Social psychologists and neurologists alike have produced some pretty fascinating research as of late that can help us understand why it can be so hard to stick with a healthy routine. It turns out that thinking about your current self fires up a different region of the brain than thinking about your future self does. Take this Stanford University neuroimaging study for example; volunteers inside an MRI were asked to first think about themselves, and then think about celebrities they had never met. Finally, they were asked to think about themselves one decade into the future. In most of the participants, the brain activity measured when imagining their future selves most resembled the activity measured when they thought about celebrities, not their current selves.
This means that when we set a resolve to stick with a healthy eating or exercise plan, an early bedtime routine, or trading in a bad habit for a good one, we may as well be thinking about someone else doing it. Thanks to the brain's way of separating our current and future selves, we tend to practice "temporal discounting," meaning that we're hard wired to value present rewards over future ones. So when it comes time to stick to that routine, even when we're past the honeymoon phase and going strong, it can still be difficult to trade in the instant gratification of one more bite of that food that doesn’t sit so well with us, one more episode of that show we're binge watching late into the night, or hitting the snooze button just one more time instead of getting up for yoga.
Sometimes, even when we are a week or more into our self-care routine, we can still drag our feet to stick with things, but why? According to yogic philosophy, at birth we inherit a set of emotional patterns that we will likely cycle through many, many times in our lives. These karmic emotional and mental patterns are samskaras. Impressions, impacts, or imprints, samskaras can be seen in our daily lives as false or limiting beliefs, and they can also be bad habits that we practice...well, habitually, due to these false or limiting beliefs. In yogic philosophy, samskaras are not always negative, but it is good to know that they can be. Think about how hard it can be at times to stick to a self-care routine; it is easy to fall back into putting everyone and everything else in first place besides us.
Thanks to temporal discounting and samskara, instant gratification will always be more appealing than the rigor of sticking with a healthy plan. Depression and anxiety can add to the problem for many of us, so that when we are already tempted to go off plan, we tell ourselves we don't deserve the good care of a regular yoga or meditation practice, or whatever it is we'd like to be doing with our lives. The routine itself can help quite a bit but we have to jump the mental hurdles that will inevitably be there along the way. A wonderful way to do this is through guided meditation, particularly a type of meditation called yoga nidra. A regular yoga nidra practice can get us in touch with our authentic selves, and help revitalize us, giving us the energy we need to stick to a healthy routine.
Yoga nidra is a meditation practiced lying down in savasana. This "yogic sleep," is meant to induce the hypnagogic state, the state between waking and sleeping. In this powerful state just on the threshold of sleep, our senses are drawn inward and we dream while we are awake. The mind deeply relaxes, physical and emotional tension is released, and the body is flooded with hormones that can reduce pain and inflammation. Most importantly, we no longer let the intellectual mind, the one that sees future us as a different person, dictate how we should live. Yoga nidra leads us to our sankalpa, or our true, heartfelt desire, and gives us powerful insight into how to manifest this desire.
With yoga nidra we move through images and sensations, some of which may release memories and emotions locked deep in the subconscious and unconscious mind. Therefore, while yoga nidra is usually a pleasant and relaxing experience, sometimes unpleasant emotions surface. This doesn't mean that the practice has been unsuccessful; rather with these emotions and memories released, we find it that much easier to permanently change unwanted habits and behaviors and stick with behaviors that serve us and keep us feeling good.
Identifying and connecting with our sankalpa can help us get at the heart of why we want to change, begin or continue healthy habits and routines, and dedicate time to self-care. All thanks to yogic sleep. Who knew that sleeping more would have us hitting the snooze button less?
Angela Dawn is RYT500 based in the South Bronx. She offers a Body Positive Vinyasa practice at BigToe Yoga. She also offers compassionate, creative, and inclusive yoga and yoga nidra throughout Manhattan and the Bronx.