The Power of Vow

Broken Promises: The Trouble with New Year’s Resolutions

It’s now 20 days into January…did you already break your resolution? Each holiday season I get a bit excited to see everyday folk dabble in the world of the yogi. That is, they take stock of their life, notice that something could be changed or improved, and take actions to accomplish it. Trouble is, it usually comes in the form of a vague goal or resolution to be attempted for a few days and quickly put aside.

Why is it that so many of our resolutions become broken promises? Why is it none of them last? And what does the yoga practice of sankalpa (intention or resolve) offer that could help us maintain our steadfastness?

1. They’re too vague.

A fundamental prerequisite for the later stages of yoga is dharana, or one-pointed concentration. If my resolution is to “exercise more”, it’s very simple for my mind, in a moment of laziness, to postpone the exercise or justify a rest day in that yesterday I was so late for work that I kinda had to jog for a minute to catch the train. So get specific! “I will go to the gym three times a week for the entire month of January.”

2. They’re unreasonable.

Taking a vow that is not feasible or beyond our capacity will only reinforce our relationship with our vices. Start small. “What could I accomplish this week?” In the Yoga Sutras we learn that without abhyasa (consistency) we will never find ourselves in a state of peace. Let your resolution reflect a patient, persistent effort rather than an enormous goal.

3. They’re too private.

One of the reasons why so many yogis progress so far in intense periods of study—like teacher trainings—is that they experience the power of a sangha, a community of like-minded individuals with shared aspirations. If I make a private resolution, it’s easier for me to break the vow, because no one is holding me accountable. Instead, I reach out to a few of my closest friends, and let them know what I’m up to. “This month I am going to try to survive without caffeine. If I start acting like a prick at nine a.m., it’s probably because the rooibos tea ain’t scratching the sides. I’d still appreciate it if you had my back.”

4. We give up too easily.

Mahatma Gandhi said “The essence of a vow does not consist in the difficulty of its performance but in the determination behind it…to stick to it in the teeth of difficulties.” It’s one thing to say we’re going to do a self-practice every day. It’s entirely another to get out of bed before we’ve fallen asleep after a long day, to go and do those 20 minutes and keep up the momentum of our efforts.

5. We underestimate their importance.

All of us make promises. We tell our boss we’ll be at work on time (a particularly challenging task for yoga teachers), we vow to remain faithful to the agreements of our relationships, and so on. The irony is, most of us have a harder time keeping the promises we make to ourselves than we do keeping the ones we make to other people. Consider the long-term impact of breaking a promise you’ve made to yourself. If you are the most valuable person in your life (and psssst: you ARE), then any vow to yourself you have made is far more important than something you promise someone else. Don’t take it lightly.

Of course, even yogis break their promises. All too often, really. So what if we have already lost track of our New Year’s Resolution? No problem, really. The good news is that it is never too late to create a NEW intention, one that is specific, attainable, shared with others, persistent, and nurtured. So whether it’s January 1st or Cinco de Mayo, take a few moments to consider how to create a lasting change in yourself. And who knows? Maybe the world around you might start changing too.

Hope to see you real soon-like.