capabilities. They are habits that once integrated into our day tend to have a powerful positive ripple effect into all other, often seemingly unrelated, areas of our lives. One of the examples he gives is the keystone habit of exercise:
“Typically people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.” ~ Charles Duhigg
This sounds very similar to the kind of positive impact that I have seen a regular yoga practice have on my students’ lives.
I remember one student saying to me after one of their first yoga classes ‘Yoga has reminded me how good it’s possible to feel.’ The more removed and disconnected we get from ourselves and our bodies the more we get used to feeling less than brilliant. It’s almost like we forget what it feels like to be well. However, once we get a sneak peak into what it feels like to be healthy and vital again, we’ll often do anything to retain that feeling, which is why yoga can be such a catalyst for positive change and transformation. Yoga it would seem is most definitely a keystone habit.
I’ve been privileged to witness many of these personal transformations in my students over the years, and below are just some of the many amazing knock-on benefits I’ve seen from practicing yoga.
Adopted a healthier diet
When people start practicing yoga they begin to often unconsciously change their way of eating. For some that may mean cutting down on their alcohol intake, eating less processed foods and takeaways, for others it might be the conscious decision to reduce or cut out the amount of animal products they consume. A regular yoga practice brings you into a more direct understanding of the relationship between what you eat and how you feel. After all it’s much harder to ignore bloating or discomfort when you’re trying to move your way through Sun Salutations. Over time this renewed awareness can lead to a more sensitive and intuitive approach to your unique dietary needs and a more mindful approach to the process of eating generally.
Stopped smoking/excessive alcohol-intake/drugs
Yoga has this uncanny effect of highlighting our less than optimal habits and behaviours. Particularly in the early days, our yoga practice can sometimes be a fairly uncomfortable wake-up call to what happens when we neglect our health. As we breathe, and stretch, and ask our bodies to do things we may not have asked of them in a long time, we begin to see the honest impact of the decisions we make. For many, the realisation of how much the body is suffering is enough to kick-start a resolution to take better care of ourselves.
Left an unhappy or unhealthy relationship
There seems to be a bit of a pattern of relationship break-ups straight after a yoga retreat or teacher training and I don’t think this is just a coincidence. When we dive into a yoga practice we start to see things from a different perspective and we may find ourselves questioning the status quo. The more contemplative aspects of the yoga practice invite us to ask questions of ourselves that we were previously too busy, distracted or fearful to ask. What makes you happy? Where do you see yourself going in life? The answers to these questions may invite us to see that the person we are in a relationship with is no longer part of our journey moving forwards. Our practice and the community that surrounds us can give us the courage and conviction to move on from relationships that no longer serve us, or that hold us back in old patterns of behaviour that we are slowly moving away from.
Improved body image and self-esteem
Yoga can be an incredible tool for helping us to make peace with our bodies and to practice greater compassion and respect for this incredible body we carry around with us all day every day. So many of us struggle with a disordered body image and a yoga practice can give us the tools to practice more gratitude for the body we currently have, whilst also developing a greater sense of confidence as we see our bodies getting healthier and stronger. Learning to arm balance was one of those pivotal moments for me. Having always considered myself a bit of a weakling, to then learn that I could do some pretty extraordinary things whilst balancing on my hands, gave me an enormous sense of strength and empowerment. It was the beginning of a much kinder relationship with my body which has over time developed irrespective of my physical capabilities on the mat.
Change a job or career path to something more meaningful
Yoga’s emphasis on becoming more present and awake has the ability to snap us out of autopilot and to question whether we are really making the most of our lives. I have seen many yoga students eventually leave jobs that sacrificed their physical and mental health, and take a leap of faith into new careers that are more aligned with their core beliefs. Just like the earlier student who remarked that yoga makes us realise how good it’s possible to feel, the shadow side is that we become less tolerant of anything that saps our energy, burns us out, or is no longer in line with our deepest values. For many, this realisation is the beginning of an incredible journey into what makes us feel alive, passionate and engaged.