The first day Rosie pooped on the office floor was probably a reaction to change. 

That’s what the vet said.

My husband was also pretty sure. The night before he’d taken away one of the two litter boxes. 

For the first few weeks after adopting Rosie, our other cat Abby insisted that she stay in the basement. We got a second litter box and had one upstairs and one down, so that everyone had their own.

After the cats became friends, my husband slowly moved the upstairs box toward the downstairs box. Like one foot every three days. Eventually both litter boxes were next to each other. It had been three months of domestic cat bliss. So they can use the same box right? My husband took one box away. 

Next morning, a giant stinking wet poop in the middle of the office. 

He put the litter box back. 

Stress Reactions Become Habits

But the next morning – another poop on the floor. And the next. And the next. 

The vet said the first poop was probably a reaction to the change. All the other days have been a kind of compulsive habit. She can’t help herself.

I believe it. She doesn’t look defiant about the bad behaviour, as cats sometimes do. She’s frantically scratching the floor all around her mess, as though she wants to bury it. 

Yoga for Habit Change

This got me thinking about why it’s so hard for people to  change habits. In a recent anxiety workshop with yoga therapist, Melissa Holt, I learned two things about using yoga for habit change:

  1. Antidepressants can cure a chemical imbalance and lift your mood, but they don’t alter your habits.
  2. Our most harmful habits are ingrained because we formed them in childhood. 

Melissa illustrated her points by pointing to her bald head.

Antidepressants were so successful at lifting her mood and removing the anxiety around her high-pressure job, that she went back to it for another four years. Then  she developed alopecia, an autoimmune disease caused by stress or trauma. 

But even losing all her hair wasn’t enough to make her slow down. In fact, it took a worldwide lockdown to force her to  rest. It was during this forced rest, that she turned to yoga and finally figured out how to change the habits that were causing her anxiety.

Why? Because she learned in childhood that if she didn’t go, go, go all the time there wouldn’t be any money. The water or power might get shut off. People would get angry.

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At the Addiction Recovery Centre

I realized that’s kind of what I’m talking about at the addiction treatment centre where I volunteer with Yoga Outreach

In my little opening speech, I tell the people in recovery that yoga was the final piece to the puzzle of my depression and anxiety. 

Antidepressants and therapy helped a lot. But for the day to day stuff– being late for work, an argument with my mother, traffic jams – it’s yoga that gets me through.

Before Yoga

Before yoga, my habit was to whisper the word “smoke” to myself every time I had an uncomfortable thought. 

Later in the evening, I’d smoke a joint and wipe those feelings away. In the meanwhile, I reprimanded myself as cruelly as possible. “You’re always late. You’re useless. What’s the matter with you? You have no respect for anything.” 

Medication didn’t take away my stressors. And it didn’t erase my habitual responses to stressors either. My parents’ bickering still made me feel stressed. My husband still said obnoxious things that made me rage. I was still late for work and still felt guilty about it.

After Yoga 

The antidepressants didn’t remove the groove of self-recrimination I’d worn into my brain. Though they were a bit of a rope around my waist, preventing me from falling all the way in. 

But all the asana trained me to notice that those thoughts matched with sensations in my body. 

Instead of whispering smoke, I’d pay attention to my sweaty scalp, or crawling skin, or stomach cramps. 

I’d still hate those feelings, but I’d know that I could ease them a little by paying attention to them and breathing.

I was late for work already. I didn’t have a time machine. I can’t control how my parents talk to each other. And I can’t stop my husband for saying ridiculous things sometimes. 

All I could do was notice that uncomfortable feelings made me want to smoke weed and disappear. And breathing through the uncomfortable feelings also made them disappear.

Eventually – and I’m talking eight years – I gave up smoking weed all together. 

Habits are tools for coping

When I finally quit properly, I found it surprisingly easy. By then my yoga tools – my yoga habits – had finally become more useful than getting stoned. 

For one they were available to me all the time, not just alone on my balcony in the evenings. For another, my yoga tools allowed me to connect with people, go out, exercise, try new things, start a business – all things I’d had to give up when smoking weed was my only coping tool. 

Cats Can’t Use Yoga for Habit Change

I can’t teach my cat yoga. 

The vet confirms this. 

He also says cats and their habits are complicated. For now, we’re keeping the office door closed, on advice from the vet. (How did we not think of this?!) 

And we put an overturned box on her pooping spot. And it seems to be working. 

Except for the times I forget and leave the door open. Then she’s right back in there, compulsively scratching an imaginary hole in the floor. 

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