Thursday, June 23, 2016

What I learned from 30 days of yoga (and 100 days of meditation). How to form habits. Part 1.

"I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail, poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail." - Bob Dylan, Shelter From The Storm.

After a long time ultra-running my body was gradually breaking down. I'd made perfunctory efforts at mobility and tried to stay strong as well. My right ankle mobility was gone, my calves were always tight, my right hip and right knee were like rusty hinges, and my T-spine had always been like a breeze block, and it later turned out to be Sheurmanns disease. I was chronically stiff, and my posture was edging towards Mr Burns on a bad day. It was time to do something.

Mr Burn: former ultra-runner

I had to dedicate specific time to mobility, flexibility and breathing. Tacking it on to my normal gym workout wasn't going to cut it.

I decided to do some home Yoga. I knew I wasn't going to commit to going to a class, due to my schedule changing, trying to find a class near me that suited my time (and budget) and my general male ego of going to a class of mainly female Yogis. Also I knew doing this once or twice a week wasn't going to be enough.

Don't get me wrong, I knew the benefits of having a teacher who could correct you 'hands on' in the moment. I had a one to one with a Yoga teacher I work with, which highlighted  even more the stiffness in my joints and what I needed to work on. But having one to one sessions every week wasn't an option. And I knew without some kind of guidance I wasn't going to break into spontaneous self guided Yoga sessions at home.

I tried some Yoga apps, they were okay. Then I found some Yoga channels on youtube, these were more like it, Yoga with SarahBeth and Yoga with Adriene. I liked the fact the videos were at varying lengths, some only 15 minutes, some longer 30-40 minutes. Which I could fit into my schedule. I also liked the tone of the videos, passionate about Yoga, good teaching without being overly serious.

I started doing a few a week, mainly in the evenings before bed, I liked the Yin Yoga ones, good for relaxing, and focusing on the areas I needed to work on. Plus for me, I didn't need to really focus on the strength moves, I didn't need Yoga for weightloss or anything like that.

Then someone mentioned ROMWOD. A crossfit website, with 20 minute routines. I signed up. This involved holding the poses for a long time, holding poses like lizard and pigeon for 2, 3, 4, 5 minutes at a time. This is hard. Each session may only contain 3 or 4 poses or positions at most.

This felt like what I needed, these longer holds to really open out. After a while though I began to dread another session of holding Lizard for 5 minutes. It became too repetitive for me. Sometimes it felt like I was getting better, but other times it felt like my hips were feeling chronically worse. I decided to cancel my subscription. I still think it is a good option for a lot of people.

One of the yoga youtube channels had a 30 day yoga camp, so I decided to do that.  I knew from previous experience, that one way to ingrain a habit was to commit to doing it every day. I had done it last year with meditation.

This would help me form the habit. I would start on the first of the month and do every session for 30 days.  First of all I couldn't believe that this was actually free, a new session every day, varying in length from 15 to 50 minutes. Second, I knew doing it everyday was the best way for me to form a habit.

100 days of meditation.

I'd always been interested in meditation, and like many people, had tried a few times, sporadically to do it, but given up.

I had started reading increasingly about mindfulness, neuroscience and decided it was time to really try meditation again. (please note: this isn't going to be a discussion about the benefits of meditation or mindfulness, but how I formed the habit).

I already had a comprehensive guide in meditation, a whole set of DVDs I had bought from Zenways years before. I had watched all the DVDs. dabbled in the meditation and then given up. I even had a meditation cushion. And when I realised I couldn't crowbar my ultra-running hips into a lotus position I bought a meditation bench as well.

In the little booklet that came with the Zenways DVDs, Wake Up and Live, it mentioned the practice in Zen tradition of meditating 100 days in a row. So I decided to try 100 days in a row, if you miss a day, you start again.

I didn't realise at the time this is a productivity idea called breaking the chain, attributed to the comedian Seinfeld (Of course, there is a good chance the Zen monks probably came up with the idea before Seinfelds sitcom aired and Jerry came up with the funky slap bass opening theme tune). When asked about writing jokes, he said write every day, and mark off on the calender everyday with a big X, it will get to a point where you don't want to break the chain, so you keep going. This article here explains it.

Class calendar picture

And so it was with the 100 days of meditation. I didn't actually mark anything off on a calendar, and I didn't write it down as a goal, I just resolved to do it.

I started with the 8 week mindfulness audios that come with the book 'Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world'. It was easy to commit, some of these were only 10 minutes a day.  I already had some John Kabat Zinn guided CDs as well, which I had done a few times.

I then moved onto the Zenways 8 week course, starting at the beginning,

As I had resolved to do this every day no matter what, the times I did the sessions were variable. I don't work 9-5 Monday to Friday. Sometimes I would do the session in the morning, other times I was doing them at 11.30pm at night, making sure I was getting them in before midnight.

I committed 100% to doing the session by the end of the day no matter what, however tired I was, whatever was happening that day.

I also downloaded the insight meditation time app, I can't remember when. This has a timer on it, and other guided sessions. Even now I use this to get a 10 minute meditation on the bus or at home.

All these various guided sessions were very useful in forming the habit. Especially with meditation it is very hard to sit down yourself and essentially do nothing. The guided sessions give you a sense of 'I have to do this', the guiding voices help. Also, I can get annoying pulsating tinnitus, Bodhidharma may have stared at a wall listening to ants scream for 9 years, but he probably didn't have to put up with tinnitus. At one point, I was on holiday during the 100 days, and I had to do the sessions in my hotel room unguided, sitting on pillows every morning after breakfast, but at this point I wasn't going to stop.

It was the same with Yoga. I could have tried doing Yoga by myself everyday with no videos, after all I know a lot of moblity and flexibility exercises. I just knew, that wasn't going to happen for me. Much like going to a class, I need to switch off and be guided by the teacher at first.

At some point I  passed 100 days of meditation, and I kept going. The habit was formed. Later in the year I went to a meditation retreat for a few days, and that was a good experience. It was good to hear that you can't really do meditation 'wrong', if you're doing it, you're doing it.

"Think of your meditation practice as mental training." - Julian Daizan Skinner.
Once the habit was formed, missing a few days here and there didn't matter. No need to beat yourself up, you always know you are going to come back to it, the ground work has been done. I knew I was going to do this forever.

I could apply the same to Yoga.

30 days of Yoga: First let go of judgements.

One thing I had probably learned from meditation, or it would be more proper to say 'gradually absorbed' rather than learned was to be a bit less judgemental and open.

When it comes to exercise, I have quite a strong evidenced based idea of what I think is 'good' and 'bad' exercise. With the Yoga for 30 days, I decided to do all the exercises and moves that came up regardless of what I may have previously thought about them or judging them.

Same with the idea of Chakras and that type of thing, it get mentioned a fair bit in Yoga, and I decided to be okay with that.

I did the 30 day Yoga Camp with Adriene on Youtube. And much like the meditation, I did it whenever I could, it might be 7am it might be 11pm, it helped that the sessions varied in length.

Unlike the meditation, I did write down everyday in a journal/diary what I had done. I also put asterisks next to sessions I really enjoyed so I could go back to them again. I also started to write down meditation sessions in the diary.

After a while I didn't want to break the chain, and more importantly, I was enjoying it, I looked forward to doing it, especially at the end of the day after being at work. I could see how people called it moving meditation.

At some point I decided it was time to buy a Yoga mat. (This involved a trip to the land of sub minimum wage worker exploitation Sport Direct, explaining to the girl I didn't want the pink mat, I needed the black manly mat, which involved her having to go up a ladder to a high shelf. I'm sure official ladder training protocol had been broken).

I did also go to a Yoga workshop and Yoga Nidra session. The Yoga workshop was hot Yoga, for me there was no benefit to it being hot. And some Yoga sap who was sweating profusely said he wanted it hotter, at which point I could only think of Hank Hill, King of the Hill, 'If it gets one degree hotter I'm going to kick your ass.' But hey, each to their own.

Hank Hill after going to Hot Yoga

I liked the Yoga Nidra, it was basically a progressive relaxation technique.

After 30 days.

The 30 days finished, and I carried on. I'm no Yogi, I'm never going to have the perfect technique or posture. This is not a story of transformation, I can't suddenly do the splits, and all my injuries didn't suddenly disappear. But it did help, I feel more mobile, without sounding like a cliche it does make you feel better mentally and physically.

This isn't meant to sound all 'look how great I am I did Yoga for 30 days and I meditate too'.  I'm essentially a neophyte when it comes to these things, I'm no expert. I just happen to like them and think they are beneficial.

I'm not saying you have to go and start meditating or take up Yoga, that is up to you. What I am saying is you can apply this simple technique to forming any habit.

And for me this technique works, do something for 30 days or longer, resolve to do it everyday, no exceptions and the habit is well on its way to being formed.

In part 2, I will briefly show have I also applied it to nutrition and social media. And the reason why these are harder habits to form, and why I still think SMART goals are dumb.


This is a list of resources I used. I am not affiliated to any of them. And I'm sure there are equally good youtube channels and meditation apps and books I am not aware of.

Yoga with Adriene, the youtube channel for the 30 day Yoga Camp. Why don't I live in Texas?
Sarah Beth Yoga, another youtube channel I like, especially the 20 minute deep stretch videos.

Zenways, comprehensive Rinzai meditation course. Plus I also have their summer Yoga download and Spontaneous Zen download.

Mindfulness book and 8 week audio course. From the guys at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, no religious  or 'new age' overtones if you don't like that kind of thing. Practical and clear.

Romwod : Crossfit mobility videos. Good if you need to hold stretches and positions for a long time to see results. There is a 7 day free trial.

Insight meditation app for your phone or tablet. Loads of guided meditations or just use the timer.

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