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!
Annie Barrett. Educator, certified health coach yoga instructor.