Yoga for Cultivating Willpower


—William Shakespeare

Ask how to break a bad habit and just about everyone will tell you to use willpower. Let’s call it the “just say no” response. But as quick as we are to identify self-control and restraint as the critical change agents, we also readily admit that we’re generally lacking in that department. We have, as someone once said of Jerry Brown, California’s governor in the 1970s, a “whim of iron.”

But what if I told you that changing habits—letting go of the bad and reinforcing the good—depends just as much on self-compassion and surrender as it does on willpower? I’m not channeling Oscar Wilde here, who famously wrote, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” Rather, I’m relying on new research into all three concepts—willpower, self-compassion, and surrender—and, of course, on the practices of yoga and meditation, both of which can speed your transformation from a willpower weakling to a warrior of resolve.

The question, of course, is how to start. Yoga offers three really clear guides to the cultivation of willpower: Willpower is a muscle that can be strengthened over time and through the body; self-compassion is the foundation needed to strengthen resolve; and a deep connection to the Self will set us free. Both yoga and science demonstrate that practicing these three principles will create fertile ground for transforming our most difficult and unwholesome habits.

Despite our self-deprecating comments about self-control, most of us would categorize willpower as an essential life skill. Research shows that it is a greater predictor of success in life than IQ. People who maintain good self-control have better relationships, tend to achieve more career success, and enjoy healthier lives.

This is very good news because if IQ alone predicted life outcomes we would be in significant trouble. Why? Because, for the most part, IQ is immutable, but self-control can be cultivated and strengthened—it is not a zero sum concept, one that you either have or lack. It can be improved. The difficulty lies in determining how. One way is simply to start a yoga practice, as the following story illustrates.

The Limits of Effortful Willpower

One of my students, Meredith, realized that if she didn’t learn to manage her anger more skillfully, she was going to lose her most preciously held relationships. When she first started taking class with me, her practice was rigid. She would force herself into each pose and breathe very aggressively once there. She often looked like she was truly at war with her warrior pose. But, over time, I saw Meredith soften. She came into poses more slowly and breathed a little more gently, and her warrior pose became more an expression of peace than war.

When I asked her how her practice had affected her life, she replied she felt that she was becoming more skillful at managing her emotions. She was better able to resist the urge to lash out at her family when she felt upset. Before yoga, she said, she used to fly off the handle at her husband and kids very easily. “Every little thing seemed to set me off,” she said, “and I couldn’t seem to stop snapping at them.” But now she had learned to breathe consciously, to notice the anger arise earlier, and to react to it in more skillful ways. Through her yoga, she had cultivated a greater sense of self-discipline around her anger.

End of story and success, right? Not so much.

Overall, Meredith was much less reactive when she became angry, and yet there were still times when she fell back into old habits. What scared her when that happened, she said, was the feeling that she was back at square one—where all her progress had seemingly disappeared.

How could that be? We both wondered why it was so easy for her to fall back into old patterns in one moment but not another. The answer, it turns out, had little to do with her conscious efforts at self-control.

The Science of Willpower

Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, asked himself a similar question: Why, despite our best intentions, does willpower fail? Baumeister decided that it must be because willpower is a limited resource, like oil or coal, and, like any resource, it can be depleted by using it too much or too often.

To test this notion, he asked a group of people not to eat before coming in for an experiment. He then invited each of them into a room that had a table with two bowls: one held fresh-baked cookies and the other fresh radishes. He told half the participants that they could only eat the radishes, and the other half that they could eat whatever they wanted. (Of course, all of the latter group ate the cookies!) Each participant was then asked to complete a complex and unsolvable math problem.

What did Baumeister find? Across the board, those who were allowed to eat whatever they wanted (i.e., those who did not have to inhibit their desire to eat the cookies) persevered at the math problem significantly longer than those who had had to resist the temptation of the cookies and eat the radishes. Baumeister repeated this study with a variety of depleting activities and each time he got the same results. When subjects were asked to engage in a task designed to deplete their willpower, they almost always had difficulty doing well on a subsequent task.

Based on studies such as these, Baumeister developed what he calls the self-regulatory strength model of willpower, which, in a nutshell, says that if you exert effort to resist temptation in one moment (don’t eat the cookies), you will have a much harder time resisting the next temptation (giving up on the challenging math problem).

More important, resisting impulses or stifling unwanted emotions aren’t the only ways we deplete our internal reserves. It happens anytime we engage what scientists and psychologists call executive functions—actively making choices, controlling emotions, inhibiting impulses, engaging in novel tasks, or persisting in the face of failure. Basically, tasks most of us—from stay-at-home parents to high-flying executives—are asked to do every day. The more we engage in these kinds of effortful tasks, the more we deplete our internal resources and the more we place ourselves at risk for future failures in willpower.

When I shared this with Meredith, a little light went on. She had noticed, she said, that when she was really tired or had a day in which she had to make a lot of decisions at work, she was much less likely to control her angry outbursts at her family. The question, then, was how to avoid letting the stresses of the day short-circuit what she had learned on the mat.

I invited her to view her willpower reserves like a bank account. Each activity would either add to or draw from it. Yoga practice in the morning? Deposit. Learning the new computer software system at work? Withdrawal. Mindful walk after lunch? Deposit. Inhibiting the urge to snap at cranky kids? Withdrawal. It’s not always that simple, of course, but the concept has helped Meredith take time during the day to make “renewal deposits” so she’ll have willpower currency to spend when she gets home.

The Willpower Muscle

In addition to building up our will-power reserves, asana can systematically enhance our resolve. Senior Iyengar teacher Patricia Walden says that willpower exists just as much in our physical body as in our minds. When we practice asana, we learn to hold difficult poses and to ride the waves of emotion and resistance that arise from them. This practice helps us build inner resolve and mental strength—the muscle of self-discipline, if you will.

How do we do this?

Walden suggests starting on your mat. “Make a commitment to yourself to do a particular pose and hold it for 30 seconds. This helps you build willpower.” Choose a pose that you need to work on and commit to practicing it for seven days, she says. This will give you the chance to learn not only how to complete a commitment but how to work through adversity during the practice.

Once again, science backs this up. In a different set of studies, Baumeister and his team found that the more someone practiced engaging willpower, the easier it got—not unlike using a muscle. At first your willpower can easily be depleted, just as untoned muscles weaken quickly when put to work. But through repeated use, both will get stronger. Walden offers similar advice: Use the mat as a place to practice the strengthening of your resolve and it will seep into the rest of your life. When we commit to a little bit of practice every day, we set in motion an internal resolve for our other intentions, as well.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (1.14) states, “Practice becomes firm only when done for a long period of time, with no interruption, and with respect.” Changing our deepest held habits takes patience—and time. It also takes, as we will see, a considerable dose of compassion.

Build Your Resolve on Compassion

If our first attempt to change a behavior involves skillful use of the will, the second comes after we find ourselves knee-deep in the very habit we thought we had sworn off, facing the realization that even our best willful efforts have failed. For far too many of us, this leads to self-blame or self-judgment. “I’m terrible at this!” we exclaim. “I’m such a bad yogi—I need to try harder!” I see this cycle so often, and it seems to make sense, even though my favorite yoga teachers keep telling me that change requires self-compassion and acceptance.

How can I accept something that I know I have to change? Kelly McGonigal, PhD, explores this question in her most recent book, The Willpower Instinct. To underscore the role of self-compassion in self-control, she cites a study in which two groups of dieting women were encouraged to eat donuts before being ushered into a second room where they were asked to taste-test some candy. Earlier studies had shown that once people break their diet they are more likely to continue to eat unhealthy foods, and the researchers wanted to know if self-compassion could change the equation. So they reminded one group that everyone eats too much sometimes and that it was no big deal; they didn’t say anything to the second group. The result? Those women who had been primed to cut themselves some slack ate significantly less candy—only 28 grams compared to 70 grams in the unprimed group.

“If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone,” McGonigal writes. “But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.”

For Iyengar instructor Walden, compassion underpins any practice, and when we apply it to the practice of willpower, it helps us move from an effortful, forceful exercise of will to one that’s balanced between effort and relaxation. “When people embark on changing an aspect of themselves, they’ll have days they will fall off track,” she says, “but they need to remember that no effort on the path is ever lost.” Instead of beating ourselves up, Walden advises getting “back on the wave and riding it again.”

Letting go of the blame/shame cycle actually frees up energy. Instead of wasting it on putting ourselves down for not living up to our standards, we can use it to kindly ask, “What provoked me into acting that habit out? What can I learn from what happened?” or “How can I support myself better next time?”

How do we practice this on the mat? Once you commit to a daily or weekly practice, let it be guided by kindness. Let it be a compassionate inquiry, rather than a competition with the ego. Practice learning the difference between pain (something to pull away from) and strong sensation (something to explore). Let the mat become a place to notice how you respond to your own commitments. When you commit to practicing a pose every day for a week, what happens? Are there moments when you don’t want to practice? What is your personal narrative of resistance? What feelings come up if you are unable to practice the pose one day? How do you relate to yourself? In this way asana practice supports the exploration of your relationship to willpower and inner resolve.

Whether we are on or off the mat, one thing is clear—a compassionate attitude is the foundation of self-discipline. It must be what guides the whole ship. Without it, we place ourselves at considerable risk for future failures in willpower. With it, even if we fall back into old habits, we can begin to see ourselves—and the patterns we carry around with us—with more clarity.

Clarity is what will help us break free of old negative habits altogether. Self-acceptance and a nonjudgmental attitude toward the most repetitive and deep behaviors are essential for transformation. Yet, they’re still not the end of the path. This shift to a deep acceptance, however, is the gateway to true freedom. As the Bhagavad Gita (2.59) says, “Sense objects fade for the abstinent, yet the craving for them continues; but even the craving vanishes for someone who has seen the truth.”

Surrender and Be Free

So how do we surrender without giving in—or up? Buddhist teacher Rodney Smith undertook the practice of satya, truthfulness (or samma vaca, right speech, in the Buddhist tradition) when he was a young monk. He vowed wholeheartedly to refrain from lying, and to keep track of his progress, he decided he would make a mark in his notebook each time he told a fib. One day a man he was sitting with asked him a question, and when Rodney noticed that he was lying in his response, he quickly made a mark in his book. The man asked him what he was doing, and after lying yet again—this time about what the notebook was actually about—Rodney threw the lie journal away and shifted his focus from what-not-to-do to what-to-do.

“Here’s a very different way to move forward,” he tells his students. “Just connect! And you will feel energetically when your speech is ‘right speech.’ You don’t need a lie notebook; your body tells you immediately. The sense of harmony goes away. You feel it.”

His instruction highlights two important points. First, give up the effort of not-doing and instead turn toward what you want to do. Isn’t the deeper purpose of satya or any of the yamas to feel more connected and to experience more peace of mind? Cultivate that. Get quiet. Listen. Connect. And let your actions come from there.

Not surprisingly, scientific evidence supports this approach. Lots of research has shown the limits of the “do not eat” diet, and when researchers at Laval University in Quebec changed the focus to what you should eat—without mentioning any of the nos of dieting—two-thirds of the participants lost weight and kept that weight off, even at the 16-month follow-up. When you consider that the average dieter gains the weight back 16 days after going off a diet, this is rather remarkable.

Smith’s second important insight: Focus on the body for instant feedback on whether or not you’re using your will skillfully. “The basic strategy is to connect and act from that connection,” he says. “The body is a beautiful reference for the energy of knowing if our actions are from connection or disconnection. The body is a subtle, but beautiful indicator of whether we are aligned with the heart or with the mind in that moment.”

When the effort of willpower seems too great, leading us to try too hard, perhaps a more skillful approach is to pause and connect to the body, which can guide us to our greater sense of Self. Senior Kripalu teacher Aruni Nan Futuronsky agrees. “Circumstances happen to unfold our dharma. What we need to do is breathe, relax, and allow ourselves to move through these different life events, shifting from the illusion of control over them to the surrender into them. As we allow ourselves to do this, transformation is inevitable.”

The practice of yoga helps us to remember who we are and to move toward our inner Self. As we cultivate a more wholesome state of mind and practice wholesome actions, we begin to notice that unwholesome habits fall away on their own. As the Persian poet Rumi eloquently said, “I once had a thousand desires. But in my one desire to know you all else melted away.” In our one desire to know the Self, to know our higher purpose, those actions that do not serve that sole purpose begin to dissolve, like sugar in warm water.

Move toward what inspires you. Move toward authentic connection—with yourself, with those you love, with nature, with your higher life purpose. And notice how, within that frame of connection, willpower becomes an effortless act of love.

Small Steps to Big Success

Senior Kripalu teacher and author of Already Home, Aruni Nan Futuronsky finds that change involves two tasks: being and doing. Both are equally important. She offers the following tips:

BEING. Set an overall intention or framework you would like to hold your life in. Be conscious about the values and qualities you want to emanate. For instance, do you want to be courageous or more loving?

DOING. Then develop a plan of action. Make small changes rather than large ones. Little steps are powerful. They lead to big change. If you want to be more loving, what does that look like day to day for you? Is it practicing metta meditation for 5 minutes three times a week, or making dinner for the family two nights a week? Set concrete ways that you can live your intention.

Home Practice

Willpower and self-discipline are two of the most important inner powers we possess. Through them we cultivate strength, determination, decisiveness, and the ability to do something in spite of feeling lazy, uncomfortable, or afraid. Willpower isn’t just something that exists in the mind; it lives in the body, as well. When we practice yoga, we physically demonstrate willpower through the expression of our muscles. I tell my students that willpower is the willingness to do. Whenever you go against the voice that says “I can’t” or “I’m too tired,” you charge the battery of willpower and build a reservoir of resolve to draw upon whenever you need it. Practice these five poses—standing, seated, forward bending, and backbending—at least three times a week with loving attention and affection for your body.

1. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose)

All three virabhadra (warrior) poses help us develop courage, focus, and determination to deal with life’s challenges. Virabhadrasana II combines strength in the legs, powerful action of the arms, and the lift and expansion of the ribcage, home of the heart. From a wide stance, turn your left foot in and right foot out. Bend your right leg to a right angle. Keep your left leg straight and strong. Extend your arms equally from the center of your chest through the tips of your fingers. Lift your chest away from the floor, maintaining the powerful actions of the arms. Elongate your neck and look out over your right hand. Come out of the pose when you can no longer maintain the integrity of your alignment.

2. Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

When our mind becomes scattered, it’s difficult to commit to practice. When that happens, do just one pose, one that requires muscular effort to hold. Yoga classes often begin with adho mukha shvanasana because it focuses the mind on a single task and builds the will to practice. Press your hands into the mat and extend up through your inner arms and lengthen your armpits. Lift your buttocks. Move the tops of your thighs back, straighten your legs, and bring your heels down. The synchronized action of the arms and legs elongates your spine and opens the armpits. Set a timer for 3 minutes and commit to staying in the pose until the timer goes off.

3. Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

We often move quickly through things that might hurt us—physically or emotionally. But staying the course, facing difficulty head-on, cultivates willpower. Commit to doing this pose, slowly and deliberately, once a day for a week. From adho mukha shvanasana, shift your weight forward—keeping your arms straight—so that your shoulders are over your palms. Move your buttocks toward your heels and your chest toward your head. Maintain those actions, bend your arms to form a right angle, and lower your body parallel to the floor, engaging your abdominal muscles. Come out of the pose when you can no longer maintain your alignment. If you can’t keep your shoulders off the floor, place a block underneath your pelvis.

4. Ustrasana (Camel Pose)

Develop the ability to face your fears—or the unknown—with a fierce heart. Kneel with your thighs perpendicular to the floor. Lengthen through your inner arches and press your metatarsals down. Place your hands on your hips and move your buttocks down as you lift your chest up and your back ribs in. With an exhalation, arch back enough so that your sternum is parallel to the floor. Maintain the lift of your sternum and take your hands to your feet. Press your hands into your feet, straighten your arms, and look back. Hold for a few breaths longer than you think you can.

5. Pashchimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend Pose)

Cultivate the will to be still with seated forward bends. When challenging thoughts or emotions arise, focus on slow, soft, deep exhalations. This will help you face whatever surfaces with equanimity, without coming out of the pose. Sit in dandasana (staff pose). Press your thighs down and extend through your heels. Lengthen your torso. With an exhalation, bend forward from your hips and clasp your feet. Rest your torso and head on a bolster or your legs. If you experience tightness in the hamstrings or spinal muscles, sit on a bolster and rest your head on a chair. Remain in the pose, completely relaxed, for at least 2 minutes.

About the Teacher

teacher avatar image
Angela Wilson
Angela Wilson, MA, manager of evidence-based curriculum for the Institute for Extraordinary Living at... Read more