I always take the same bike route to work: east on Queen, south on Shaw, and west on Richmond. It’s become so familiar now that my mind gets to wander through time and space while my body goes on autopilot.
But that wasn’t always the case. I still remember consciously deciding how I was going to get from point A to point B when I first started this job. There was a method and logic to how I chose to navigate the main arteries and side streets of my city, with the underlying intention of finding an ideal balance of speed and safety. Yet, what once was a very considered choice, I don’t even think about anymore; what was once conscious intention is now unconscious routine.
But what’s the difference between just going through the motions and truly paying attention to the action at hand? How can you tell what’s habit and what’s ritual?
What is the difference?
The dictionary definition of these words yield very similar results: Something that a person does, often in a regular and repeated way. Even though these two words are often used interchangeably, I’d like to offer that their distinguishing feature is intention. But what really is intention? It’s the deciding why we do something—it’s the impassioned reasoning that shifts one’s mindset from carrying out a repeated act unconsciously to instead making the repetitive process a conscious act.
Rituals are practices that hold within them clear intent—a conscious act with purpose. Intent shifts the practice because it changes your mindset around why you are doing something. In this way, habit and ritual are distinguished by the presence or absence of intention. Intention is to bring conscious awareness into what we are doing.
The same thing happens with our yoga practice. We start out with the conscious decision to show up to a certain class, at a certain time, for specific reasons. Maybe it’s the style of yoga, the teacher, the studio atmosphere, or a combo of convenience and character aligned with what we’re looking for from our practice: This is a ritual.
When we begin to practice yoga, our intent may be proficiency, simply to learn and explore how to become adept at moving our bodies in asana practice. When the intent is achieved, the practice transforms—we slowly drift into the realm of routinized habit and get familiar. But if we stay there we stagnate because what we’re doing lacks the meaning it once held.
It does us great service to pause and ask why, after we achieve this, after we reach our goals—do we continue to practice? We are evolving, growing beings who need to change how and what we do as we change and grow inside. We are in a constant state of flux—this is our soul’s evolution, and our body’s growth and change is the pattern of life. Changing our practices from habits to intentional rituals reflects this and supports growth.
Often, intention setting comes from being suddenly aware, like the crack of thunder in our sleep that jolts us upright in bed. This could be an injury or a surging question—something that forces us to stop and re-evaluate. This is the thunderous moment where we can take the opportunity to shift our practice from unconscious routine and habit into a newly birthed, or a newly evolved, ritual.
This can benefit more than your yoga practice. I’m an author. Usually, I roll out of bed and write my morning pages while I drink my coffee. I then have breakfast and get to my writing work. And for quite a while, this process worked—until it didn’t. I began to see that my work was suffering in quality and inspiration; I was stagnating in the throes of habit.
This morning, I didn’t want to sit down as soon as I got up—I wanted to see the world and bring in new ideas from a roused and moving body. So I put on my shoes, popped in my earbuds, and walked around my neighborhood, dictating to my phone. The result of this consciously intended new writing ritual: this very piece.
Photo by Daniel Craig
Mara Raye Munro is the Founder of Yoga for Creativity, author of Leaving Pompeii and Yoga for Creativity (forthcoming), and a contributing writer to the recent Wanderlust book. An explorer of inner and outer landscapes, her passion is to dig for buried treasures that are the rituals and knowledge of ancient cultures to share them with the modern world. She works with groups and individual artists to help them find holistic personal health and creative abundance through their yoga practice. Follow her journey on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.