Ayurveda’s Secrets for Breaking Bad Habits

Kripalu School of Ayurveda

If you’re reading this, you’re probably someone who’s striving to live a healthier, happier life. (Join the club!) Why is it, then, that we often know what we should do (go to bed early, meditate, get regular exercise), but we don’t do it? And we know what we shouldn’t do (OD on sugar, obsess about our ex, ignore our body’s need for rest) but we do it anyway?

Ayurveda has a name for this phenomenon: prajna paradha. In his book Ayurveda for Women, Robert E. Svoboda translates the term as “an offense against wisdom.” He says it “happens when you know deep inside that something is not right for your body-mind-spirit, but you … go ahead and do it anyway.”

In fact, Ayurveda says that prajna paradha is one of the primary causes of disease. But don’t despair—Ayurveda also says we have the power to avert our suffering by tuning in to our inner wisdom, and making choices from a wiser place. But first, it’s helpful to understand the phenomenon.

The Causes of Prajna Paradha

According to yoga teacher and Ayurvedic consultant Larissa Hall Carlson, who is on faculty for the Kripalu Schools, prajna paradha occurs when our mind is in one of two states: a rajasic state or a tamasic state. “When the mind is rajasic,” she says, “it’s in a chaotic, overstimulated, overdrive state. Rajas becomes the default decision maker, so we take rajasic actions and eat rajasic foods.”

Ever catch yourself saying, “I’m totally alert, but another cup of coffee sounds great!”? “Rajas wants to keep its momentum going,” Larissa explains.

A tamasic state of mind, on the other hand, is marked by inertia, heaviness, dullness, and depression, she says. “When tamas is the default decision maker, we choose foods and activities, or a lack of activities, that keep the mind stuck in that state. Like, ‘I’m already feeling kind of ‘blah’ today, so I’m not going to go to yoga. I’m going to stay on the couch and eat more food.’”

Either way—whether your mind is stuck in a slugfest or it’s on overdrive—“those are the times when we don’t make good decisions,” Larissa says.

An Empowerment Practice

Once you familiarize yourself with the concept of prajna paradha, you’ll notice that it shows up all the time: during meals, at bedtime, in your yoga or meditation practice, even in the way that you schedule your day or how you spend your money, says Larissa.

The problem is that when we make choices under the spell of prajna paradha, “there’s a temporary satisfaction, but it doesn’t give a lasting sense of contentment.” On the other hand, “when we make choices based on the inner wisdom that is guiding us, we feel nurtured and satisfied,” Larissa says.

“Understanding prajna paradha empowers us to recognize any habits we have of blocking what we know is best for us,” she says. The first step to changing those habits that aren’t serving us, she says, is Self-Observation Without Judgment—which Swami Kripalu lauded as the highest form of practice.

Five Ways to Change Your Habits

1. Decide which habits you want to dissolve. On one side of a piece of paper, list a few habits you want to change, suggests Larissa. On the other side, brainstorm potential strategies or solutions. It may be helpful to do some freewriting as you work your way through your list. Be honest about how your prajna paradha “blind spots” affect your life. Then cook up come creative ways to shine a light on them, and make a plan to (eventually) dissolve them.

2. Share your goals with your closest confidantes. Larissa suggests reaching out to the people you’re closest to and let them know which habits you’re working to improve. For example, if you go out to eat with your best friend every Friday night, and you’re trying to stick to a health-boosting bedtime routine, let her know ahead of time that you want to get home by 11:00. Explaining why you want to make this change will help her understand your request. Then you can enlist her support. “We often are more successful when we have the support of friends and family,” Larissa observes.

3. Use the buddy system. Surround yourself with positive people who are trying to live a healthier, happier life, too, says Larissa. For example, if you’re trying to increase your mindful movement practice, make a pact to attend regular classes with a classmate from your local yoga studio. If you’re trying to follow a healthier diet, find a health-conscious colleague and make a regular lunch date with them.

4. Notice the warning signs. Anytime you catch yourself saying, “I really shouldn’t” or “I’m going to pay for this tomorrow,” freeze, says Larissa. “That’s prajna paradha.” Remember your intention to break a particular habit, and make a choice that’s in alignment with your goal.

5. Set a self-care strategy (every day). For the next few weeks, do a body scan every morning, shortly after you wake up. Are you feeling sluggish (tamasic)? Frenetically wired (rajasic)? Or balanced and energized? Is your body stiff and achy, or vibrant and pain-free? Next, tune into your mental-emotional state. Are you anxious or calm? Hyper or focused? Based on your findings, Larissa says, set a self-care strategy for the day. For example, if you wake up feeling sluggish and slightly depressed, consider which types of foods and activities would bring you back into balance (instead of increasing your inertia). This will keep you from making impulse decisions based on a habit that you’re trying to change, she says.

“Create some touch points throughout the day,” she suggests. Close your eyes and take a few mindful breaths. How are your body and mind feeling now? What do you really need? “Self-observation is the only way we can begin the process of changing patterns,” she says.

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