After most babies speak their first words — variations on mom or dad — what do you think they commonly say next?
A survey of 11,000 moms found that the seventh most common first word of English-speaking babies was “no.”
An overachiever at an early age, my first words were “I don’t wanna.” Take that, babies!
Fortunately, I’ve spent the past five years awakening my brain from its habitual retreat into the world of “no” by practicing yoga and meditation. Why? Because let’s be honest (LBH), saying “no” has implications far greater than simply declining to eat tomatoes as a kid.
Saying “no” too much limits your potential to be happy.
Sometimes, no is beneficial. Like when your dog is trying to sneak food off the table (mine goes crazy for hummus) or when you stop a child from running into the middle of a busy intersection. These are “no” no-brainers.
The kind of “no” I’m talking about here is the “no” you tell yourself. Our internal world of “no” is one without possibility. It means new opportunities or changes are not to be trusted, and therefore avoided. It means rejection and disapproval and even fear.
No is controlling — inhibiting our own behavior as well as the behavior of others.
For too many of us, “no” is our default, but it’s not our fault. In fact, the odds are stacked against us.
We’re primed to say “no”
I’m currently reading Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within. I know, this book was written in 1991, so the examples in it are a little dated, but it’s still well worth the read. So I cited the following in my yoga classes today, per the book:
There are 750,000 words in the English language. Of those, Tony counts about 1,000 positive emotion words and 2,000 negative emotion words. Linguists say that the average person’s vocabulary consists of 2,000 to 10,000 words. That means not only do we use 1/2 of 1 to 2 percent of the language, but we use twice as many negative words to describe our experiences than positive.
So here’s the 2012 update: According to a Google/Harvard study, the number of words in the English language is more than 1 million. This study used Google Books to analyze vocabulary used from between 1800 to 2008. I’m pretty sure LBH is not in that library.
So with those additional words, did our culture get more positive or negative? I ran a simple search on the proliferation of the words “no” vs. “yes” in the books cataloged by Google.
“Yes” (red) is virtually nonexistent compared to “no” (blue). And “no” seemed to be on the decline until 2000. Book marketers either got smart about tapping into our negative tendencies, or we’re starting to become more pessimistic.
The former may be true, but my bet’s on the latter. Products that sell follow demand.
You have the power to say “yes”
But here’s the exciting part. In a world of “no,” you can rewire your brain to say “yes.”
Even if you can’t immediately change the circumstances that are causing you to default to “no” — let’s say you’re overworked, not getting enough sleep, not eating well or feeling stuck – you can, right at this moment, make one small change.
You can change the words you use to describe your experience.
You can replace the 2,000 negative words with the 1,000 positive words that deserve more attention. For a complete list of these, see pages 216-218 and 220-222 in Awaken the Giant Within. Or Google it.
If we can program ourselves to use our turn signals (remember how hard it was to initially remember if up or down meant left or right?) and recite the Apostles’ Creed (I still can’t do it unless others are saying it, too) and capitalize the first word of every sentence – if we can automate and outsource parts of our brain to often meaningless tasks (except the turn signal, I’m looking at you, dad) then changing a couple of measly words in your everyday self talk is within reach.
The best part? It can make you happier.
Step 1: Start flipping your script.
Instead of saying “I can’t do it,” say “I get to do it.” There are a lot of things we tell ourselves we can’t do because we’re scared to try.
Like yoga, for example. I hear the following all the time as an excuse why someone won’t try yoga: “I’m not flexible. I’ve never been flexible. I’ve tried to become flexible, and it didn’t work.”
Flip the script: “I have the opportunity to be flexible if I dedicate myself to the possibility, and inevitability, of being flexible.”
When you were a child and you were learning how to read, did you stop reading after one sentence and suddenly declare yourself a brilliant reader? Well, your teacher probably encouraged you, but it was only after reading lots and lots of books that reading became second nature.
Inevitable. Possible. These are your best friends if you’re tired of feeling like the world of “no” is controlling you, instead of you controlling your world.
It may sound like I’m advising you to erase “no” from your vocabulary. Far from. In fact, sometimes you have to say no. When your energy is tapped or when doing something goes against your values, it’s your duty to protect yourself and “just say no.” (I’m pretty sure I wrote an anti-drugs speech in fifth grade on this phrase.)
The goal is to turn negative self-talk into affirmations by using more of those 1,000 positive words to focus on the goodness of you and what you’d like to bring into your life – not what you’d like to keep out.
It’s the law of attraction: like attracts like. If you want to be happier, start using happier words.
One of the safest places you can practice saying “yes” to happy is on your yoga mat.
Step 2: Use yoga to practice positive self-talk.
Your 72″ x 24″ stick mat is your haven. It’s a place where you get to step on, spend some quality time with yourself and step off a different person. And it can take as little as an hour every week.
This “me time” is valuable, and it’s worth saying “no” to some things in your life so that you can make time for it.
Let’s go right to the source by practicing one of the most “no”-filled poses in yoga: Paschimottanasana, Seated Forward Bend. If your hamstrings are tight, this pose can make you feel a flood of negative emotions because, LBH, none of us like to be teased that we can’t touch our toes.
So start by adjusting your expectations. Don’t make the toes your goal. Make self love your goal. Love wherever you body ends up in the pose, because the fact is, you get to do it! And the more you do it, the more flexible you’ll become.
If you’re already quite bendy, investigate how you really feel about this pose as you hold it. Do you still feel like you’re not as far along as you should be? Are you integrating all of the following steps or relying on your natural mobility, and thereby letting some muscles slack off and not get the full benefit?
How to happily do Paschimottanasana, Seated Forward Bend
- Optional, but wonderful for tight hammys: Sit on the edge of a folded up blanket or a cushion. You can also use a strap, towel or belt to loop around your feet for more leverage.
- Extend your legs straight in front of you. Straighten them as best you can and root your legs into the ground.
- Use your hands to internally rotate one thigh and then the other.
- Flex your toes back toward your face.
- Inhale and extend your arms above your head.
- Exhale and, leading with your chest, begin to fold over your legs. Let your hands come down wherever they land – toes, shins, thighs.
- Remind yourself that this is a judgment-free zone!
- If your back begins to round, inhale and lift the chest to lengthen the spine. Maintain a broadened chest with your shoulder blades flat on the back. Think of tilting your pelvis forward, like a bowl spilling water.
- Stay in this comfortable stretch for 2 minutes, gently inhaling and slightly lifting the chest, and exhaling and deepening the stretch as you feel your leg muscles release.
What words do you plan on “unlearning?” Let me know in the comments.