Almost every morning, I do the same thing: wake up, eat breakfast, and then exercise.
Breakfast is almost always the same. A bowl of oatmeal with raisins. A mug of tea with milk. A glass of half orange juice and half fizzy water. And then I exercise for twenty minutes: a combination of yoga, pilates, and stretching. Always the same, every day, although I vary the moves and the order in which I do them, so I’m using different muscles on different days. But that’s my routine, and it doesn’t often vary. It varies most often when I’m traveling, either for teaching or when I’m at a conference or convention. In that case, breakfast might be a cereal bar, but I’ll try to make it a relatively healthy one, and I’ll still do my exercises in a hotel room, going through at least the basic routine.
I have an evening ritual as well. It involves a bubble bath and some reading for pleasure (almost the only time I get to read for pleasure). I also have other rituals: making my bed in the morning, buying flowers each week. I suppose I have rituals of all sorts.
What I want to say in this particular blog post is that rituals are important, because rituals change you. I learned this specifically when I started exercising every day. I’d never been a particularly athletic person. When I was in high school, I was on the tennis team and gymnastics team, although I wasn’t particularly good at either. In college I took dance classes, and those were the most fun . . . I learned that I love to dance. So I took dance classes on and off, mostly ballet because that is one of my great loves. But honestly, I’d never exercised regularly, until one day I created a routine for myself. I would do it several times a week for about forty minutes, and always felt better when I did. At some point, I’m not even sure why, I started doing it every day, but I didn’t have forty minutes every day. I did have twenty minutes every day . . . So the ritual was born. And then something happened that taught me a lesson about the importance of rituals: my body changed. I became leaner, stronger, and more flexible. And eventually (it took several months), I was surprised to realized that I was in the best shape I’d been in my entire life: better than as a teenager, or in my twenties, or thirties.
I know, you’re probably thinking: well, that’s obvious. If you do something every single day, it changes you. But the realization hit me like a hammer (ouch.) I had somehow assumed it was one of those platitudes: you know, the sort of thing you pin up on a bulletin board for inspiration that isn’t actually true. But it’s true. Rituals change you.
They can change you physically, and they can also change your inward perception of yourself. Making my bed every day, buying myself flowers every week, are ways of telling myself that I care about my space, that I take care of myself. They are the outward signs of my own self-care.
The best thing about rituals is that once they’re ingrained, you do them automatically, and it feels wrong to neglect the ritual — when I don’t exercise, it feels as though the world is somehow unbalanced, or I’m unbalanced. I never go more than a day without it. It’s easier to go through the ritual than not, I suppose because we are such creatures of habit. So it matters what kind of habits we develop.
What I’ve tried to do, since learning this lesson, is create productive rituals.
Creating a ritual is not easy. Here’s how you do it:
1. Figure out what the ritual is. Is it to exercise every day? Figure out when you’re going to do it, what specific exercises to do. Put together the routine.
2. Make it as easy as possible. It should take the minimum possible effort to follow the ritual. For example, I exercise right after breakfast, in my pajamas. My pajamas look and feel like yoga clothes. The music is right by the CD player, just waiting for me. Once I’m done, I shower.
3. Do it every day, or at whatever regular interval you’ve decided — once a week, once a month, but honestly I think daily rituals are the strongest. If you miss a day, forgive yourself but do it the next day. Keep trying, keep doing it. Eventually, habit will kick in and the routine will click. When you’ve done it enough, it will become a ritual. At that point, it will be easier to follow the ritual than not.
4. Make sure the ritual is a healthy one, because we can ritualize anything, we human beings. We are such creatures of habit, like animals that walk through a field following the same path every day. If your ritual is to sit in front of the television eating ice cream every night, that ritual will be very hard to stop. Indeed, the best way is not to try and stop, but to create a new ritual.
Does all of this sound terribly boring — exercising every day, eating the same breakfast every day? I don’t find it so. Instead, I find it reassuring. Going through the ritual every morning grounds me, particularly when I’m traveling — when I’m doing so much, speaking to students or an audience, it’s good to have taken the time, first thing in the morning, to go through my personal routine. It was something I did that day for myself. And having rituals frees me up to think about other things — it’s as though I’ve set part of my life on autopilot so I can think about other parts of it more deeply, live those other parts more fully.
So that’s it, really. That’s what I know about rituals, except that as I wrote above, we human beings are creatures of ritual. Think about our religions. We are continually creating rituals for ourselves. Make sure yours are good ones.
I do, in fact, have inspirational quotations pinned to my bulletin board. Here are two of them:
(Now I just need a ritual for the sleep part . . .)