Self-discipline and Self-study: two of the most foundational practices of yoga

self-discipline doggie

“No person is free who is not master of himself.”

Last year I created a ‘self-discipline’ where I didn’t eat any food for one 24 hour period each week.

I started doing this for a few reasons – the first and foremost one of the oldest and vainest of western female desires – to have a trim figure.

I had read a book called the ’The Fast Diet’ by Michael Mosley which was all about taking two days of the week to abstain from food for the most part, and the rest of the week eating whatever I felt like. The book contained many fascinating facts regarding research on the benefits of giving one’s body a break from eating and digesting on a regular basis. However, I realised after a couple of months that 2 days a week was just too disruptive and difficult in my life, and I hadn’t lost more than a few grams of weight! 

So I reassessed and thought about what I was doing. I quickly realised that losing weight was not a major issue for me, accepting myself as I am is far more important. Yet there was something about the experience of not eating when I was accustomed to eating, to feeling hunger pangs and knowing I was hungry, and feeling the discipline it took to stay aware of my impulses that I didn’t want to pass up on.

So, for all of 2016 I decided to ‘go without’ for one day of the week as a form of self-discipline and personal study.

This neatly encapsulates a couple of principles that are foundational in the practice of yoga. Found in the ‘niyamas’ or ‘personal observances’, the practices of ‘tapas’ – self-discipline; and ‘swadhyaya’ – self-study are foundational in informing a creative and aware life. Self-discipline gives a ‘binding’ to the daily activity of life, while self-study helps to put this discipline into context by mindful noticing of its application and effects.

Why foster a habit of self-discipline? I believe the urge behind this is inherently linked to the natural urge for wellbeing. New Year’s Resolutions are classic examples of the urge to self-discipline and self-transformation. Vows are made to stop smoking, lose weight, learn a new skill, write that novel, etc. Of course, it’s a bit of a standing joke how often those resolutions are abandoned by the end of January, no matter how sincerely they were formulated and desired.

The self-discipline of ‘tapas’ combined with the mindful habit of self-study that is ‘swadhyaya’ creates a powerful combination however.

I chose Tuesday as my day of ‘fasting’. It was a convenient day of the week where I was not home in the evenings. Missing out on dinner wasn’t hard in this context, and didn’t impact anyone else in my life. Over the year, here’s what I discovered:

  1. I seldom get to feel hunger. Food is available all around us in this society 24/7. Feeling hunger is novel and interesting. Hunger is not a ‘first-world’ problem.
  2. Food is a connector and social stimulant. We meet our friends for meals, talking across the table, eating together is a social custom that is pleasant and connective. We ‘break bread together’ as a way of connection in our society.
  3. Eating is a habit. I often eat when I’m not hungry just because it’s lunchtime or dinnertime, when I usually eat. Often I’m not really hungry and so eat out of the social habit.
  4. Food is a time-filler. What do I do with that half-hour that is normally breakfast? That hour for lunch and for dinner? 
  5. I love food. Tasting, smelling, savouring sensations of smoothness, crunchiness, savouriness, sweetness etc. Breakfast on the day after my fast was always a welcome and fully appreciated meal!

This year I’ve decided to give that ‘fasting’ practice away. No particular reason, just feel I’ve done the experiment and for now don’t need to continue it. I still find though, even after a couple of months of returning to the ‘normal’ pattern of eating every day, that on Tuesday morning I feel a little surprised delight when I think, “I can eat today!”. And every bite tastes beautiful, I notice the incredible privilege of fresh, healthy food available at my fingertips. This self-study through the self-discipline of last year has engendered deep appreciation for the incredible abundance available in our society.

Now, for this month of February – the shortest of the year by the way – I’ve undertaken another little exercise in self-discipline & study. I’ve given up refined sugar and alcohol! Living in a wine region and loving my glass or two of shiraz most evenings, I was a little unsure what I’d experience. My dear partner was worried I’d turn into a grump. But you know what I’ve found? When I approach a discipline with the frame of mind that this is an experiment to notice and to learn about myself, to regard this an opportunity for self-awareness – well, it has been a breeze to let those habits go for a spell. I’ve felt lighter in my body as a result, and have noticed very few moments of feeling ‘deprived’. It’s been fun, an adventure, to check this out. 

All of this has increased my conviction that we are powerful beings, us humans. We can shape our own experience best not by gritty willpower, but by willingness to engage. To be curious about one’s own experience and then to stand in it, and to feel it without any particular expectation can bring the most surprising revelations. I have never been one who thought of myself as having a particular gift at being self-disciplined. These two experiments over the past year and a bit have shown me otherwise. Experiment, learn and grow.

And in just 5 days, I can toast to that!

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