Getting Started with Yoga Part 5: The difference between discipline and motivation
Why is starting a practice easy, but maintaining one so difficult?
Let me take you back to a time when I decided tennis was going to be the cure-all for all my self-esteem issues. For this, we need to wing our way back to 2006 to a steamy (and not the good kind) summer in rural Japan. I was 22 and convinced that, at 50kg, I was overweight. This had come about from a combination of:
living in a country where a huge emphasis is placed on being slender (I have heard too many horror stories of pregnant women here being told they need to lose weight),
Being insecure about my weight from a very early age (probably joining 98% of the rest of the population)
Being in a relationship where my appearance was consistently devalued and degraded (more on that in future blogs).
So, there I was, 22 and eager, dressed in a pair of too-tight shorts and a too-loose t-shirt, hair up and smile on. This was it. This was how I was going to be lean and strong. This was how I was finally going to get approval. I mean, look at the instructor! Toned and tanned in all the right places. By winter, I’d be just like her. All it would take was a class a week. Right? Right?
For the first six weeks, I was there, willing and unbelievably unable to play tennis. I mean, shockingly bad. Volleying was my forte as long as it was alright that the ball went miles off the court, serving also if it meant that I could have unlimited tries and my partner melted with frustration, and running to hit the incoming yellow sphere of bouncy hell was fine as long as it was OK to swat at it like it was a malaria-clad mosquito (and miss). Those six weeks were fun but incrementally less so. I wasn’t improving, nor was I any different in size and shape (or tan). In fact, I was becoming more and more defeated with each class, and eventually just stopped booking, making excuses instead about work, dental appointments, and some far-out emergency that needed me immediately.
We’ve all been there, right?
So keen and eager to start this next best new thing only for it to fade from our view within a matter of a few well-intentioned weeks.
We all start out really motivated, with clear goals behind our motivations, and clear reasons for our goals. I want to play tennis because my goal is to lose weight, and if I can lose weight I might actually like who I see in the mirror. That was my motivation all those years ago. What I lacked, though, was discipline. And it took several attempts at starting and maintaining a yoga practice to realize this.
Motivation is great for getting us started but terrible for keeping us on track, and this graph below explains why:
Motivation is non-linear and easily influenced by external circumstances (Dörnyei, 2009; Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2021). It informs our “why”, or reason for starting something. Right now, my motivation for practicing yoga is that it helps me develop a strong connection to my mind and body, and that helps me feel a greater sense of internal peace (note how it has nothing to do with looks or seeking approval from others. Though there is nothing wrong with starting a yoga practice to help with weight loss, know that there is SO MUCH MORE it can give you than that).
Because motivation is non-linear, it is very easy for us to fall off the wagon at the first, second, or even third hurdle. Cue negative self-talk and limiting beliefs. To prevent this, what we need to cultivate is discipline. I often find that when people ask me “how do you start a yoga practice?” what they’re really asking is “How do you stick with it?”
So, how do you cultivate a disciplined yoga practice?
I asked a few fellow practitioners the same thing, and coded their answers into three main themes:
Discipline is tied to purpose
By this, I mean that in order to stay consistent with anything you need to have a why. If you don’t have that motivation to start with, then you will never continue. But that vague motivation alone isn’t enough – it needs to be specific, something that will anchor you when life is chaotic, and holy fudge nuts did it get chaotic for all of us these past couple of years? Also, though, don’t get too attached to it, know that the strength of that motivation will wane, and the underlying reason may change. That is OK. I first started yoga because my ex told me I needed to lose weight. I stayed with it because it made me a nicer person, and gave me some insight into how I get in my own way and often make poor choices in men.
2. Discipline is emotional
First, you need to find ways to be curious. You will learn something new about yourself each day. The practice will teach you something about yourself that you may love or not like at all. Not being able to do a pose can be hilarious (I have been stuck in a weird turtle shape with hysterics more times than is probably advised to admit) or it can be confronting – it has also made me angry and push too hard – meaning my ego is at play in full swing. You also need a teacher who will support you through this. Teachers come in all shapes and forms so choosing the right one, (or two or three) for you is an important step and takes time. Allow yourself the time to shop around for the right teacher (check out my resources here for some more info, or try some classes from this blog post to help you decide).
You also need to know that some level of joy is necessary, even just for a little bit. Find ways to incorporate things you love. One fellow yoga student loves learning Spanish, so she sources yoga classes in Spanish on YouTube. Another loves gardening, so she takes her mat outside to practice a bit either before or after some weeding and pruning. For me, my practice comes between cooking and eating dinner. That time when no one needs me, I can put on a class and laugh along with my teacher. I also love studying anatomy so if I have time to read a little about that before practice I do.
3. Discipline is habitual
James Clear is the authority on all things habits, and if you haven’t read his book Atomic Habits I highly recommend it. Though this might sound daft and incredibly obvious, our practice becomes habitual. You need a set space, a set time, and all the materials necessary to complete the (what could become a daily) practice. My mat is always rolled out in the same place, with the clothes already picked out the day before to put on, and a playlist already set in my head for what to practice today. This is done at the end of the previous practice and has kind of become a mini ritual for me. Finish practice, clean the mat and the area around it, lay out the clothes, figure out a few classes to choose from for tomorrow, then change out of my sweaty clothes, take a quick shower, and eat whatever it is I had prepared beforehand for dinner.
My free guide “Home Yoga Prep for Beginners: Getting Started the Right Way” goes into this (and much more) in detail and provides actionable steps for you to take to help support both your motivation and your discipline. Sign up below to get your copy in your inbox.
And that’s it for this week.
I’ll be back next week (next year, eek) for a brand-new theme and a brand-new mindset. Until then, have a wonderful holiday, and take it easy on yourself.
Hi, I'm Ellie Smith. I'm passionate about sharing how the practices and principles of yoga can enhance our public speaking presence. Whether you're a university student, new or returning professional, or simply want to boost your confidence behind the mic, I'm here to help guide you on your yoga journey so you can go from the pose to the podium with ease.