Fitness Magazine

Cultivating Conscious Choice

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Beth 

Cultivating Conscious Choice

Chocolate Ideal by Alphonse Mucha

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise so I’m changing myself.” —Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic 

“I thought I could change the world. It took me a hundred years to figure out I can’t change the world. I can only change Bessie. And honey, that ain’t easy either.” —Dr. Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delaney, age 104 

Change isn’t easy but making the effort to change ourselves for the better is a worthy goal. And if we are serious about making positive changes, we have to start somewhere. One suggestion is to cultivate conscious choice. If we recognize a stimulus to action, we can pause, consider potential consequences and then make a positive response instead of just experiencing a knee jerk—and possibly unhelpful—reaction. This is cultivating conscious choice. 
For major life decisions, past experience—sometimes difficult and painful—has taught us to practice the art of conscious choice, that is, to take time and weigh our options before acting. But do we also apply this practice in ordinary, everyday situations? If we don’t, we may find that a series of minor, unconscious choices could eventually morph into a difficult situation requiring difficult decisions. Let’s consider how that could work. 
I have a sweet tooth, and sometimes out of nowhere appears an impulse, a stimulus, a desire to have something sweet. I have two ways of looking at this impulse. If I act unconsciously, I move directly from stimulus to reaction. My hand dips into my chocolate drawer and “Booya!” a piece of chocolate is inhaled (yes, I do have a drawer dedicated to bars of dark chocolate). However, when I practice the art of conscious choice I catch the stimulus, stop, and think: “Why am I feeling the impulse now? Where did it come from? Do I really need a chocolate hit at this time of day? Am I willing to accept the consequences of this action since chocolate indulgence after 3pm messes with my digestion?” Sometimes my answer to that final question is yes and sometimes it’s no but the key is taking the time to respond with a conscious choice. 
It seems like a small thing that brings momentary pleasure with few, if any, consequences, but if I react unconsciously on every stimulus regarding my sweet tooth I may, at some future time—given my family history—be faced with a variety of major consequences such as becoming diabetic, being overweight, and/or developing acid reflux (chocolate is a trigger). Any of these consequences will require me to make major decisions about my healthcare, all potentially resulting from a series of seemingly small, unconscious, impulsive choices. 
This scenario can play out in our lives in all sorts of ways. And because many of our choices are often unconscious, cultivating conscious choice becomes a healthful practice that is at its heart a yoga practice.  
Sutra 2.1 “The more we refine ourselves through Yoga the more we realize that all our actions need to be reexamined systematically and we must not take the fruits of our actions for granted.” —T. K. V Desichachar, The Heart of Yoga 
Fortunately, in addition to timeless wisdom, yoga also provides us with skillful means to practice cultivating conscious choice on our mats. We can do this by examining what is happening on three levels: body, breath and mind/emotions (see Working The Witness). In this way, we gain experience creating and working with the pause between stimulus and response, and can use the information gathered to make conscious choices.
SOS is the international distress signal and also my acronym for “Stop, Observe, Surrender,” (see SOS for Mental Distress). It’s a useful use technique for cultivating conscious choice on your yoga mat. Here are the basic steps:
1. Select a yoga posture that you practice regularly. As you hold your pose, Stop and before you move on, modify or settle in more deeply.
2. Observe the present moment by asking yourself the following questions: 
Physical Body
  • Where in my body is the sensation of stretch?
  • What is the level of effort or release?
  • Am I able to breathe fully and deeply in the pose?
  • Can I sense any sensation of energy (tingling, pulsing, heat or coolness)?
  • What am I thinking in this moment?
  • What am I feeling in this moment (contentment, anxiety, restlessness, joy)? 
3. Surrender into the moment and watch your conscious choices arise. Now select the one that best fits your highest need or intention. Some choices that might arise from this practice are:
  • Do I need/want to change my situation by adjusting or modifying the pose for greater comfort or a deeper challenge?
  • Do I need/want to change my attitude/perception and accept what might be challenging in the pose and stick with it as long as the “juice is worth the squeeze” and I am not in pain?
  • Do I need/want to move out of this posture now or take a wait and see attitude?
When we apply this practice to the many daily choices we make, we are gradually changing ourselves in ways that help us live healthy, wise, and balanced lives. 
I am a recovering perfectionist (see Yoga Therapy for Perfectionism) and have control issues, especially around time—my time. I do not like to wait. When confronted with waiting, my unconscious physical reaction is to suck my teeth and jiggle my right leg. My breath catches in my throat and I sigh. My mind goes into exasperation, irritation, and a sense of being restricted. I know that regular doses of this reaction over time can build up to any number of unhealthy conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart disease (more family history!), so I’m working to change this unhelpful reaction into a more positive response by cultivating conscious choice. My choice has been to Stop and recognize the stimulus, Observe the impulse to react, and Surrender into the moment and respond by re-framing the waiting into a “moment of waiting to be,” (from "Patience" by Lao Tzu, which is taped to my refrigerator door).  
“No matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can always set our compass to our highest intentions in the present moment. Perhaps it is nothing more than being in a heated conversation with another person and stopping to take a breath and ask yourself, “What is my highest intention in this moment?” —Jack Kornfield 
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