The goal is the journey

Happy New Year!

The changing of the calendar is an opportunity to take time for self-inspection, reflection and formulating our aspirations. When we look back at the previous 12 months more often than not, our negativity bias overcomes us and we set ‘goals’ that will ‘make us better’. Such as ‘eating healthy’, ‘less social media’, ‘losing weight’, ‘getting in shape’, ‘practicing more yoga’. We start with a boost of enthusiasm only to feel deflated a few weeks or months later.

What is the negativity bias?

This is a cognitive bias which explains our tendency to focus more on ‘bad stuff’ than ‘good stuff’. It’s a hand me down from our cave dwelling ancestors when being alert to dangers was literally a life-or-death quality. Those who were more attuned to the dangers and bad things around them were more likely to survive. Now-a-days we have less overt dangers however, according to psychologist Timothy Bono, PhD: “We inherited the genes that predispose us to give special attention to those negative aspects of our environments that could be harmful to us.” For example, we may receive many compliments but it will be the single negative feedback that we will be fixated on. Unable to weed it from our mind.

What has this got to do with Yoga?

Well, after more than 20 years of teaching, I see these patterns expressing themselves in the yoga shala (including in myself). We start yoga knowing all the benefits that we should receive – ability to be more mindful, better physical shape, less stress, less reactive, more patient, etc. – however, these benefits get overshadowed by more overt goals such as being able to do a handstand or achieving a certain level of flexibility or practicing 2 hours 5 days a week.

There is nothing particularly wrong with these goals except that when we don’t see the progress, we get stuck. Take for instance, practicing 2 hours 5 days a week – when we realise that we cannot maintain this goal forever we talk to ourselves negatively. ‘You haven’t practiced in one week, now you will lose everything you worked for.’ ‘I’m too lazy, I can barely get out of bed to practice 2 times a week, how could I have thought I would be able to do it 5 times?’ ‘Even though I practice so much, I’m still stiffer than everyone else.’

Not only does this ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking perpetuate the negativity bias, but it also doesn’t allow us to see all the positives! For example, the aspiration to improve oneself shows a certain amount of humility and inspiration to grow, the fact that practicing some yoga is more beneficial than no yoga and even if we are not able to achieve a particular pose, we are taking care of our body, breath and mind!

Additionally, overly focusing on specific goals keeps us in an endless loop of disappointment. Unless we achieve the goal, we drive ourselves on the negativity of not having achieved the desired outcome AND if we do achieve the goal, we are proud for a time but will need to add a new goal to keep ourselves stimulated. Thus, lessening the current positives and focusing again on the perceived future results.

What to do?

To be sure, there is no such thing as ‘one quick fix’. Though developing yogic mindfulness can be beneficial. Now it sounds like a vicious circle: Practicing yoga cultivates mindfulness which can bring awareness to our negativity biases but setting goals sets us up for failure.

How can I establish a consistent yoga practice without being overly fixated on goals?

By implementing effective systems towards less precise goals while also asking our inner voice to be kind, gentle and patient with ourselves! A goal is the destination while a system is the journey. The goal is the journey!

Implementing effective systems

Implementing a system, as opposed to solely focusing on a goal, involves creating a structured approach or routine that supports the desired outcome. While goals provide a target to work towards, systems focus on the processes and actions that lead to that outcome. Instead of solely fixating on the end result, implementing a system emphasizes the consistent and deliberate actions taken to achieve goals.

Whether it’s improving flexibility, building strength, or finding inner peace, setting realistic goals can help create a sense of motivation and focus. However, goals alone may not be sufficient in maintaining a consistent practice. This is where systems come into play. Systems involve creating routines, schedules, and habits that support the pursuit of these goals. By incorporating regular yoga sessions into daily or weekly schedules, we can establish a structured framework that promotes consistency.

For example, implementing a system could involve setting a regular schedule for practicing yoga and incorporating mindfulness by observing the subtleties of the body, breath, thoughts, emotions while moving through the yoga poses. By establishing these systems, we create a framework that supports our overall goal of maintaining a consistent yoga practice. The emphasis is on the daily habits and routines that contribute to progress and growth, rather than solely fixating on the end goal itself.

Ultimately, the combination of goals and effective systems while being mindful to our negativity bias can provide the necessary framework and motivation to establish and sustain a consistent yoga practice. Don’t forget that kindness will go a lot further than self-recrimination. Understanding that backsliding is a natural part of growth. We cannot expect ourselves to only move upwards. Sometimes we are stagnant or even go backwards, but over time we grow!