I’m high-strung and inflexible (both mentally and physically), so yoga is a no-brainer for my aching back and caffeinated squirrel brain.
For most of my thirties, I worked hard to make yoga a regular habit in my life. So often we build habits to support things we think should matter and actually don’t, but in this case, my reasons for the habit were rooted in what mattered: mindfulness and a body that doesn’t hurt all the time.
All I had to do was make it happen.
I attempted the whole “I’m going to do yoga for thirty minutes four times a week” thing and built a big system to support it. I downloaded apps. I bought the best mat, the best blocks, and the best workout top. I had checklists and phone alarms. I even bought a pass for ten hot yoga classes “for accountability.”
Side note: if you want to feel like you have no control over your life, start your Yoga Habit Journey at hot yoga class where you sweat like a linebacker for ninety minutes and then can’t drive home because your legs feel like they might be broken. It’s super fun.
Despite the system, I never once made it all four days.
Nothing was working, and it was beyond frustrating. I wanted to learn yoga! My reason really mattered! No one was forcing me! Why was this so hard?
Because it was too big.
Even if you’re trying to develop habits that support a life you deeply, authentically want, small steps are still your best bet because then you’ll actually move. If instead you put too much pressure on yourself with a big system, you’ll spend more time tending to its maintenance than developing the habit itself.
My Ridiculously Small Step
On January 1 last year, I did what many folks do at the start of a year and thought about my goals. I still wanted to build a yoga habit but knew my approach had to be different this time. If I wanted to practice yoga on a regular basis, I had to start so small it was embarrassing.
My commitment? One down dog pose a day.
If you’re unfamiliar with yoga, a down dog is a pose where your hands and feet are both (ideally) placed flat on the ground and your butt is in the air. It’s how you’d make the letter A with your body in a game of charades. And with the exception of corpse pose (where you literally lie on the ground like a dead person), it’s about the easiest yoga pose there is.
Every day, I did one down dog. I bent over, put my hands on the ground and my butt in the air, held the pose for a couple of deep breaths, and then stood up again. Done for the day.
Obviously, I felt like a moron going on this laughably low-stakes exercise adventure, but I was determined to stick it out to see if this approach might actually do something. Going big hadn’t worked to develop the habit, so maybe going small would.
For a while, the answer—at least from a results perspective—was a resounding no. I didn’t automatically become more flexible, and I was not at all what you’d call Zen. Still, my habit was too small to quit, so I didn’t. I kept it up for weeks.
Huge win on its own.
I did my pose in the morning or before bed if I’d forgotten to do it earlier, and sometimes I’d do both. Occasionally, I’d do an entire sun salutation (a connection of a dozen poses that includes a down dog), which still took no more than fifteen seconds.
After about four months, I had gradually built upon that first small step and was now doing yoga maybe thirty seconds a day.
I repeat: thirty seconds a day.
Sure, on paper the whole thing felt foolish. What a joke to think thirty seconds of yoga meant anything, but the joke was on me because I had developed a daily habit of yoga. And even though it lasted only as long as a beer commercial, I was really proud. I was moving in the direction of something I had always wanted, and ridiculously small steps had been my road to get there. Almost two years later, I still practice yoga every single day, even if it’s just the one pose.
Here’s the thing about habits: you might think that if you don’t build a big system to support them, it won’t work, but I believe the opposite is true.
When you start big, you give up before you even begin, but the smaller the step, the more likely you’ll do it. The more you do it, the more you’ll keep doing it, making it a meaningful part of your daily rhythm which is the entire point.
Embrace the power of small steps. They matter, they count, and they’re the best way to create habits around what actually matters to you.