How do you break bad habits and form good ones?
Many of us find it challenging to break bad habits and form good ones. It takes time, effort and commitment to form positive habits that benefit our well-being. In yoga, we often talk of resolve (Sankalpa) which is one’s determination to achieve a goal (in this case form a positive habit). However, Ayurveda, the Science of Life, looks at it as choosing and repeating certain actions over a period of time. In this blog, we’ll explore more on habits in Ayurveda.
According to Ayurveda, our bodies are made up of three compositions (called doshas) - Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Every individual has a dominating dosha. Our diet, lifestyle, exercise, sleeping habits and daily routine greatly influence the balance of these doshas. There are certain habits that might suit a dosha and certain aspects that do not. This is what will determine overall health and well-being.
What does Ayurveda say about habit formation?
Ayurveda acknowledges that the human body and mind are nothing but material bases. Thus, they have the ability to change due to various factors. These factors could be repeated actions, influence of those around us (what we commonly call peer pressure), influence of nature (seasonal effects, for example), etc. The best way to maintain some amount of stability and health is by choosing positive actions that are in harmony with our mind and body.
There are some traits we are born with which help us form good habits, and some which are acquired through repeated actions or learning. In Ayurveda, this concept of forming habits that help you maintain good health and well-being is called ‘Satmya’. And this is often personal to you. What agrees with you, may not agree with your partner, children, friend or colleague. This is because every person’s nature and body constitution is different (and is greatly influenced by your dosha). Thus, there are certain habits that might be suitable to an individual’s nature, and certain habits that may not agree.
Through Ayurveda’s concept of ‘satmya’, we come to understand how vital it is to understand what agrees with us in order to form the right positive habits that help us achieve and maintain good health and well-being.
Types of habits in Ayurveda
Habits or Satmya are of two types:
- Inherent traits or Shaja satmya - refers to the qualities or traits that one is born with. For example, you could be a happy, energetic person from birth. Or you could be born with more perseverance and strength than your sibling.
- Acquired habits or Oka satmya - this refers to acquired habits that we learn through practice and repeated actions. This could be habits such as discipline, hard word, waking up at 6 am for a yoga class, etc.
How does it work?
Since we are born with inherent traits (Shaja satmya), we can’t change too much about it. It is a part of our nature and who we are. However, acquired habits or Oka satmya can be a very important tool to help us form good habits and break bad ones.
In Ayurveda this important concept has a wide range of therapeutic applications. Acquired habits come from repeated practices or following a particular routine for a long time. For example, let’s say you normally sleep at midnight and your aim is to start sleeping by 10 pm. On the first day you may not be able to do that. You will have to give yourself 21 days. Maybe even 40 days. First start by sleeping at 11:45 for a few days, then 11:30, and so on. Maybe by day 12 you’ll be able to sleep by 11. It is best to always start small. Over a few days, you will get accustomed to this being a part of your routine.
Similarly, when it comes to breaking bad habits, Ayurveda specifically says it is important to break habits that do not suit you in order to achieve health and recover from disorders or diseases. This is especially beneficial if you are trying to prevent the recurrence of a disease. This habit formation or change should also be done in a sequential manner. This change is known as Padamshika Krama in Ayurveda.
Certain habits can be extremely harmful to health. Consuming food that doesn’t suit your body can lead to many problems. This is called ‘Satmya-viruddha’ in Ayurveda. Even the habit of smoking can be extremely harmful. If an individual is accustomed to habits that do not suit her or his body composition or dosha, then it leads to incompatibility and causes disease. For example, consumption of sweet and cold food or beverages by a person accustomed to pungent and hot is antagonistic in terms of suitability and may cause various conditions and diseases.
Popular Ayurvedic texts on habit formation
As per Charaka Samhita, an Ayurvedic text, an individual should gradually wean himself away from unsuitable and unhealthy practices (which are already part of his routine) and adapt wholesome ones in the right sequence.
On the first day it is said you should give up a quarter of the unwholesome practice and subsequently adopt a quarter of wholesome. On the second day, half of the unwholesome practice should be given up and half of the wholesome one should be adopted; this is to be continued for the third day also. On the fourth day, three-fourth of the unwholesome practice should be given up and three-fourth of the wholesome one should be adopted. This process should be continued on the fifth and sixth day also. The process of giving up of the unwholesome practice and adoption of the wholesome practice is completed on the seventh day. By slowly and gradually giving up unwholesome practices and by increasing the wholesome practices in a proper sequence, the unwholesome practices do not reoccur and the wholesome practices are fully adopted.
Let’s take the example of trying to sleep earlier. In this seven day sequence, on day 0, you probably sleep at midnight. By day 3 or 4 you can slowly make the shift to sleeping by 11 pm. And finally by day 7, you’ll reach your target of 10 pm.
The concept of satmya is a very useful one when it comes to prevention. The individual is slowly and gradually changing unhealthy habits to healthy habits without much external help. This change is happening in a natural way, and is not forced.
While changing habits and reconditioning the mind takes effort, once we commit to the path, it becomes a lot easier. The concepts themselves, when explained, are easy to adapt. Whether it is adding new habits like yoga asana and meditation practice, becoming mindful, adapting a healthy lifestyle, or breaking bad ones like quitting smoking or streaming late night shows, this approach is the only sustainable way to good health and a long life span.