by Eric Stewart

Over the past several months I’ve been growing my hair out. As a result, after decades of a short, low-maintenance haircut, I’ve become reacquainted with tangles and knots, and therefore with combing.

There’s a direct and profound teaching within the process of combing one’s hair: anyone who tries to plow through a knot or a tangle all in one go will get stuck and experience pain. On the other hand, working with less of the obstruction and fewer of the comb’s teeth can free things so that soon enough the whole tangle is smooth.

As well, moving the comb with too much force or impatience causes even a small knot to lock up. By contrast, when the hands are aware and sensitive, they can skillfully guide the comb to make quick work of the blockage.

Small Can Be Big

This puts me in mind of other situations where a small action can facilitate a larger result.  Beyond the utility of disentangling one’s hair, small actions can be especially useful when big changes are needed. This is because big changes are often overwhelming, and when change is overwhelming it can feel impossible to manage.

Small bites go down better than big bites. What’s more, small actions that get to the heart of a person’s habits have a way of expanding in effect beyond the primary intent of the action.

For instance, small actions might be used to facilitate a yoga practice or healthy sleep patterns. When successful, these things often have a way of radiating benefits into other parts of life.

Exploring small actions in relation to practice is fruitful because practice can be seen as a laboratory for investigating habits. Just to be clear, by the term practice I mean attending classes as well as home practice. This also refers to activities and disciplines other than yoga.

When Things Wane

Every so often I feel my practice slipping away from me.

Whether it is the stress and busyness of life in general, an obstacle in the practice itself or some combination, I have come to accept these wanings of practice as a given, not something that can be avoided.

What’s not a given is how far the waning goes: if someone intends to practice and the slippage takes them out of it for weeks or months at a time, that’s not so helpful. Not practicing becomes a larger tangle.

On the other hand, recognizing the slippage at any stage, early or late in the process is actually a great opportunity to make practice more reliable and richer because resistance can be a signal pointing the way to new information and possibilities for the practice to evolve.

This is because feelings such as resistance are a message that something in the current way of doing things is not working. Yet certain common responses to resistance, such as increasing forcefulness toward it, or just quitting have a way of tightening the knot.

The Value of Resistance

However, it’s possible to be aware of resistance and use it as a cue to step back, assess the situation and find different solutions, different ways of meeting the practice. This is equivalent to deftly detangling a knot of hair, bit by bit. Small actions are key to the process.

This is all well and good on paper. With life in the flesh however, two things create difficulty. The first is recognizing resistance and apathy as a stimulus for positive change instead of further frustration. The second is locating changes that make a productive difference instead of reinforcing old habits.

The Difficulty of Big Changes

When practice wanes and discouragement sets in, it can appear that only a large, wholesale change will remedy the problem. Who has the time or energy for that? In this scenario, resistance easily becomes a reinforcement for further struggle or failure.

If someone has to comb their hair in a hurry it might be tempting to ram through the knots but they’ll soon discover that moving slower and smaller, with more awareness is faster in the end.

Recognizing the effectiveness of small, centered actions makes it easier to see the value of “negative” information like apathy or resistance. Just like a tug on the scalp, resistance can be an essential message that shapes a solution.

Using resistance as a resource eases the way for the second challenge most people face: locating the particular small changes that make a big difference. This requires attention, exploration and experimentation, using instances of failure and success as a guide. There is not one specific thing that everyone does, but anyone can learn by observing their own patterns.

Personal Habits

One person might be in the habit of getting on the computer or the phone “for just a moment” when there is space available to practice, or a class they might attend. Then that moment expands to consume the available time. Someone else may consistently get sucked into work or the needs of others.

If you can identify what happens in such a moment, what triggers your tendency to avoid practice, you can experiment with different responses that override the stuck habit and support doing a  practice. That’s the key moment, that’s the small action that will help.

Or within practice, you may find that things go stale: asanas stop progressing. Stiffness and tension supplant opening and freedom as regular guests at the practice table. While getting assessment from an experienced teacher can be helpful in this situation, it can ultimately be more empowering and satisfying to problem-solve on your own.

Exploring small solutions, small actions is an ideal way to address this: step back from yourself, from your habits. Are there tensions you can identify that you’re unconsciously bringing to the practice? Are you doing the same poses the same ways such that you are backing yourself into a corner rather than opening up?

Do the pose with the attitude of a beginner. Find something new. The question is, what is the little thing you are doing that becomes a big thing?

Finding the precise little thing that has big effects can take a few attempts, but the beauty of staying small is that it doesn’t take a lot of energy to try something different and see what effect it has. If one thing doesn’t solve the problem, you at least know it’s not that and can explore something else.

I find that if people are given the space to identify their little habits, they know themselves pretty well and can make big discoveries in a short amount of time. This process is applicable well beyond the yoga mat to whatever snags and rat’s nests you find in your own life.

Best to you in untangling your knots.