40 Day Practices
Committing to a 40 day practice can really boost your yoga meditation practice. It can also teach you a lot about yourself and your approach to commitment.
The number 40 is considered a natural cycle of time in lots of different traditions. According to Christianity, Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. Lent is 40 days. 40 days was the period of time from Jesus’ resurrection to ascension. In Hinduism a lot of religious prayers consist of 40 verses. 40 days is also a popular period of fasting. Islam tells how Musa spent 40 days on Mount Sinai where he received the 10 Commandments. Early astronomers tracked the sun over cycles of 40 days. The ancients appear to have also revered and celebrated this cycle in the practice of religion.
In China a new mother is confined to her house for 40 days after she has given birth. Judaism speaks of a mystical practice that says one who seeks an answer to their prayers should pray the same prayer request for 40 consecutive days. Psychological research shows that personality can be changed through handwriting exercises over a period of 40 days. In terms of our physiology our skin cells on average take 40 days to renew, our red blood cells start dying from 40 days onwards and sperm count can be increased in 40 days.
In many traditions there is the belief that it takes 20 days to break old habits and 20 days to form new ones.
The tradition of Kundalini yoga places a lot of importance on committing to a 40 day practice for this very reason. It encourages you to choose a meditation or short kriya (set of exercises) that you feel drawn to, and to practice it unbroken for 40 days. If you slip up and miss day 22 for example, you have to start again.
I have undertaken a number of 40 day practices over the years – I try to do one or two each year. Some of the practices I have chosen have led to real transformation – for example people from my past popping up to allow closure. Or clarity in certain hitherto confusing situations being gained. But I think that what 40 day practices have given me most has been a chance to know myself when it comes to commitment and showing up every day. Certainly my daily meditation practice is all thanks to the hard slog of 40 day practices.
There is power in just showing up.
James Clear in his wonderful book Atomic Habits talks about the power of forming the habit of just showing up. This is why often at the end of a class I encourage everyone to congratulate themselves for it. It’s no small thing, showing up and practising once or twice or more a week. The power of commitment doesn’t come from the days we look forward to practising. It comes from the days when we can’t be bothered, when we don’t have the energy, or have something better to do. Achievement is a hard slog. What sets high achievers apart is generally not just talent but how they deal with their down days.
Crawling over the finish line.
For me a 40 day cycle usually starts with enthusiasm and a real desire to bring about change or clarity. This lasts, if I’m lucky, for about a week before boredom descends. I start toying with the idea of just stopping. What the hell? Do I really need this? Whose going to reprimand me if I stop? For days I struggle to practice and then just go through the motions. I doubt the whole process and question my sanity for believing in it. And I reflect on the little voice in the back of my mind that tells me not to quit. To keep going. I wonder if that’s my persistent, reliable side or just guilt instilled in me by my mother.
If I make it to day 30, I’ll make it to day 40. I’d love to report that I sail through those last few days but I never do. There’s always an element of “make it stop”! Sometimes when I’ve finished the practice I rejoice and give myself a pat on the back. Other times I vow never to repeat it.
But on reflection, a 40 day practice is a wondrous thing.
Aside from the gains of meditating for 40 days, it teaches you so much about yourself and how you respond to life. I’ve realised how easily I get bored. I’ve uncovered a lot of unconscious patterns that undermine my best endeavors. Self-sabotage, self-doubt, ways I reconcile giving up. I have been able to build on this understanding and create healthier habits in other areas of my life.
For example. when I give up wine for Lent, I go through the same stages. If I step out of my comfort zone and want to quit, I recognise the chorus of voices in my head. When I need to bring a project to fruition, I no longer give up when the going gets tough. I know myself, all the excuses and dodges and false reasoning. And I know that I can do it, because I have done it. I know every twist and turn of the path. And I know not to expect glory at the end, that the process is justification enough.
So I hope you will at some stage commit to a 40 day practice yourself – please get in touch if you would like suggested practices. Members of the website will find suggestions among the recordings.