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Resolutions: Why Old Habits Die Hard

Resolutions: Why Old Habits Die Hard

First off, happy New Year folks, I do hope that 2022 brings you joyous yoga practices and pleasant days aplenty. It seems timely to consider the role of the resolution; the phrases that are rolled out at New Year, like ‘New Year, new you’ do seem a little trite these days. Still, I personally sat down with as much excitement as ever this year to scribble in my journal about what I want to leave in 2021 and what I want to take into 2022 with me. What makes committing to these resolutions hard is that we often find we fall back into our own personal set of less-than-soulful patterns of behaviour. These are often deeply encoded in our psyche – over working, negative self talk, anxiety, lethargy or self destructive behaviours, for example. Because these patterns are entrenched, you might have found yourself writing some similar entries in your 2022 resolutions to those of 2021. If this does not sound familiar, then you are doing well. In yogic terms our recurrent patterns of thought and behaviour are called samskara. These are deep psychic impressions that stem from early experiences or karma. The more the mind falls into these patterns of thinking, so our behaviours follow hard on their heels. Neuroscience concurs. It characterises this in the statement that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’, meaning that if we go through the same thinking processes and associated behaviours again and again, this becomes hard wired into our thinking; part of our neural network. However, neuroscience also agrees with yogic tradition that we can break these neural pathways by establishing new ones; this is neuroplasticity and one might argue it was coined first by Patanjali in sutra II.33:

Vitarka Bādhane Pratipaksa Bhāvanam ~The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali II.33

‘Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts.’ (Bryant)

‘When we are trapped by (disturbing) thoughts, we can cultivate a different perspective’ (Charlton and Roy)

Of course, there is something seemingly prosaic about the idea that if something is causing irritation, upset or discord in the mind, we just shouldn’t think about it. Someone who told you not to think about whatever is making you anxious, would likely irritate you. However, the statement goes further than that. It suggests that we can’t merely get rid of the negative thinking and its associated behaviour by talking about it or ruminating on it. In order to get rid of it we must replace it with something else. Initially this might come as a form of distracting ourselves. However, in its best form this means changing the way we think in a more profound and long term way so that we don’t keep falling into the same negative patterns. This is neuroplasticity and the success of our more life changing resolutions relies on it. 

Over the years I have begun framing my resolutions as Dos rather than Don’ts. I am sometimes plagued by feelings of self doubt and lacking in confidence and self worth; instead of writing that I will not indulge these feelings, I have gradually learnt to distract myself if these thoughts arise. However, I also know that rest, yoga practice, nature, listening to music, creative pursuits and healthy working relationships and friendships help me to feel more resilient and of greater worth such that the feelings arise less. I leave you with the thought that our personal and global resilience rests not just on our loosely held belief that people can change, but on our personal practice of actualised changeability, adaptability and evolution. Change is at the heart of all resolutions and it is our hope for the future.