There’s this thing — yes, a thing, don’t make me get all specific — that invariably comes up when you talk to people about habits and how their habits work.

And this thing annoys the pants off of pretty much everybody.

Here’s what happens.

You work really, really, really hard to establish a habit. A new, healthy, good-for-you, good-for-your-life habit. Eventually, with effort, patience, and god knows what else, you reach the hooray point where it’s actually kind of happening.

Next you reach the point where you don’t even think about it anymore because the new thing has totally taken root. This is admittedly somewhat less glorious a moment, but it still feels pretty terrific. The new thing becomes ingrained and automatic, and you’re happy about that. Life is good.

But then … something happens. Something knocks you off track. Of course you think, whatever, no big deal. I own this stupid habit. I’ll just climb right back on.

But then you don’t. Because you can’t. And it’s awful.

Plus you feel frustrated and cranky because deep down you really need to know that you can trust yourself. You need things like support and stability. You want to know you’re not going to let yourself down and you’re afraid you just did.

Hmmm, why would I be bringing this up?

I was just on the phone with a client in Switzerland who is dealing with exactly this issue. Well, this and two other things. And, for the record, we resolved all three of her problems in half an hour. Yay!

So then we spent the next half hour resolving a bunch of problems she didn’t even know she had, and now she is officially problem-free, which means that I probably need to start charging way the hell more.

But getting back to the point.

This woman had a regular daily yoga practice that she loved because it was really grounding for her. It kept her fit, kept her high on happy hormones (because let’s face it, that’s why most of us do yoga) and was a wonderfully comfortable, safe, and supportive thing in her life.

[Note: if you’re one of those people who thinks they hate yoga people — and I was this person before my weird conversion experience, so that’s completely fine if you are too — substitute something you actually do like instead.]

And then, for whatever reason, she stopped doing it. She fell out of the habit — and can’t get back. And it’s gotten all tangled up with old patterns of guilt and blame and pushing herself.

To make matters worse, she didn’t know what she even wanted to fix. Was it re-establishing the practice? Was it allowing herself to not want to practice and just working on the guilt stuff? Was it a bunch of other things she hadn’t thought of yet?

Anyway, this is something that — obviously — comes up fairly often when you work with people on rewriting their patterns and habits. Not to mention on your own stuff.

No, really, why am I bringing this up?

Okay, it’s also something that’s really close to me right now because I was sick all last week. Sick like a dog. In gazillion degree heat. Poor, unhappy puppy. That was me. For a week.

Which means that for seven days I wasn’t doing my yoga practice. Also wasn’t doing Shiva Nata (hard-core yoga brain-training that makes you smart and hot but will seriously mess with your head, watch out). And hardly meditating at all, because when one nostril is clogged and the other is flooded, it’s just too much work.

So, as you might imagine, I was especially tuned in to what was going on for this woman, because ow, I just went through this again myself.

And yes, it sucks when you don’t know if you’re emotionally ready to get back into it, and it sucks when you think you’re emotionally ready to get back into it, but your body can’t take it yet.

And it sucks when you want back in but you don’t know how.

I can tell you how we fixed it, but really I’d rather talk about concepts. There’s four of them.

Four concepts that you really need to know (and I really need to remember)

Concept #1: Permission.

Because resistance is futile, baby. They said so on Star Trek. Or something. That’s not the point. The point is that when you fight with yourself, the struggle always wins.

If this woman forces herself to practice, she’ll either avoid it and hate herself — or do it, but start associating resentment, guilt and irritation with the thing she used to love. Not the healthiest way to (re)establish a habit.

So I wrote her a permission slip.

You know, like a doctor’s note. I gave her permission to give herself permission (yes, it’s complicated) to not do more than one pose a day for a week. And I’m a habits expert and a yoga professional, so she pretty much had to take it. Ha.

You give yourself permission to not want to do the thing. Maybe you’ll do it. Maybe you won’t. But you have permission to not want to.

Concept #2: Ebb and flow.

Stuff shifts. Things change. Not to go all yoga teacher on your ass again, but life is flow.

There will be times when the new, healthy patterns are attractive and supporting you. And there will be times when that’s not happening and you’re in resistance and pain. It’s no fun, yes, but it’s normal.

So it’s always good to be able to stop and remind yourself that this is the way of things, and that all it means is that you’re working on a pattern. You’re noticing the pattern, noticing your reactions to it, and coming up with ways to shift it.

Concept #3: Think small. No, think smaller. No, really. Smaller than that.

Everybody and his mother tells you to break stuff down into baby steps, but they don’t give you any structure. What you need is a strategic plan that incorporates itty bitty baby steps that are beyond ridiculously small. And do-able.

For example, my client and I agreed that for one week she’s only going to do one yoga pose each day.

For say, six to ten breaths. And then go straight to shavasana (intentional, conscious, semi-passed-out-on-the-floor relaxation).

The next week she’s going to do three poses each day. And then pass out on the floor. And so on.

Of course she’ll end up taking bigger steps eventually. It won’t take her months to get back to her hardcore 90 minute practice. It’s just that the pressure is off. The shoulds are gone. It’s one step at a time.

I didn’t start with 45 minutes of Shiva Nata. I started with five. And it hurt. And that’s where I’m at.

Concept #4: Bring on the goofy.

The process of working on your habits and patterns is really a process of learning how you work and how you interact with the world around you.

So that you can learn how to work with and around all your “stuff”, and maybe even like yourself anyway on the good days.

This process is a lot of work sometimes, and it can bring up a bunch of stuck gunk, so you really have to be willing to have some fun with it.

This client of mine was working on about ten different things. And they were all tangled up in the same pattern of feeling guilty. The guilt was mucking everything up, from her yoga practice to her business.

So we came up with a goofy, silly pose she could do and decided that this was her guilt pose.

And every time the guilt comes up, she’s going to go into the guilt pose and talk to herself. She’s going to say, “Whoah, here I am dealing with that guilt thing again. What is my guilt trying to tell me and how can I meet myself where I am while still giving myself comfort and support?”

Obviously I wouldn’t suggest this for just anyone. Probably not even for most people. But it was the right thing for her. For you I’d probably suggest something different. But would it be goofy? Hell, yes. Bring on the goofy!

Of course your patterns deserve a ton of loving attention because they’re part of you, but if you can’t poke a little fun, what’s the point?

And the moral of the story is?

Who knows. Let’s skip that part until I’m fully recovered. Obviously I’m taking all of my own advice, because it would be absurd not to. And I’m trying to have some fun with it because that’s what it’s about.

And sometimes I can’t do that. So when I can’t, I just can’t. And that’s just the way it works sometimes.

There you go. Four concepts. Some humility (mine again, hi). And practice, practice, practice. Ooh, and a snot-free hug to anyone who didn’t get theirs on Monday.

The Fluent Self