Happiness has always been a bit of an obsession of mine. It’s all in the name. I’ve had a fascination with my own name since a French waiter proclaimed “Ah, Felicity! Happiness!” when I was a child. I was astonished that her name was in the dictionary. In Shakespeare even! After walking away from a supposedly “happy marriage” that had left me feeling unfulfilled and directionless, I took the obsession to a new level, studying the science of happiness and absorbing psychology and neuroscience along the way.
At the same time I was training to be a yoga teacher. Having been a yoga student for over twenty years and already completed foundation courses to deepen her own practice at home it was a natural step. A workshop with yoga teacher and osteopath Peter Blackaby was a lightbulb moment when he spoke about neuroplasticity in both our bodies and our brains. Hold on a moment! I’m sure I’ve heard about neuroplasticity in my happiness studies!
The links between the science of yoga and the science of happiness then seemed to multiply. My teacher training written assignment was titled ‘Yoga & Happiness’. It seems that the journey towards a happier life crosses the path of a yoga journey in many ways and what I have learned from both studies can help us become happier, healthier well-beings.
What is yoga? What is happiness?
Let’s start with the two biggest, most difficult questions! The first thing that strikes me about the similarity between yoga and happiness is that if you ask a hundred yoga teachers or happiness experts these questions, you’ll get a hundred answers. Or possibly more. There will be some consensus across the answers but ultimately the answers are a bit like pinning down a cloud. Both are more complex than they appear on the surface – yoga is not just about making shapes with the body, happiness is not just hedonistic pleasure. At heart they are simple, unexplainable truths. And they are different for everyone who embarks on such a journey…
Find your own path
…And ultimately the only person who can work out exactly how to find your own state of happiness or your own state of yoga is you. Pursuing a yogic or happy path involves digging deep inside yourself, asking yourself questions and sometimes dealing with difficult truths. The yamas and niyamas of the Yoga Sutras (sort of the 10 commandments of yoga) include svadyaya (self study), satya (truthfulness) and sauca (purity of body and mind). One of the primary aspects of cultivating a deeper happiness is to look for the truth of a situation and learn to accept it. Acceptance isn’t just about rolling over and letting life be as it is. Acceptance allows us to see the world clearly and to determine the changes that we can make, rather than dwelling on the things we cannot affect.
You’ve got some nerve!
The nervous system was that lightbulb link for me where I realised these concepts could be brought together into a neat package. The yoga asana (posture practice) that I tech involves often small, repetitive movement where we notice how the action feels, notice if it is comfortable and – if it isn’t – adjust it to create greater ease. The more we do it on the mat in small movements, the more we re-write our neuromuscular pathways to learn that new way of moving.
There are lots of aspects to our happiness that we can improve on. Whether it’s gratitude, acceptance, generosity, compassion or building new habits to replace old ones, we can accomplish all this through neuroplasticity. That is, the rewriting of the neural pathways in our brains. Don’t think you have neuroplasticity? When was the last time you learnt something new. It can be tiny. Someone’s name. The words to a song. The way to someone’s house. That’s neuroplasticity. Sometimes it’s hard for us not to take the obvious path in our brains, especially when we’re under stress or pressure. But in the same way that we can learn new ways of our body moving, we can learn new ways of the mind thinking and reacting.
As my yoga teacher tells me, we learn to do things in a situation that’s easy, so that it’s less difficult when we’re in a situation that’s hard. This – very basically – is how meditation helps us become calmer, more contented people. It’s relatively easy to sit back and observe our reaction to a trigger, then consider a different response, all from the comfort of a meditation spot. It’s much harder to respond differently in the heat of the moment. As we meditate, neuroplasticity creates alternative responses so they are more at our disposal when we need them. It helps us build resilience to the disturbances that come to us all in life (for example, when there is a global pandemic!)
Meditation also helps us focus, concentrate and remain in our present moment. Matt Killingsworth studied over 15,000 people and found they were not thinking about what they are doing an incredible 47% of the time. What’s more, people whose minds were wandering were substantially less happy in that moment (even if they were thinking of something good) and people who tended more towards mind-wandering were less happy overall.
Meditation is fundamental to yoga. Out of the eight limbs of yoga, the final four are dedicated to what we would consider “meditative” practices and many would say that posture and breathing practices (the third and fourth limbs) are meditative as well. And whether you meditate while sat in lotus saying “om” or while doing the washing up and really focus on that washing up, you are building resilience to tough times.
The myth of a “destination”
The final aspect of both yoga and happiness is that it’s never a completed journey. You never say, “that’s it, I’ve reached happiness / yoga, I don’t need to do it any more!” It’s a constant progression. And those tough times will come and they will feel like setbacks. I know the whole “life is a journey” thing is an overdone cliché but clichés are clichés because they are true. And if we can let go of the destination – if we can stop saying, “I just need this and I’ll be happy” – we can start to enjoy the process. We can stop and smell the flowers. We can savour our here and now. We can relish those small, mindful yoga movements without aspiring to contort ourselves into a pretzel. We can feel nourished by every moment of our lives rather than feeling we have to put happiness, comfort and contentment off for another day.
Ultimately that path to being a happier, healthier well-being is one that you alone can find. I always describe myself as a guide for my students, both in yoga and happiness, showing people the road towards more long-lasting joy, comfort and contentedness. Over the last twelve months I have cultivated classes which fuse gentle, mindful yoga with discussion about the science of happiness. I simply call it Yoga & Happiness. My yoga is not interested in making shapes that look great on Instagram. It’s about the internal conversation with the body. Equally, I know that you cannot tell any one person exactly what they need to do to be happy. It is vital for you to take ownership of your own Yoga & Happiness journey.