It probably goes without saying that the New Year's resolution is an idea largely grounded in Western thinking. It's not just that this tradition is based on the cycle of the Christian calendar, but that it is based on grand sweeping desire for immediate change. Of course, it's also based on grand sweeping failure to effect this change. So what can the Eastern philosophical system of yoga say about the Western practice of resolution-making? Surprisingly, a lot.
First off, let's get one thing straight. New Year's resolutions suck. That's not to say that they're not well-meaning; wanting to better oneself or one's life is a completely noble aspiration. They suck not in intention, but in practicality. Despite the care we often put into making these promises to ourselves, we forget about them before we even start remembering to add an extra year when dating a check. And then, later on, we practice self-flagellation for our lack of discipline.
"If you set a goal for yourself, you're screwed," says yoga teacher Jason Crandell, 29, talking over a cup of tea in a California Street cafe. "Either a) you'll achieve that goal, then temporarily feel good about achieving that goal, and then that goodness will wear off, and then you'll set another goal -- so it's like, 'I want to go here to go there to go there,' without really being involved in the process of what's happening. Or, b) you won't meet your goal, and you'll feel bad about yourself ....
"So why set up this duality that in order to feel valid or vindicated or good, you have to acquire something?" Crandell continues. "That's a sickness. I mean it's probably the biggest cultural sickness that's passed down."
While it's true that some folks in our culture just can't get enough of self-inflicted emotional slaughtering, most of us actually want to get through the day without too many bruises that bear our own insignias. And the truth is that we change when we are willing and able to change, not when it's time to buy a new calendar. Still, there's no denying that we're a goal-oriented species. So the key, says Crandell, is having patience and compassion for yourself and agreeing to take smaller steps. He uses smoking and drinking as an example. Instead of resolving to quit, he suggests, "Say 'I'm going to recognize that I smoke and I drink, and I don't feel so great that I smoke and drink. But they're habits that are hard to break. So for a New Year's resolution, I'm going to move in the direction of addressing this thing that I would like to change.' Yoga is a process, not an end result. It's not acquiring something or changing something or getting something, but making certain headway in a direction."
While part of moving in a direction toward something often means letting other things go, it's not always clear what those things are. For instance, it could be things that you think should please you -- like old friends or a good job -- but just don't.
"Focus on your happiness," says Crisandra Fox, a 28-year-old local yoga instructor, while chopping carrots in her kitchen. "The things that don't support your alignment will slip away, and you'll shut the doors, and that's an important part of the path. And the things that do support your alignment will come to you. And then your life will feel like it works, like there's juice in it; it's not this struggle that you're constantly dealing with."
Letting things slip away, however, should not be confused with pushing them away. Or taking an aluminum baseball bat and pummeling them into the concrete. We all have an instinctive desire to push the little square pegs of our existences into the round holes of our ambitions. But they often just don't fit, says yoga teacher Norah Cross, 56, sitting outside her Pacific Heights home with her dog, Jessie. Whether you are suffering from a health problem or a relationship problem or the frustration of Sunday afternoon traffic, Cross contends that it's best not to react, but to respond. Reacting is an immediate determination to change the unchangeable, often resulting in increased frustration; responding implies a greater understanding and acceptance of a situation. "The mind thinks if you resist or react strongly enough, you can change things," she says. "But you can't. That doesn't mean rolling down like a doormat. It just means not arguing with what is."
Of course, we all have a certain degree of beef with what is. This is simply human nature, so don't start kicking yourself for having negative emotions. If you do, you're back to square one with self-flagellation. Yoga is about observing the fluctuations of the mind, not giving them letter grades. So while we're throwing away the report cards of our consciences, why not see the New Year as a time to embrace the possibility of newness?
"I think New Year's Day for most of us in America gives us the feeling that there is a new beginning, and we can let go of all of the darkness that's accumulated," says Fox. "How many of us are really different December 31 than when we wake up on January 1? But look at how New Year's resolutions have such an effect on people. It gives them hope and excitement about 'I'm going to some way make my life better, or I'm going to let go of something.' It does what a good teacher does, which is stoke the fires of your practice."