Setting your intention – being aware of the process of improvement

Fresh with possibility, the beginning of the calendar year offers a chance to reboot and start from scratch.  For many people, a brand new beginning signals a tantalising opportunity to do things differently.

And in fact, making a public or private resolve for change is part of ushering in the New Year for many people.  It could be a large change.  Or a smaller, concrete adjustment to the way we do things.  Either way, a New Years’ resolution can be a helpful reminder of the great potential to “make things better.”

Even so, improvement is an interesting topic in yoga.  For along with improvement –for some people – comes the notion that whatever is now is not good enough.  It may show itself as an attitude that change must be willed for an acceptable situation to emerge.  And that is not a yogic principle.

Are Resolutions Just Forced Changes?

To take a physical example, when you are on the mat stretching forward into standing forward bend (uttanasana), you may feel you have room for improvement.  Your hands may be nowhere near the floor.  If you don’t bend your knees, your torso may be far from your legs.  You may be tempted to round your back.

On the other hand, you may easily keep your torso long, your hands may reach the floor and lie flat as your kept knees are kept straight.  Your belly may slightly touch your thighs, but not quite to the extent that you would like.  You would like to go further into the pose.

Both of these situations are good examples where an awareness of how deep the pose can go is a positive thing.  To know that you can go deeper into the pose is to know that you can “improve.”  However, to force the body to go deeper before it is ready is contrary to a healthy yoga practice.

So how do you reconcile the notion of improvement with acceptance?  For starters, let’s take a look at what many people equate with the success or failure of New Year’s resolutions.  Willpower.

The Science of Willpower

Recent research indicates that willpower – contrary to what was previously thought – acts somewhat like a muscle.[1]  This means that willpower can be strengthened, which is a good thing.  But viewing willpower as a muscle also means that it can become tired out – that it is a limited resource.

An exhausted willpower may be the reason you find it difficult to master certain tasks.  In line with current research, your failings of willpower may merely be a depletion of resources.  That understanding of your behaviour can have enormous benefits.

From a practical viewpoint, if willpower operates like a muscle, you need to make sure you don’t tire it out on things that aren’t that important to you.  After all, if you overuse it, it may not be at your disposal for the times when you really need to make it count.

To understand that willpower is limited can lead to you lightening up on yourself when you have exhausted that willpower.  And to know that next time it may be better to not worry about smaller things and instead learn to conserve your willpower for things that really matter to you.

On the other side of the coin, if willpower is like a muscle, we may be able to strengthen it.  And that is exactly what research has found.[2]  Not only does training willpower in one task help with future control of that same task, but also training willpower in one area can increase overall willpower.  So for example, if you train your willpower with respect to not eating cookies, over time your willpower can increase when it comes to exercising more.

But willpower training works only to a point.  You will still face willpower exhaustion no matter how hard you train.  Willpower is a limited resource.  No matter how strong you are and how much endurance you have, just like a muscle when you overexert yourself you will become exhausted.

As studies bear out, when we exert our willpower on one occasion, we struggle more to do so on a second occasion.  We must realise that our willpower is not in infinite supply.  It is in limited reserve.

Costing It Out

Learning about what “costs” willpower becomes important when we understand it to be in limited supply.  According to research,[3] donning a public persona that is not in line with who you really are can take precious amounts of willpower – leaving less for other tasks.

In other words, managing our image in work related or social contexts is an expensive use of our willpower.  Our ability to meet other goals suffers as a result.  Controlling our self presentation takes its biggest toll when we more fully repress our natural selves.

Dealing with stress can also tax our willpower.[4]  It can lead to an attempt to control our emotions or behaviour.  It leaves us with less willpower to spend on other tasks.

A Yogic Approach to Willpower

By re-evaluating willpower as inherently limited, we may be tempted to view our tasks through a cost-benefit analysis.  Questions such as: “how can I best conserve my willpower?  And what should I task my willpower with and what I should leave alone?” spring to mind – and that is exactly what many people counsel in line with the new research.

While this type of analysis has its usefulness, a far better approach would be to look at how you live your life on a daily basis.  Do you force yourself to behave and talk in ways that sap a lot of your energy?  Why do you do this?  Do you force yourself to do things because you feel as if you “should” rather than doing things that are in line with your overall philosophy towards life?

By evaluating in a larger context tasks or behaviours that require willpower, you may begin to question the necessity of these same tasks or behaviours.

For example, why do some people not require willpower to exercise?  Researchers simply say that those who like to exercise don’t necessarily increase their willpower “muscle” because … well, they like it.  With this in mind, can you structure your life so that you don’t need to use willpower all the time?

Rather than viewing willpower as something on which you rely, the benefits of living life with less willpower can be enormous.  Going with the flow, as many like to call it, takes practice itself.  But once mastered, learning to trust where the universe is taking you can have hugely beneficial consequences.

Without tiring yourself out, you’ll be able to produce what needs to be produced, say what needs to be said, and act in line with who you really are.  This will happen effortlessly.  In other words, you will do what needs to be done without the use of willpower.  Because … well, because you like doing it.

A Re-evaluation

Instead of looking at certain tasks or activities that you must force yourself to do and berating yourself when they do not get done, why not take a step back and view your entire system of how you do things.  Is exercise a problem for you?  Maybe it’s the kind of exercise you force yourself to do.  Maybe you don’t like the gym.  But you love to walk.  Harness that love.

What if you think you don’t like to exercise at all?  Well, perhaps your life is structured in a way that simple movement has been taken out of the equation.  If you value your health, perhaps it’s time to rearrange a whole lot of things to get movement – like joy – back into your life.

By doing away with the necessity of willpower for everyday things, you can conserve willpower for when it really counts.  Forceful change is violent change.  And that is not a yogic principle.  Change for when you are ready to take that big leap – or small push into the stretch – is positive change.

So rather than simply trying to make incremental changes in your life in the year coming forward, you may be inclined to take a step back.  Observe what you are forcing in your life.  Are you aware of this use of your limited willpower?  Is it causing you fatigue?

By becoming aware of the reasons we do things, we take a further step towards self-acceptance.  And practising self acceptance begins to take us down the pathway of peace – we are no longer battling ourselves.

Becoming aware of our society’s ever present battle and fighting metaphors may allow us to stop viewing our entire lives as battles.  Willpower is a precious resource when we must fight.  And sometimes we do need to fight.  But to wield willpower cavalierly could be a misuse of its power.  Exerting lots of willpower signals only that we are fighting far too much.

Change On and Off the Mat

So just like in other activities, to improve on the mat is a positive thing.  Even if some practitioners may take years to reach the deepest variation of a pose, it’s the process that counts.  Where the body is at any given time is exactly where it should be.  Pushing the edge should feel good – it is a signal that the body is ready to expand deeper.

Reconciling improvement with acceptance could be as simple as understanding that improvement ought not to be forced violently.  Willpower may not be a part of the equation of improvement at all.  In fact, healthy improvement comes from a deeper place.  One that is fully in line with our highest ideals and natural inclinations.

By listening to who you are and where the universe is taking you, you may paradoxically improve more than if you forced yourself into change that may not last.

So next time you settle into a yoga pose, become aware of how gradual progress can feel – and sometimes how immediate.  Feeling good while you practice – and while you live – exactly where you are now is important.

Becoming aware of what lies deep within you can unlock all your past New Year’s resolutions – without so much as willing yourself to lift a finger in a way that feels like work to you.  Now how refreshing would that be?

In the end, isn’t it best to simply be the best person you can be, authentically?

Happy New Year! – Sending much love out there

Namaste  ~  Amanda


[1] Baumeister, R.F. 2003. Ego depletion and self-regulation failure: A resource model of self-control. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 27 (2), 281–84.
[2] Muraven, M., Baumeister, R.F., Tice, D.M. 1999. Longitudinal improvement of self-regulation through practice: Building self-control strength through repeated exercise. Journal of Social Psychology, 139 (4), 446–57.
[3] Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., & Ciarocco, N.J. 2005. Self-regulation and self-presentation: Regulatory resource depletion impairs impression management and effortful self-presentation depletes regulatory resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88 (4), 632–57.
[4] Gailliot, M.T., et al. 2007. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 325–36.
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