A few nights ago, I was reading a few books to Milly in bed as part of her nighttime (please go to sleep so mommy can have a few moments to herself) ritual.
Actually, I love reading books to Milly. My parents read books to me, as well as chapters of bigger books to me when I got older. I know it turned me on to becoming a voracious reader but I also loved that time spent cuddling with them before falling asleep.
I also love stories. I love reading stories to Milly and I also love making up stories using inspiration from whatever I can find like rocks she picks up on our walks or a beloved stuffed animal. Story telling is one of my favorite forms of creative expression.
So the other night I was reading “The Little Engine That Could” to Milly. It’s a current favorite of hers and although the book was written almost a century ago, the story is a powerful one. All of the great stories are timeless.
If you’re unfamiliar with this book, the basic premise is this:
A train carrying toys and food (and a creepy-looking clown) breaks down. The toys and the clown try to enlist other engines coming into the yard to help pull them over the mountain so the girls and boys on the other side will have toys to play with and good food to eat (no clue what happens to the clown, though. This is possibly the most unsettling part of the story).
All of the engines they ask refuse them, giving lame excuses such as “I’m too important,” or “I’m too old,” or “I’m too tired.”
Finally, our hero, the little blue engine comes chugging along. Even though she’s small and has never even been out of the train yard, she volunteers.
Here’s the coolest thing about the story:
She has a MANTRA.
Now if you’re unfamiliar with the term “mantra,” it’s a Sanskrit word or phrase that is repeated consistently to help with concentration, determination, or to evoke a certain quality or feeling within the person saying it. A mantra can be said out loud or silently.
If we take the word apart and study it from it’s parts (which I love to do because I am a word nerd), we have the 2 words “Man” and “tra.”
Man meand to think or a thought; tra refers specifically to a loom, but can also be considered a tool or a machine. So a mantra is a loom for your thoughts. Or a mantra is a thinking machine. Or mantra is a device to direct your thoughts, aka a helpful tool for intention setting.
That’s pretty cool.
This is what the Little Blue Engine does. She employs a device to help her think she is capable of this huge undertaking – something she’s never done before. She repeats this mantra over and over and over. If you’re reading this to yoyr kids and you say it over and over, the sound of the mantra actually sounds like a train chugging and building speed.
Of course the Little Blue Engine manages to go over the mountain to deliver the food and toys. She even has a post-accomplishment mantra, “I thought I could.”
This is the kind of attitude I want my kids to have.
Hell, this is the kind of attitude I aspire to have.
I think most people would want this mantra to be a part of their every day attitude.
Instead, we tend to say this, “I want to think I can.” “I might be able to.” “I’m not sure if I can.” “Hmm…I don’t know if I can. That seems hard. I guess I’ll try.”
The power of mantra is real.
If you even have the slightest uncertainty, it’s more likely you will fail or not get as far as you hope or “let yourself down.”
I mean how many times have you said to yourself, “I want to stop yelling at my kids, but it’s just so hard?”
I say this pretty much every day.
When it comes to habit change, if you want to change a behavior, you have to commit to it fully. There’s no “kind of” if you want to shift an unhelpful or less ideal behavior. There is only, “I can. I will. Here’s how.”
So for example, “I want to feel more rested” has to become an action that you can adopt and that YOU BELIEVE you can adopt.
You also have to WANT to adopt the new habit or action or behavior.
If you don’t, it’s also bound to fail.
I’ve experienced this in action on the mat and off.
For a long time, I wanted to do handstand without a wall behind me but I really didn’t think I could. Plus, I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t find balance. Every time I tried, I’d not quite make it.
Eventually, those tiny little cracks in my mantra sealed and instead of “I want to think I can,” I started believing, “I think I can, I know I can.” And now I can. And I do.
There are still plenty of other poses and transitions in my yoga practice that have more doubt than certainty. Mental fortitude and faith aren’t the only 2 things that can lead to success. Practice and perseverance play major roles in success. So does having the physical strength in certain circumstances. Timing can also make a difference in accomplishing some goals.
“I think I can” obviously doesn’t work for everything. There are some things you might want badly that no mantra in the world will help you achieve.
Right now, this mantra is on heavy rotation for me. I’m beginning week 3 of solo parenting. Week 3 of 9 before we get to see Nathan again, but honestly it’s week 3 in what could be almost a year of solo parenting, some of which will happen in a new, unfamiliar place. (I think I can). In week 9, I will get on a plane with 2 kids under 4. (I think I can). I will then fly back and deal with a little girl who just had a taste of life with daddy again, only to have it ripped away too quickly. (I think I can). I will then start making preparations to sell our house. (I think I can). I will continue to teach my classes and build my coaching business even though I’m only making enough to pay the babysitter. (I think I can). I will make sure that my kids get outside at least once a day. (I think I can). I will still wake up early every morning so I have some quiet time for myself to start my day with clarity and with the healthy action of moving my body because this is essential for my sanity. (I think I can). I will be in my bed every night at 10pm because getting sleep is self- care and self-care matters. (I think I can).
I will do my best, because my best is all I’ve got.
I think I can. I know I can.
“I will,” said the little yoga mama that could.
Some Strategies for Effective Mantras~
1. Keep it Simple:
You want your mantra to be something that is easy to remember and familiar. I like to keep my mantras under 5 words. 3 is even better. Short and sweet will help you be more clear and effective. My favorite mantra is in sanskrit and it’s “so ham,” which translates as “I am that.” Doesn’t get simpler than that!
2. Consider the Goal:
What are you aiming for? Simone Biles famously has a pre-event mantra which she says every single time before she competes. She says, “you’ve got this.” Every single time.
Many years ago, I remember reading a story about a successful female marathoner who had a homestretch mantra every time she was hitting a wall in her race. She’d say, “just keep going.”
A mantra can be something you repeat in a short period of time to emphasize your goal or it can be a one-time phrase that you say when you are in need of a boost or a reminder of your ability, like these 2 athletes.
I actually use the “Blies” almost every day as a parent, especially in the moments that I want to burst into tears because my kids are driving me insane and I want to give them away to the next person who will take them, instead I take a deep breath and say, “you’ve got this.”
3. Second that Emotion:
How do you want to feel? Calm? Pumped up? Reassured? Joyful?
Use your mantra to help guide you towards that emotion. When I am feeling overwhelmed or stressed out as a mom, I turn to a very simple mantra. I repeat the words, “I am enough,” with one hand on my heart and one hand on my belly. It’s a sweet reminder that even when mom life is raging out of control and I feel completely unfit to parent, I am enough. It’s grounding and reassuring.
4. Pick a word.
Using the ideas presented above, pick a single word to guide your mantra. Your word might be goal-based or emotion-based. It should evoke a quality that you wish to embody, something you are currently lacking or in need of. To give the word a more personal and intentional approach, add the phrase, “I am” before your chosen word.
5. When in doubt, slogan up!
“Just do it” is a memorable slogan. “Just breathe,” is another. You can use a slogan that speaks to you. Or even just a bit of a song or song title like, “Be Here Now,” a mantra I use from time to time.
Whatever mantra you choose, remember it’s not set in stone. Mantras are easy to switch up or reuse as needed. Take a hint from the Little Blue Engine and use a mantra to support you in the moments in which you are in need.