Yoga for Happiness
On this path, no effort is wasted,
No gain is ever reversed;
Even a little of this practice
Will shelter you from great sorrow.
-Bhagavad Gita, 2.40
I have been practicing yoga for 22 years now, and I often tell people that yoga is my "saving grace." What do I mean by that? I mean that yoga consistently helps me stay calmer, be a nicer spouse, be a better parent, feel at peace with myself and my life, and experience happiness and joy. This truth is confirmed by modern research as well as by the ancient texts.
Recently, I watched a documentary called Happy. (It is available via Netflix and you can check out the website for this film here.) The movie follows people all over the world from the slums of Calcutta, to the swamps of Louisiana to downtown Tokyo and illustrates what researchers on happiness have discovered. As it turns out, 50% of happiness is genetic. That is, people seem to come into this world a feeling that their cup is either half full or half empty. Surprisingly, only 10% of happiness is related to circumstances, that is, how much money a person has or doesn't have, material possessions and easy or challenging life circumstances. The remaining 40% of happiness due to our actions. That is, we can take action to create happiness for ourselves.
These are the actions listed in the movie that contribute to states of happiness:
* spending time in nature
* engaging in physical activity (such as yoga asana)
* engaging in "flow" activity. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. (such as yoga asana, or music, or research)
* surrounding oneself with friends and family
* service, helping others (seva, in yoga terms)
* engaging in practices focused on states of compassion, happiness and well-being, including mindfulness and meditation
* performing random acts of kindness
* focusing on one's blessings
I fall into the category of coming into this life with my cup "half anxious"; that is, I don't consider myself a melancholy person, but I have struggled with worry and anxiety all my life and I have a family history of depression and anxiety. I was lucky to learn yoga in my early twenties, and this practice has saved me and continues to save me daily!
Indeed most yoga practitioners experience early on how yoga practices such as asana, meditation, svadhyaya (self study) and service (seva) contribute to positive mental states. This is now confirmed by research on the effects of yoga on long term practitioners. Physiological benefits that contribute to happiness include: decrease in cortisol (stress hormone), increase in GABA levels (primary inhibitory neurotransmitter), increase in alpha and theta waves, relaxation of chronic muscle tension, the calming of sympathetic nervous system and activation of parasympathetic nervous system. Psychologically, yoga helps elevate mood, develop greater self awareness, cultivate equanimity in the face of life's challenges and lesson symptoms of depression. (For details on yoga for depression, visit Amy Weintrab's website: http://yogafordepression.com/)
Although every human being will experience challenging circumstances and emotions, our true nature is neither depressed, nor anxious. When we are connected to our true Self, we experience joy. Yoga is means of on-goingly creating and strengthening this connection. By practicing yoga, we can take steps to create more happiness in our lives, and for spreading more happiness in the world.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti!
_Yoga is skill in Action
The New Year is a time of new beginnings, a time for reflection, review and re-prioritization as we chart our course for the upcoming year. I have been re-reading the Bhagavad Gita and am choosing this text for my teaching theme for Winter 2013. The following quotes from the text strike me as powerful reminders for the upcoming year.
“Yoga is skill in action.”
The word yoga comes from yuj, to yoke, to unite, to connect. Yoga is to yoke your mind, body and heart, to connect to the deepest truth of who you ultimately are. Yoga also is action, practices that you do both on the mat and off the mat. When you establish a clear connection with your deepest core and act from that place, that is yoga, skill in action.
So, now that it is now 2013, how are you choosing to act and what are your actions? How are you consciously yoking your mind, body, and heart together? With what care and attention are acting? What is important to you? What actions are you choosing to take? What actions are you choosing not to take? For even in-action is a form of action.
“No one, for even an instant, can exist without acting.”
Everything you do or don’t do is an action, and every action begets other actions and consequences. Therefore, choose be present. Prioritize what is important. Connect to yourself and to others. Act with care whether you are preparing a meal, reading to a child, responding to an email or practicing asana. When you are connected to your true self, then your actions are skillful, precise, exactly what is needed in any situation.
When you find you have not acted skillfully, there is no need to reprimand yourself. Simply return to the practices and tools that help you come back to yourself once again. Pause, soften, breathe. Come back to your breath again. This is yoga, the repetition of practices that yoke, elevate and liberate. Re-set yourself and begin again. Ahhh... new breath... new year!
__ Yoga and Mythology.. This Autumn season’s teaching focuses on Indian mythology. The Indian subcontinent is home to a rich, complex mythology woven together from numerous ideas, lineages, and the intermixing of cultures over the millennia and is recorded in the sacred texts and Sanskrit epics including the Vedas, and the Puranas. There are multitudes of gods, goddesses, demons and other fantastical creatures, characters, and realms that represent the full spectrum of consciousness on the relative (earthly) and the transcendental (other worldly) level. Many of these myths and symbols are little known to many in the West. They warrant our attention and study as they offer a vital lens for comprehending and experiencing our own lives. Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, outlined four major functions of myths: awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being, explaining the shape of the universe, validating and supporting the social order, and guiding the individual through the stages of life.
Yoga invites us to interact with myths in an “embodied” way, as we take up the themes and characters in the myths sensing and experiencing in a visceral way, the truth that the myths reveal about ourselves.
The characters and circumstances empower, prod, astonish and shock as they bestow upon us questions worthy of our contemplation. They pull up the hidden concealed aspects of ourselves, the stuff we don't always want to look at, and place them on the table so that we are forced to attend to them and integrate these aspects into our whole.
These myths touch deep chords as they reveal a collective consciousness that reflects our shared humanity as well as our shared divinity. The central yogic theme that abides in Indian mythology which is distinct from myths from the West is that all things are part of a Greater Whole. All beings and things, from the gods and demons, through humans, on to the smallest pebble, are part of the One. All of the myths and all of the characters in the myths point back to ourselves and to our relationship to the Great Mystery, that force that expresses itself as everything and as me.
“We're still drawn to stories that transform the world -- and ourselves.” - Laura Miller In the words of Joseph Campbell, "mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of reason and coercion.. . the first function of mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe as it is."
And, besides all this, these myths entertain, delight and astonish. This season, we will explore several myths with deities including the Trimurti (trinity) of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Ganesha, the elephant headed God, Remover of Obstacles; Lakshmi, Goddess of Beauty and Good Fortune; Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge and the Arts; Kali, the Divine Mother in her Ferocious form.
_ Dear Yoga friends, students and colleagues,
Today, alongside many of my colleagues, I choose to resign my Anusara-Inspired Yoga license. It has been more than three months since my yoga world was shaken with the unfortunate news of misconduct by John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga. I have been deeply saddened and shocked by his actions, and I no longer align with John Friend and his vision for Anusara Inc.
I have been a part of the Anusara community for 14 years, and have clocked thousands of hours training and teaching in this system. I align myself with the Anusara method which has transformed me. I offer gratitude to John Friend for offering this beautiful method – the marriage of elegant alignment principles with the heart-oriented teachings of Tantra.
I kept my license until now because I was interested in supporting the proposal of a teacher led Anusara yoga school separate from John Friend that would embrace the values that I hold most dear with regards to this beautiful method, and which would have allowed me to continue to be in association with other amazing teachers of this method. I have waited patiently in respect for the dedication of time and energy on the part of committee members working for this change. But, this is not going to happen at this time and not under the banner of Anusara, and so I choose to move on today, and I see a bright future ahead!
What I have loved most about being part of Anusara has been belonging to a group of intelligent, creative and compassionate souls who share my enthusiasm for this method. Today, I resign my Anusara license, but I take these practices and teachings with me, and I keep my many friendships and connections with others who share the love of these practices. I will continue to offer alignment based, heart oriented, non-dual, Tantra inspired, body-mind positive yoga practices. I give credit and honor to those who have taught me and continue to teach me, even as I make own authentic, heart offering, shaped by my years of practice and experience. I continue in my dedication to refining my practice and teaching, serving my community, seated in my heart, and unfolding my highest potential as an human-being.
I am flying free and high toward a bright future! I look forward to sharing this future with you!
RYT 500, E-RYT 200
Family Circus Morning Meditation
This morning’s meditation session read like a Family Circus cartoon. I woke up later than usual, having fallen back asleep after the 5:30 a.m. alarm went. Around 6:45 a.m., I woke up again and sat up in bed to begin my morning meditation session. Take 1. Just as I was settling into my seat, Sage (age 6) woke up next to me, having made his way into our bed in the night. So, I stopped and lay down next to him to give him his morning snuggles as I always do, surrendering and delighting in his warmth and sweetness and at the same time thinking about getting back to my meditation practice. After 10 minutes or so, Sage got up to go play in the other room. I sat down to meditate once again. Take 2. Just as I was settled in and beginning to do some pranayama, I heard River (age 9) wake up and call for me. I invited him to come in for a snuggle as well. We cuddled and quietly chatted about the day. After about 10 minutes, I sent him to go play, and I sat down determined to get my meditation practice in. Take 3. Finally, I was sitting and had begun to silently chant my mantra when I heard Sage in the bathroom and he really needed toilet paper. Apparently, Steve, my husband, could not hear Sage as he was downstairs working. So, of course, I got up and got him toilet paper and came back and resolutely sat down again. Since the kids had a mid morning dentist appointment scheduled, we didn’t have to get to school early and I figured I really did have time to sit. Take 4. Inwardly, I began to feel a bit contracted and grumpy as I fantasized about yogis without families with blissful morning practices free of distractions. Imagine what that would be like! No kids – the morning would be mind alone! Nonetheless, I was determined to get in my practice. I began to silently repeat my mantra anew. And, after a few more minutes, the mantra began to do its magic and I felt myself being drawn inward.
Simultaneous to this, I heard Sage playing with Legos. I heard the sounds of Lego sorting and Lego building alongside the sound effects of Star Wars Lego blasters made by Sage as he animated his creations. I heard Steve come up the stairs, quietly enter the bedroom, then enter the bathroom, run the water and step into the shower. Yet amidst all of the familiar family noises, I was magically and effortlessly drawn deeper and deeper into the sweet vast expanse of my inner landscape and into the empty yet full space of the Heart that I have come to know as the turiya state. I experienced a profoundly deep state of meditation, yet I was in the midst of and completely conscious of and connected to my very own Family Circus.
All of a sudden, I felt tears welling in my eyes and a feeling of opening and love well up in my heart as I experienced a kind of recognition that all is perfect and all is possible. That is, that my Family Circus, the path of motherhood, the path of being a partner, the path of completely honoring and being present for my family, is never separate from my path of yogic sadhana and indeed the two are as intimately intertwined as Siva and Sakti. My life is all about having both, animating both and experiencing the bliss of both of these Grace-filled dimensions. When I completed my meditation, I got up and joyfully kissed my husband and went down to make breakfast.
Embracing Discipline as a Rite of Fall
I love the "lazy" days of summer where we leave behind our "busy-ness" to go on vacation, pick berries or do nothing at all. I believe these "lazy" times actually are rich fallow periods that give rise to our dreams and aspirations. Often we have to leave our "busy-ness" behind and embrace "laziness" to hear the call of these dreams. After a long day of being on the lake or the beach, doing nothing one could call "productive", there is sometimes a small feeling of discontent that sneaks in, a divine discontent, a little something that nudges us to look at our lives and see if our lives are truly as we want them. These are fertile times that offer glimpses of our true purpose and deepest desires. These are the times when we say to ourselves, "I really should get back to doing my art, my yoga, my music, my writing (you fill in the blank) or I really do want to start a new project, a new study or even a new career.
So, as September rolls around, I am only too happy to embrace routine, structure and discipline. Yes, discipline. My teacher John Friend says, "Discipline is discipleship to something greater," That "something greater" is our dreams and deepest longings. It takes great discipline to actualize them. Discipline is applying the necessary constraints that allow us to focus our energies and to expand and actualize our dreams.
In Anusara Yoga, the principle of alignment that corresponds to discipline is Muscle Energy. Muscle Energy is the physical energy of contracting, of drawing in from the extremities to the core, so that our bodies become stable and contained. From the stable core, the energy can then expand outwards, allowing the expression of the pose to become bigger and more vibrant. So, it is with discipline in any area of our lives. When we draw in and focus our energies, we create a container from which something greater can then emerge and expand.
As September rolls in, ask yourself, "What are my dreams and deepest longings? What am I committed to beginning or re-visiting this fall?" Listen to the answers of your heart and commit yourself to heeding them. Something beautiful and wonderful is sure to emerge!
This comes from my July 2009 newsletter.
Yoga in all its many forms is an invitation to step into the magnificent "current which is traditionally called Grace", says Paul Muller Ortega, renowned academic scholar of Indian religion and pracitioner of Tantric Yoga. Through the practice of yoga, we open up to something that is bigger than ourselves, yet is intrinsic to our very being. "What is that force that expresses itself as everything and as me?" asked Paul to me and the other 60 participants that sat with him in satsang, "open eyed contemplation" during Summer Solstice weekend last month. Paul stated that yoga practice is "intelligent alignment with an already moving force" and that connecting with this force or current, gives us access to a never-ending source of abundance. He told us that this opportunity and experience is not just for a rare few, but that tapping into this current and learning to live from this place is an absolutely essential process of being human. This process is not meant to take us out of this material world, but instead to plug more fully into the very lives we are already living and to live our lives with a greater sense of aliveness, energized focus and bliss.
We may access this current through various practices, including asana and meditation. In yoga asana, we learn to align with this current through the medium of our physical bodies. We begin the practice by softening and and opening to this flow of grace, to pure potentiality. From this receptive place, we hone our alignment with this moving force. When we engage our muscles and draw them toward our core, it is like creating the strong banks of a river to contain the current. Then from our strong and steady core, we energetically expand from our core and merge with this current called Grace, to experience balance, vitality and bliss.
As such yoga is always an invitation to dive into our true nature and come home. This month, I invite you to join me in this journey. Step into the current and align with the flow!
This post comes from my June 2009 newsletter.
All things move in cycles. As living, breathing beings on this planet, we are part of the greater pulsation of life itself. Expansion and contraction are like the in-breath and the out-breath - one cannot occur without the other. Winter to Summer, darkness to light, we dance in the balance of these complementary forces. The name "hatha" yoga reflects this, "ha" means sun in Sanskrit and "tha" means moon. The dance of hatha yoga is to move and live in alignment and harmony with the intrinsic cycles of nature.
As the summer solstice approaches, and the sun warms our hemisphere of planet, all living organisms move toward full expansion. Expansion is akin to the inhalation. Summer Solstice is the very top of the inhalation, the fullness of light and expansion. Here, there is a pause, stillness, and heightened perception. Around the world, Summer Solstice is honored with celebrations and rituals to honor the sun.
Om, Surya! Bow to the sun! How will you honor this cycle of light and expansion this month? I recommend practicing yoga out of doors. Practice Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) on a nice piece of grass, an outdoor deck or at the beach! Open yourself up to the forces of nature and find your perfect alignment and deepest presence in each pulsating breath.
Yamas and Niyamas
Annie Barrett. Educator, certified health coach yoga instructor.