Instead of a resolution this New Year, introduce a daily ritual, says Sophie Morris, who started doing yoga each morning
I got a real shock at the end of summer 2023. It was the sort of jolt that made me question everything that’s come before and all the pointlessness looming in my future. My wound, thankfully, was a professional one not personal, but it emptied out my self-worth in such a profound way that it seemed to imprint upon my DNA. I had failed, and my blood would be forever poisoned by this specific shame.
How did I begin to heal from such an injury? It was obvious neither ice-cream nor a bucket of wine would make me feel any better. And as a working mother in her forties, options I might have explored in my twenties – disappearing on holiday or into a festival – weren’t available to me. I couldn’t even run away for a single night given the demands of the school run.
Nor did I want to angrily throw all of my crockery against a wall (it’s in a bad enough state already). What, then, would fix me? A daily ritual carried me from one dawn to the next.
As everyone bleats about resolutions as a new year arrives, I suggest that people try a ritual instead. Where resolutions smack of rules and regulations, of giving something up, rituals speak of layers of comfort, of evolution and growth, an invitation to explore ourselves rather than a test to pass or fail.
Adopting a ritual
“A daily calming ritual is a repetitive and intentional practice designed to bring you calm, joy, and reduce the stress and anxiety of daily life,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Kirren Schnack, whose wisdom in this area helps half a million TikTok followers. “Establishing regular rituals that are nourishing and calming for you helps shift your body from the anxiety stress response, commonly known as the fight-flight response, to the relaxation response,” says Dr Schnack.
Looking for a new ritual, I decided to search YouTube for a yoga practice for self-care. At first it felt pathetically inadequate for how rubbish I felt, but, nevertheless, I forced myself to pull my limbs through the motions. Did I feel better at the end? I certainly didn’t feel worse.
The next day, I committed to a daily – short – yoga practice, Yoga with Adriene, who you may well have heard of. Adriene Mishler is an American yoga teacher from Austin, Texas, who in January 2015 posted her first ‘30 Days of Yoga with Adriene’ on YouTube. Since then, her popularity has grown steadily around the world, spiking during the pandemic when so many of us were looking for support and structure in our daily lives. She now has over 12 million YouTube subscribers and posts a new month-long video series at the start of each year.
I’m not new to yoga. However, after a series of operations and giving birth, I lost a lot of my upper body strength, and found it frustrating that every time I got back on the mat, probably only once a week or fortnight, I could not get back to my previous strength.
When I got to the end of the first 30 days, I went again. And again. I kept up my daily yoga (Adriene’s videos are mostly under half an hour) because it was something I could feel half decent about each day, whatever else happened. I toyed with missing days, and found I preferred not to but could, if there was a really good reason. I discovered my neighbour is also tuning into Adriene first thing each morning, and I thought of us doing it in tandem.
I benefited from the brief daily practice in all sorts of ways, from better concentration and sleep to hugely improved upper body strength. After a few days of Adriene I could plank and tree and do all the dogs as well as I ever could. I’m not trying to win at yoga; that’s not how it works. But nor can I fail. Instead, I can give myself the ritual of getting on the mat each day
This is what I believed really helped me in this period – the ritual of a repeated action. Whether yoga, breathing exercises, a walk, or eating the same breakfast at the same time every day.
A fascinating study from the University of Toronto sheds light on why I might have found the ritual so helpful early on, when it was asking a fair amount of me. “A puzzling feature of many rituals is that they require a person to invest time and energy into completing the actions,” states the study. “Why do people engage in these behaviours, often repeatedly and over a lifetime, if they reveal no direct benefit to the self?”
The answer? The 2017 research found that “rituals decrease the response to performance failure”. Somehow, the fact that I was getting on the yoga mat every day, helped me to feel like less of a failure in other areas. “Rituals are human universals and can be thought of as formal sequences characterised by rigidity and repetition that are embedded in a larger system of meaning,” explains the study. “Generally the findings are consistent with the longstanding view that ritual buffers against uncertainty and anxiety. Our results indicate that ritual regulates the brains’ response to personal failure.”
What surprises me when I talk to Dr Kirren about ritual, is how small, simple, and effective they can be. If the idea of a daily yoga practice makes you want to go into hibernation, find something that suits you. “There are so many rituals,” says Dr Schnack, author of Ten Times Calmer: Beat Anxiety and Change Your Life (Bluebird £16.99), which was published in late 2023. “The key is to choose those that bring a sense of calm, peace, and wellbeing to you.”
She explains how the smallest of daily rituals can make you feel better. Her evening rituals include organising bags and clothes and food for the next day, so that she can look forward to her evening. When she walks her dogs, she takes time to notice small details in nature, such as springy moss or a patch of ice.
“Aside from these practical rituals, I try to write out what I call a ‘joy bubble’ daily,” she says. “It’s just a drawing of a bubble in my special notebook, with something written in it that brought me joy that day or a joy I witnessed in something or someone else.” Want to start your own? Follow Dr Kirren Schnack’s ideas to get started with your own daily ritual
Brief morning meditation
Focus on your breath, practise mindfulness, or use guided meditation to set a positive tone for the day. You can also just sit and listen to the sounds around you for a minute, and build up to a longer duration.
Write an affirmation that inspires you, makes you feel good, brings you calm, and helps you experience the emotions you want. Begin or end your day by repeating this as a daily affirmation.
Connect with nature
Spend a few minutes connecting with nature. This could be a short walk, or observing the sunrise or sunset. If it’s hard to get started just commit to doing a one minute walk, or one sunset a week.
Take time to journal your thoughts, feelings, and reflections. Try to establish the habit of gratitude by reflecting on things you are thankful for each day. Or write out a daily ‘joy bubble’.
Create a calming bedtime routine, you can start with one thing and build on it from there, this might include reading a book, gentle stretching, listening to a podcast while enjoying a warm cup of tea in your favourite mug.
Dedicate a specific period before bedtime as tech-free time. Avoid screens and do calming activities that help you relax.
Ten Times Calmer: Beat Anxiety and Change Your Life by Dr Kirren Schnack is published by Bluebird, £16.99