I recently listened to podcast where the host talked about developing a home practice. His advice, while admirable if it had worked for him, was ultimately filled with a long list of “shoulds” and “should nots”. One of my grandmother’s favourite adages is “don’t say ‘should’ — it comes between shit and syphilis in the dictionary”.
In a nutshell, his advice was as follows:
- You should pick a time of day and keep it consistent. “Be really strict with yourself”
- You should not take days off. “Why do you need a day off if you’re committed to your health?”
- You should not do freeform practices. You should have a fixed structure. Unstructured at home practices are a recipe for a lack of progress, lack of motivation, low self worth, and you won’t move forward
- You should do the same thing over and over again….its okay to get bored….you’ll see results
This should-centered guidance, while well intentioned, is counterproductive in nurturing an important determinant of behaviour: intrinsic motivation. I first heard about intrinsic motivation during my undergrad but remember little of its practical importance. I recently stumbled upon an article in the open access online journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, titled “The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research”1. It reminded me that intrinsic motivation played a pivotal role in cultivating my own home practice. In this article, I will explain what intrinsic motivation is and how you can use its principles to build your home practice. To be clear, this article will solely discuss the 2nd limb of yoga: asana or the physical/postural practice of yoga. I also believe your home practice can incorporate the other 7 limbs but that discussion will have to wait for a future post.
Unpacking Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is defined as the drive to engage in a task, challenge, or activity because of the inherent satisfaction it brings to the individual rather than for the attainment of an external reward or the avoidance of a punishment (i.e., extrinsic motivation)1. For example, I am intrinsically motivated to walk my dogs during the day because it brings me enjoyment and fulfillment. If my sick dog wakes me up in the middle of the night and needs to go outside, I am motivated to take them out because I want to avoid the punishment of cleaning up a mess in the morning. Similarly, I am intrinsically motivated to write these blog posts because I am curious about the topics. When I was writing essays for school, I was more so motivated by the external reward of a good grade and acceptance into my post-secondary school of choice.
When we are intrinsically motivated, we are more likely to learn, create, and perform optimally1. Further, intrinsic motivation promotes more deep-level learning and thus better comprehension and leads to higher psychological well-being2. Consequently, intrinsic motivation research has primarily been sought out by the education community as a means to optimize learning in a classroom setting3. Importantly to our discussion of building a home practice, intrinsically motivated behaviours are more likely to lead to consistent practice4.
In fairness to the host of the podcast, his advice stems from the school of thought that prioritizes habit formation. Habit-forming research shows that behaviours repeated in a stable context become habits5. Most of his tips (e.g., keeping a consistent time of day, not taking days off, practicing the same sequence over and over) are all meant to stimulate habit formation. Even his tip of having mats all around the house (which I definitely condone) is meant to cue the habit.
An Intrinsically Motivated Home Practice
While my yoga practice is young, and my home practice is younger still, it has grown out of love and liberty rather than determination and tradition. I believe there is no one right way to cultivate a home practice — much like I believe there is no one right way to express a pose. That being said, my home practice took off when I unknowingly began honouring the principles of intrinsic motivation rather than trying to build a consistent habit. So I thought I would share my tips for building an intrinsically motivated home practice.
Tip #1: Freeform your Practice
A freeform practice is key to cultivating a home practice that encourages intrinsic motivation. Unlike a rigidly structured practice, a freeform practice can be receptive to the daily fluctuations in your energy levels, your moods, your physical limitations, and your creativity. A freeform practice is more likely to give your body and mind what they need on a moment-to-moment basis. Yoga philosophy (and other Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism) teaches us to be more in tune with our moment-to-moment experience. Your home practice can honour that intention. In my experience, my home practice never looks the same. It constantly adapts to incorporate what I have learned and to accommodate how I feel. Your body has more intuitive knowledge than you think, especially if you learn to listen.
Tip #2: Surrender to boredom
Boredom and intrinsic motivation do not go hand-in-hand. I have never been bored during my practice because when I am bored I stop! Boredom means I am not mentally present in my practice. As I stated above, a core teaching of yoga is about being present in every moment. And while a practiced yogi may successfully overcome boredom using mindfulness — this is no easy feat for a young practitioner. In the beginning, set yourself up for success and surrender to boredom. If your home practice feels like a chore, you are not honouring intrinsic motivation.
Tip #3: Stoke the fire of curiosity
Curiosity may have killed the cat but it certainly didn’t kill the cat-cows. Studies have shown that curiosity enhances learning — an understandably unsurprising finding6. If you’re reading this post, I will safely assume that you take an interest in the practice of asana. Identify what aspects specifically stoke your fire of curiosity and immerse yourself to learn more. For me, this meant learning about the body and the mind and incorporating my newfound knowledge into my practice.
Tip #4: “Rules are there ain’t no rules”
Sometimes we need to be reminded during our asana practice that the way the pose feels is more important than what it looks like. Similarly, I think we also need to forget about what a home practice should look like. A home practice does not have to exist within the confines of a time frame. Experimenting with movement and postures that nourish sleepy corners of the body can take place at any moment in the day. Let go of what you think a home practice should look like. Looking for inspiration? Not sure what I mean by an unconventional home practice? Read on. In part 2 of this blog series, I will share some ideas for an unconventional home practice.
What Have We Learned?
The take-home message from today’s post is very simple: your home practice and your own learning will benefit from developing from the heart, not from somebody else’s rules or guidelines. It may be hard to stay motivated on your own — but it will be easier to stay motivated doing the practice you want to do rather than the practice you think you [shit] should [syphilis] do. Read on for more inspiration to cultivate your at-home practice.
- Di Domenico SI, Ryan RM. The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:145. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145.
- Vansteenkiste M, Lens W, Deci EL. Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Goal Contents in Self-Determination Theory: Another Look at the Quality of Academic Motivation. Educ Psychol. 2006;41(1):19-31. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4101_4.
- Froiland JM, Worrell FC. Intrinsic Motivation, Learning Goals, Engagement, and Acheivement in a Diverse High School. Psychol Sch. 2016;53(3):321-336. doi:10.1002/pits.21901.
- Deci E, Ryan R, Deci EL. Self-determination theory: a macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. 2008. https://www.scienceopen.com/document?vid=b647fca9-15b6-47f9-9a94-6d8374b94fe9. Accessed September 1, 2017.
- Wood W, Quinn JM, Kashy DA. Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002;83(6):1281-1297. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12500811. Accessed September 6, 2017.
- Kang MJ, Hsu M, Krajbich IM, et al. The Wick in the Candle of Learning. Psychol Sci. 2009;20(8):963-973. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02402.x.