Forty days or bust. And unfortunately, I was in the latter of the two. Last summer, before starting my first year at the University, my mom and I trekked through the backroads of Boone, N.C. for a weekend of mountaintop breathing.
During our meditation retreat, we rose early for sunrise yoga and finished our nights exhausted from intense breathwork sessions. We spent hours on end practicing Sudarshan Kriya Yoga — a 30-minute, three-part breathing routine. Our teacher, Nupoor, explained the psychological and physiological benefits of implementing this practice into our daily routines. They ranged from reducing anxiety to improving sleep. As a result, she challenged us to complete SKY for a minimum of 40 days in a row. According to Nupoor, only then would we see the benefits of our new practice.
As someone who already has trouble relaxing, the 40-day goal seemed like the perfect way to circumvent the relaxation piece and still get that rush of dopamine from achieving a difficult goal. If I could spend over 30 minutes on my phone daily, I certainly had time in my day to do this practice. I came out of that weekend committed to doing my 40 days — my eyes were on the prize.
I started off strong. Each morning before I ate breakfast and would complete my practice. Then, I would go about my day satisfied with my small win. Yet, as nighttime rolled around, I would lay in my bed wondering what would happen if a day got too busy and I couldn’t do my breathing. I found that the fear of failure, which I commonly associated with my schoolwork, was creeping into a routine that, ironically, was supposed to alleviate some of that anxiety.
As my days got busier, I avoided my practice. At the end of the night, my three-step routine was the last thing I wanted to do. Eventually, before 40 days passed, I stopped and never started again. I was so focused on the 40-day marker that when I failed to reach it, I was paralyzed by guilt and shame. I spiraled into a negative feedback loop that left me wondering what the point of the 40 days was in the first place.
Upon reflection, I realized 40 days to me meant consistency or, in a more extreme sense, perfection — anything less was utter failure. And yet, while ruminating on my newest failure, I noticed a pattern in my behavior. I was so attached to these arbitrary numerical expectations that any misstep wouldn’t just be a hurdle to overcome but instead a disqualifying action, one that would always leave me stranded.
These numbers were standards that I needed to meet in order to feel successful and accomplished in my day. And when I didn’t meet my daily goals, I genuinely felt lost — I still do sometimes. I put so much energy into living up to my standards that when I fell short, I felt depleted.
Simply put, while my dogged determination is something I value about myself, it is also paradoxically what holds me back from fully living. My tunnel vision of sorts robs me of the agency within each day. Even in my writing, my poetry professor noted that “the main impediment preventing [my] paper from reaching its full potential is not always seeing the forest for the trees.” By getting stuck in the logistics — be it the schedule, the deadline or the expectations — I tend to lose the beauty of the bigger picture.
Within my perceived failure, I started to realize the bigger picture of my meditation experience. The dense and tangled forest of the 40 days was obscuring the essence of what I now know meditation to be. Meditation is about noticing when your thoughts arrive and compassionately returning to your breath seconds after. At its core, meditation requires flexibility of the mind.
Juxtaposed against my instructor’s 40-day requirement as well as my own fixed standards, I realized that being content not meditating daily was the only way I’d truly capture the power of the meditative mindset. Within this peace of mind, I came to realize that neglecting my practice one day does not preclude me from resuming it the next.
After realizing this about myself, I noticed how pervasive my all-or-none attitude was in all aspects of my life. When I skipped a day at the gym, I immediately felt overwhelmed with guilt. Two weeks later, that guilt persisted and I couldn’t even fathom entering the Aquatic and Fitness Center for a workout. The same applied to my classes — if I neglected to do a reading, I swirled in the shame of not being the perfect student. In a similar vein, two weeks later, I had two weeks of reading to catch up on and midterms approaching.
It is so easy to get bogged down in the could’ves, should’ves and would’ves of the past, but what I am coming to realize is that those “failures” only have power if we give them a space in our minds to fester. When we choose to let our minds accept normal missteps, we can finally embrace the agency of the present.
Consistency is an important skill to develop, but I think it is important that we all understand that consistency doesn’t rely on perfection. Instead, the real magic happens when we aren’t paralyzed by our expectations or past grievances. Then and only then can we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the goals we are passionate about reaching.
So, next time you miss that leg day, forget to do a reading or miss that 40-day benchmark, forgive yourself, hit refresh and realize every day is a new day to start over in the way that is best for you. I’m going to go meditate because I can, not because I should — what about you?