Can yoga bring you happiness?
It was once said that happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory, but for those seeking a less glib solution, the answer may be found in living the yoga lifestyle and finding happiness within yourself.
You cannot become happy — you can only be happy.
‘Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’ Nathaniel Hawthorne, American novelist.
Isn’t it strange how the one thing all human beings want is so hard to describe. Perhaps a clue can be found in the classical Greek word for happiness — eudaimonia, made up of “eu” (meaning “good”) and “daimÅn” (meaning “spirit”), which suggests happiness relates to our inner rather than outer experiences of the world.
But for the most part, we still tend to look outside ourselves for a means to happiness: when I get that new job … when I move house … find a partner … get a divorce … have a baby … when the children leave home, then I’ll be happy. This not only links our happiness to outside events and people but, worse, it effectively postpones our happiness until the event occurs — if it ever does.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, student of the great Plato, argued in his epic work Ta Ethika that happiness is the only emotion humans desire for its own sake, observing that men sought power, riches, honour or health, not for their own sakes but as means of achieving happiness.
On a more aesthetic front, Buddha described the attainment of happiness through the practice of the eightfold path. In Buddhism, the third of the Four Noble Truths says that, to eliminate suffering, we should eliminate desires from the mind. If we speak and act with a desire-free mind, happiness will follow like one’s own shadow.
So if happiness is a state of mind, it explains why those with great wealth and resources can still be miserable, while others with meagre resources can be happy as Larry, whoever he was (I would have interviewed him for this article had I known).
In pursuit of happiness
Here’s a defining point. Extensive research by Gallup Poll, the widely recognised barometer of public opinion, National Opinion Research Centre and the Pew Organisation, concludes that spiritually committed people are twice as likely to report being “very happy” than the least spiritually or religiously committed people.1
“Happiness is not so much in having as in sharing. We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Norman Macewan, Senior RAF Commander.
Rishi Vidhyadhar, a teacher with The Art of Living Foundation, suggests that, today, the most common ways people pursue that all-too-elusive happiness is through sensory pleasure (via the five senses) and attainment of wealth, power and fame. These “means” to happiness are all temporary and finite. As the spirit (daimÅn) is infinite, the longing humans have for happiness can only be satiated by realisation of the infinite rather than by the temptations and desires of the senses and other mortal experiences.
And this is the catch: the greed that can accompany the desire for power, money or resources has no end. Once a desire is fulfilled, it just creates the space for yet another desire to arise, and so it goes. With desire, whether it is fulfilled or not, both bring misery. You cannot become happy — you can only be happy.
The art of life is to live in an attitude of gratitude. When we are grateful, more grace flows in our lives, and where there is grace, happiness is more at home. Sadness (seen often as the opposite of happiness) can only exist when we are not in an attitude of gratitude. Where there is gratitude there is no sorrow.
“You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.” Eric Hoffer, writer.
Freedom from cravings and desires
There is nothing wrong with earning money and being wealthy. It’s when we become caught in the wealth traps that things unravel. The common saying “Money is the root of all evil” omits the first two words from the original lines in the Bible (Timothy 6:10). It’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil.
Becoming obsessed with the prevention of loss, feverish desire for ever more money and the belief that our happiness is contingent on our money are all causes of misery. As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living and International Association of Human Values, puts it, “We spend half our health gaining wealth; and then spend half our wealth in order to gain back our health. I don’t think this is good economics.” The Buddhist saying that I once heard – “I keep myself rich by keeping my wants few” – is the more stress-free economics of happiness.
Self-study or swadhyaya is observing our mind, our thoughts, how we behave, how we act, how we feel. If we are feeling unhappy, often just observing this is the start of the process that reverses the feelings and we start to feel happy again. And remember, all feelings, good or bad, will change; you cannot be continuously happy and you cannot be continuously unhappy. Also, our experience of happiness is only possible because we have experienced unhappiness. We cannot know one without experience of the other, so both enrich our lives.
Another irony is the more actively we seek happiness, the less likely we are to find it. Ego typically has an external focus in that it often drives our relationship with the external world, whereas true happiness is the unconditional inner self, which transcends ego.
When life gets on top of us, a range of quick fixes is available, normally in a bottle containing either pills or alcohol. Either way, the result is a numbing of the sensations or effect rather than alleviating the cause. So if we are not feeling “loving” towards others (and ourselves) it’s probably because of stress, which typically covers and obscures our vision of our true selves.
Anything that helps us let go of our stress and tension will help us get back in touch with the love and happiness that are always there, always waiting so patiently for another opportunity to be experienced and to express itself. And it feels so healing when it does, doesn’t it? That feeling of union with everything, with no separation, is yoga.
So let’s look a little closer at the practice of yoga and how it can bring us towards such happiness. First, a regular practice of yoga will definitely increase your levels of
According to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, there are four main sources of energy or prana: food, sleep, breath and a meditative state of mind.
Food: Our first main source of energy is food, not only the right type (satvik food) but the right amount (neither too much, nor too little).
Sleep: Again, it must be the right amount. Have you noticed that when you really sleep in, you feel very dull when you finally get up? Equally, too little sleep has us feeling irritable and short-tempered.
A meditative state of mind: This mental state is one that is calm and peaceful. It can be experienced either in meditation or, for instance, when listening to something inspirational.
Breath: This is our most important source of energy, yet we have largely ignored or forgotten about it. And breath is our link between body and mind. You may have noticed that each different mind state or emotion we experience has a corresponding rhythm or nature of breath. When we feel depressed, for instance, our breath is shallow on the inhalation and long and heavy on the exhalation. Alternatively, when we feel happy, our in-breath is light, easy and long, our out-breath almost insignificant. The ancient Vedas, through the yogic system, and the Koreans through tai chi formulated breathing exercises that release tension and negative emotions and increase happiness.
Today, many people experience great benefits from practising the sudarshan kriya (SKY), a powerful, rhythmic breathing technique that facilitates physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing. In a study conducted by the Indian National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), research found this breathing technique to be as effective as or more effective than drugs in treating depression.
Not only does SKY reduces levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body, it doesn’t produce any negative side-effects. It’s easy to practise in daily life and air is free.
Yoga for happiness
The essential purpose of yoga is to bring us into union with all aspects of our being, resulting in a peaceful mind-state conducive to connecting us with the infinite. This connection is said to bring the most complete and ecstatic form of happiness, totally unavailable through any external or artificial sources. And yoga is just a powerful and effective means to that happiness end, not an end in itself.
Yoga brings the mind, which is chattering all the time, to a beautiful place of silence. The whole purpose of yoga is to stop the sorrow before it arises, to burn the seed of sorrow before it sprouts. Yoga is chitta vritti nirodaha, the act of restraining or freeing the mind from the clutches of the modulations of the mind.
One aspect of yoga is the asanas, or poses. Yoga asanas are something we all did when we were children. Have you seen a six-month-old baby lying on its back with its legs up? It kicks its legs up, lifts its head and then rolls over onto its back and does the cobra pose. Practising these brings into balance the body, breath, mind and spirit and enhances our sense of wellbeing and our experience of happiness.
Yoga is often thought of as just bendy, stretchy, physical poses, but there are other aspects that are equally essential, such as meditation, pranayamas (breath control) and yogic knowledge. Sages through the ages have written that the bliss and joy received through Samadhi (a deep state of being reached through meditation) is a thousand times more blissful and joyful than the sexual act, often seen as the pinnacle of human pleasure.
Yogic knowledge is knowledge that helps bring the mind into a peaceful, focused state of being, contributing to and enhancing our happiness. Here are a few yogic guidelines that do just that:
- Ahimsa: The first guideline is ahimsa, or non-violence. Non-violence unites you with the whole of creation. Just as we don’t harm ourselves, it’s important for us to not harm the rest of creation. When we realise everything is part of us, we cannot bring ourselves to harm anything.
- Satya: The second guideline is truthfulness. This is not just about being blunt and speaking candidly but is a commitment to truth itself — and what is true is that everything is changing. Noticing that everything around us — people, their bodies, their attitudes and emotions — is constantly changing but that, while the whole world is in a state of flux, there is something within you that is not changing at all. A deep awareness of this truth brings happiness in life. This is satya.
- Astheya: The third is astheya, meaning not missing what you don’t have in this moment, nor wishing things were different from what they are in the moment – and not regretting what has happened in your past. Astheya is not: “I wish I had a voice like that person. I wish I could be as intelligent as that person…” It is not comparing yourself with others or wishing for what they have.
- Brahmacharya: The fourth is brahmacharya, not being interested in the shapes and forms of the body but seeing beyond the physical to the infinite. Brahmacharya is keeping the mind on bigger things. Brahma means big; moving in bigger things. “I am small”, “I am a man”, “I am a woman”, “I am a good person”, “I am a bad person”, “I am hopeless” — all these are small identifications.
- Aparigraha: Fifth is aparigraha, meaning not taking what people give you and at the same time being very generous. We often take the insults people give us much more to heart than their compliments. Sometimes, they are not even “giving” us these insults; they are simply taking the insults “out of their pocket”, but we grab them and keep them very safe. If someone is giving us garbage, they may not even really be giving it to us — they may simply be throwing it out — but we collect and hold on to it.
- Of course, compliments don’t really bother us — they just go to our heads. What really bothers us are the insults, the hurt and all the negative words we take from people. Similarly, giving with a generous and loving spirit frees the mind while holding onto things and being selfish brings with it a constricted and contracting consciousness that prevents us from being happy.
- I think Ramona L Anderson, a much respected organisational development specialist, distilled the essence of the human dilemma when she said, “People spend a lifetime searching for happiness. They chase idle dreams, addictions, religions, even other people, hoping to fill the emptiness that plagues them. The irony is the only place they ever needed to search was within.” Yoga takes you there.
Meggan Brummer teaches the Art of Living course, yoga, meditation, vegetarian cooking and sacred chanting. W: www.megganbrummer.com