What do Rats, Starbucks and Marshmallow’s have in common?

In short, they all play on the power of habit.

Do you ever walk into a Starbucks and ask yourself why you so happily fork-over $6 bucks for a Vanilla Latte? When in fact, you could easily fulfill your daily dose of caffeine at the local coffee house down the block for a fraction of the cost.
The answer Starbucks says is customer service. It is seeing your name on the cup or the friendly smile you get when the lovely barista hands over your caffeinated beverage. As Charles Duhigg explains in his book, The Power of Habit, Starbucks is playing with the habit loop, where the cue is a want for coffee; the action is the purchase of the beverage; and the reward is the feeling you get after receiving that friendly smile.

But why you ask am I writing about Starbucks in an essay meant for Yoga? While I dare not say that the Starbucks example is an illustration of Karma Yoga (action without intention) or Karma (incomplete pattern), I do believe it holds some illustrations of the “karmic elements”. Today, I was taught by Paalu Ramasamy (Senior Yoga Master Teacher at Tirisula Yoga) that a karmic pattern is a collection of actions. And that for a karmic pattern to be classified as karmic, it must encompass 5 elements: Action, Intention, Reaction, Outcome and Feedback. Thus in our Starbucks example, we might say that the Intention is coffee, the Action is the purchase, the Outcome is a smile, the Reaction is a good feeling and the Feedback is I will come back again tomorrow.

This being said, a habit is not a pattern; a pattern is of a higher scale than that of a habit. Dr. Wendy Wood states that 40 to 45 percent of our decisions are habits. How is this possible you might ask? Let me answer your question with an experiment conducted by Professor Ann Braybiel. Ann and her team took rats and placed millions of sensors on their heads. After, each rat was putt in a simple T-shaped maze, with a chocolate bit at the end of one of the T’s sides. At first, the rat in the experiment exhibited very high neurological firings while looking for the chocolate but after conducting the experiment for 13 minutes, the readings start to show that the rat is thinking less! So much so, that the value is the same as if it were asleep! That is, each time the rat is placed at the beginning of the T it automatically goes to where the chocolate is in a dream-like state. The rat hears a cue, the sound the latch lifting at the beginning of the T, which fires up the rat’s intention “to get chocolate”; the rat then conducts the action and receives its reward. The rat has conducted this action so many times that it becomes a pattern.

In order to form a habit and turn it into a pattern one must have willpower. Which brings me to marshmallows! Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with children and marshmallows. A child was put in a room and sat in front of a plate with a marshmallow. The child was then told that if he did not eat the marshmallow, he would be given a second one (after 10 min). Only 10-15 percent of children were able to retain from eating the marshmallow and gain the 2nd marshmallow. The interesting part is that many years later the researchers went back and contacted the participants. It was found that those kids who were able to stop themselves from eating the marshmallow were more “successful” in life. They were staying in their marriages, they had good careers and were generally healthier. These children were in some way aware of their habits: their cues, action and rewards. Because of this, they were able to develop willpower in life through forming good habits. Which leads me to two points that were discussed during our lecture on yoga and karma. 1) One event can demonstrate different patterns. Most times when people exercise they also eat right and sleep right and generally take better care of their bodies, which brings about a lot more positive habits. Thus, one event can lead to other patterns 2) It is important to learn good habits and routines at a young age. A habit, will lead to a pattern, which will affect your life, so it is best to develop positive ones at a young age.

The purpose of this essay is not to describe karma yoga or to try to explain it for I do not have the proper understanding. And it is of course incorrect to say that a corporation or a rat can hold karma yoga. It is merely to explain some of the ideas that popped into my head during our lecture where karma, patterns and habits were discussed.

Lastly, in the Power of Habit the take-away message is to form good habits by focusing on the cue and the reward. For example, if we want to train ourselves to go for a run every morning, we might place our trainers next to our bed. The cue would be to see the trainers first thing. The action is to go for a run. And say we give ourselves a reward by promising ourselves that every time we run we get to watch 30 minutes of TV. Yoga teaches us that we must not focus on the reward; we can recognize it but not become ATTACHED. So once again yoga theory takes us one step further.

Mariana (200hr TTC Sep 2014)

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