A Practice for Change in the New Year

January can be a profound time—we can celebrate what’s come to pass, assess where we are now, regroup and delight in the unknown.

At the first of a New Year, many of us make resolutions we hope will lead to greater health. Often a commitment to practice is high on our list. But too often our momentum wanes and we find ourselves back where we started…settling into habits and behaviors we had hoped to leave behind.

Yoga gives us tools for a fresh new start!  Here are some steps and practices that can help you make 2010 an amazing year of health, peace, wholeness and joy.

Review the past year. It’s natural to want to get on to the fun part—dreaming and setting goals. But reflecting on where you have been can motivate your practice and lead to spiritual growth. Knowing where you are is a first step to real change. Ask yourself regrouping questions like: “In 2009, what did I accomplish?” “What did I learn?”  What were the highlights? What would you do differently? As you collect your thoughts, note them a journal.

Set an intention—or in yoga terms, a Sankalpa—that helps you move toward what you really want. A Sankalpa is different from the traditional New Year’s resolution, as it encourages us to cultivate positive growth (what will improve our situation) instead of trying to release negative behaviors that hinder us now.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Sutra II:33) suggest how to do this.  To overcome our negative tendencies, we should cultivate opposite thoughts, behaviors and actions. One reason this is powerful…is that it recognizes that our intention can remain the same, if even if our thoughts and behaviors don’t always reflect it. We can simply recognize that we’ve wandered and begin anew to cultivate the opposite. No energy-robbing guilty feelings needed. (So after eating a sugar cookie, you would cultivate the opposite by choosing carrots the next time!)

Your Sankalpa should be a sincere and positive statement about improving your health or life, stated as if it has already occurred. Like, “I radiate love and happiness.”  “I am healthy and whole.” “I am clear and focused.” Or, “I’m an instrument of peace.”

Engage Present Moment Awareness. Regularly check in with your inner observer. Notice when you are—and when you are not—in tune with your intention. When not, cultivate the opposite thought or action. Find an activity that comforts you and can take the place of the temporary relief your old habit provided. When you are in tune, increase commitment by feeling how it makes you feel.

Open to possibility. Yoga teaches us that change is constant. What first appears to be stillness and constancy in a yoga pose reveals itself to be always shifting and transforming. This is also true for each of us. While our lives and personalities may seem stable and unchanging, we’re actually always unfolding. We can welcome the inevitability of change, and be curious about where our practice is leading us. When we are open to change, we’re better prepared to direct change intentionally.

Use a simple breathing exercise to connect with the rhythm of change in life.  Close your eyes and focus on the sensations of your breath—how your belly rises and falls. On each exhale, pull the belly in and press the breath out completely…releasing what you don’t need and making room for the new.

Do yoga to challenge, open and refresh you—to give you clarity and energy for change. Do heat-generating Sun Salutations, standing poses and lots of heart opening backbends. Invert in Legs Up the Wall pose or Shoulderstand to get a new perspective. Balancing poses are particularly effective for developing awareness and internal intelligence…without which we fall. In a balancing pose like Tree, close your eyes. When you stop looking outside yourself for balance, your internal intelligence will rise to the challenge. Develop fortitude by not giving up the minute a pose becomes boring or tiring.

Focus on the integrity of your actions, not the outcomes you hope to achieve. To find this quality of focus in your yoga practice, select a standing pose that challenges you, but is doable. Commit to holding the pose as long as you can maintain good alignment, breathing and ease. End when you feel any discomfort or are satisfied. Extend this focus and integrity into your actions off the mat.

Don’t set a timeline. Change takes time. When we expect instant change, we often give up quickly. Yoga encourages us to be patient—to slow down, surrender grasping and allow change to unfold at its own pace. We learn that, over time, small acts, consistently performed, can lead to profound change.

To develop patience, choose a pose to practice every day. Try to hold the same pose for five minutes or as long as comfortably possible. Relax and breathe deeply. Over time you’ll see how your body/mind slowly adapts to the pose. You’ll learn that you can and do change.

Surround yourself with healthy people, like those at Dream Yoga who are trying to live a life in balance. Their energy and similar intentions will support you in your practice. They will be open to your changes.

Remember: The best yoga practice doesn’t exhaust you. It’s strong enough to guide and reinforce you as you intentionally seek to shape your life and experiences. It’s flexible enough to help you embrace whatever your life brings.

Resources: January 2005 issue of Yoga for Everybody; and “Creating Yogic Intentions for 2009,” Yoga Basics.com.