Mindfulness Training in Yin Yoga may Reduce Unskillful Behaviors
Urges are okay. We all have urges. We wouldn’t be here if our parents did have urges. But just because we have an urge doesn’t mean we have to do something about it. Some urges are harmless, but other urges, when acted upon, lead to unskillful living. Our yoga practice can help us to realize that urges do not have to lead automatically to unskillful or addictive behavior. Our Yin Yoga practice can help us develop a level of mindfulness that can create a new relationship to the urges that arise in life.
We all have little addictions, little behaviors that don’t serve us very well. Some of us have significant addictive behaviors that create havoc in our lives, but all these addictions, large and small, have three things in common, according to Ronald Siegel a professor of mindfulness at Harvard medical school and a psychotherapist . First is the trigger, also called the cue. Next is the urge to do something: to run away from or to run towards some activity. That leads to the final component; the behavior. Cue, urge and behavior are the three components of addiction.
Traditional therapies for people suffering addiction generally deal with either the first or the last component: the cue or the behavior. Many therapies teach us to avoid the triggers that create the urge. If you have an addiction to alcohol or shopping, you would be taught how to avoid pubs and malls. For a minor addiction, like checking your emails constantly, it might involve leaving your smart phone at home while you are out, or keeping your email program turned off most of the time. Other therapies address the behavior component and offer substitute actions when the urge arises. If you feel the urge to go to a bar, you would call a friend instead, or eat a carrot stick instead of the cheesecake you have in your fridge.
There is a third strategy that we could employ to reduce unskillful living. There are gaps that exist between the cue, the raw sensation or emotion that arises in the mind or body, and the urge to do something about the cue, and between the urge and the resulting behavior. Through mindfulness honed in our yoga practice we can learn to live in the gaps and disrupt the automatic flow from cue to behavior. We can practice a different way to deal with addictive or unskillful behaviors by creating a new relationship to the urge itself.
We learn to be addicts through predictable mechanisms of positive and negative reinforcement. We repeat things that make us feel good, that reduce our anxiety or depression; and we avoid things that make us feel bad, that can make psychological distress worse. Once we do these behaviors a few times, they get associated with a trigger – and when that cue reappears, so does the behavior. It becomes automatic. These cues can be a sight or a feeling or a sound or a social environment, etc. Since we want to be free from our distress and free to gain pleasure, we act in ways we believe will lead us to our desires.
Freedom, as defined and taught in the East is not what we think of as freedom in the West. In the West, we search for freedom to do what we want and not have to do what we don’t want. This kind of freedom encourages our desires and aversions. It is hardwired into our species and helped us survive, but survival does not necessarily lead to happiness, joy and contentment. In the East, freedom is freedom from desire and aversion: freedom from wanting, not freedom to do what we want. This Eastern view of freedom is what we can develop during our Yin Yoga practice.
Killing off cravings doesn’t work: that is the path of the ascetic – the Buddha famously tried this approach. He adopted a fierce asceticism and reduced his food intake to one grain of rice a day. He did not end his desires or cravings, but he did almost die from trying. In desperation, he finally developed a middle path between desire and aversion. He developed mindfulness training. In mindfulness training, we learn to accept the flow of experience just as it is, instead of chasing compulsively after pleasure or running away from pain.
In Yin Yoga, while we are marinating in our poses for nice long periods of time, there is a lot of sensations we can pay attention to. At some point, the sensations become stronger and stronger until finally an urge to move will arise. If we are not mindful, we will fidget, shift our position, or let our mind wander away so that we aren’t noticing the uncomfortable sensations anymore. Fidgeting or moving is a reaction to our desire to find a more comfortable position. Letting our mind flee to some nicer thoughts is a reaction to aversion. With mindfulness we can begin to change our relationship to the urge: we can observe our sensations and surf our urges. This has three steps.
The 3 Steps of Urge Surfing
- Begin by noticing whatever sensation or emotion that is happening right now in the mind and in the body.
- Notice the impulse, the urge to do something to change the situation or to mentally run away from it.
- Notice how both the sensations change and the urges come and go! Become conscious of their changing nature. Urges ebb and flow, wax and wane, come and go. They are never solid or permanent.
By following this approach, we discover that we can tolerate what is happening in this moment. Often the reason we want to react to an urge is a mistaken belief that we won’t be able to stand the urge in a few moments. It is the fear of the future, not of the present that compels us. By surfing our urges in the present moment, we realize that we don’t have to act right away. We don’t have to act at all! The beliefs that we can’t bear it, that the sensations will last forever and we must take some sort of action are not true.
Ronald Siegel offers an analogy that we have all experienced at one time or another: the urgent urge to pee. Can you remember a time you really had to go, but conditions just weren’t right? Perhaps you were on an airplane and the fasten seatbelt sign was lit, just when you needed to go to the bathroom. While turbulences bounced the plane around, your thoughts bounced you far worse. “I really have to go! I don’t think I can hold this much longer.” Finally, you got to relieve yourself and you sighed, thinking, “I definitely could not have held that any longer.” But that was not true: you could have held on longer if you really watched what was happening in your body. The urge to pee came and went, was strong for a little while, then reduced. Your thoughts made the situation seem more dire than it actually was.
Here is what we can do when we are deeply, and slowly marinating in a juicy Yin Yoga posture: we watch the rise and fall, the ebb and flow of sensation and the coming and going of the urge to change the situation. We become aware of a strong sensation, and the strong urge to move and stop the sensation, but we also become aware that we don’t have to move, we don’t have to take any action right now, and the sensation will continue to ebb and flow, morph and change. Eventually, the urge will either cease, or at least it will reduce.
Each time we await the end of the posture and then come out of the pose, we learn that we didn’t have to move just because the urge to move arose. We waited, we watched, the world didn’t end. When it was time, we went on with our life.
Being with an urge is like paddling a surfboard over a wave: we watch the strength of the compulsion rise and then it falls away again. We don’t have to stop it (you can’t stop an ocean wave), and we don’t have to run away from it. We just bob up and down on the crest of each wave and let it pass. Try this next time you are in a juicy yoga posture: surf the urges as they come and go. Apply this experience the next time you have any urge: to check your cell phone, eat junk food, or take that extra drink. Instead of acting on it, surf the urge and see what happens to it. Chances are – it too will ebb and flow, come and go, and you don’t need to do anything at all. Just notice it and go on with your life.
Finally, even once we have learned that we do not have to react to our urges, we can also realize that occasionally we will react unskillfully. We will lapse in our effort to be non-reactive. There will be times in your Yin Yoga practice where you will give in to an urge, and move. And in life there will be times when you will give in to other unskillful urges. That’s life! No need to take these lapses personally. We all lapse from time to time. But we can notice the lapse, say to ourselves, “Oh well!” and start over. Lapsing is no big deal, as long as you put it in context, note it, and remember your intention to live skillfully. After an occasional lapse, return to urge surfing.
- — See The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based path to Well-Being by Ronald Siegel, published by The Great Courses, 2014
- — Ibid.
- — Please note: in the context of a yoga practice, if the sensation is actually painful, then the urge to move is a positive signal. Do not ignore this urge. Pain is a signal that you are on the verge of hurting yourself. Honor that urge and move. However, just because something places you outside your normal comfort zone does not necessarily make it dangerous for you. If pain is absent, try lingering longer. If pain is present, adjust your posture or come out of the pose.