“The quest for human happiness is like looking around for a candle while sitting out of doors in the sun.” ~ Paramahansa Yogananda
Everyone wants to be happy, but what did happiness mean to the ancient yogis? Could you have lost your way on the path to true happiness in this time-pressured, materialistic society?
The Oxford Dictionary uses synonyms for happiness like contentment, pleasure, joy, wellbeing, delight, rapture and bliss. The ancient yogis would agree: this is the state of happiness and, yes, it’s flourishing. The difference lies in translation for living. Ecstatic bliss in yoga is samadhi, a heightened experience of oneness, an unexplainable, divine joy that comes from the expansive connection to all. Yogananda says it’s “like millions of earthly joys crushed into one”.
The depths of happiness cannot be found in focusing on the pursuit of outer achievements only, like career, Travel, possessions and relationships. It is found through practices that lead you inward towards your centre. Inner bliss and connection of a deeply spiritual nature cannot be achieved with rigidity, demand, excess, suppression or rejection of passions. The happy path of yoga is selfless, filled with joyful intention, applied wisdom and right understanding. Yoga is meant to be liberating, not forced.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the ancient, authoritative text on yoga, highly values detachment and renunciation (vairagya); a commitment to practice (abhyasa); avoidance of attachment, addiction and aversion; cessation of desires; and remaining even-minded toward pleasure and pain. Let’s not misinterpret this: it is still a happy path and occurs slowly over time.
How to be a happy yogi
Patanjali considers avidya, ignorance or lack of spiritual knowledge, as the root source of all unhappiness and sorrow. A yogi acquires discriminative wisdom and spiritual knowledge, drawing on the niyama (rule) of ishvara pranidhana: surrendering your efforts to oneness or God to live a happy life. You detach from the outcomes when you feel divinely supported for your efforts and release them without judgement or condemnation.
Aparigraha — non-grasping, non-greed and non-coveting — leads you to contentment and self-acceptance. You can let go of grasping when you feel good about yourself, resulting from your practice bathing you in peace, even amid adversity. The surrender has a yielding quality and bypasses the ego. You realise you are already divine. Once firmly established and consistently practised, this relief, peace and happiness leads to samadhi. After a long time, liberation and bliss are graced upon you and maintained through the practice of yoga.
Study the self
Without svadhyaya, the study of the self and yogic scriptures, it may be unclear whether your desires are spiritually right for you and connected to your dharma, your life’s path. You don’t need to feel guilty or bad about your desires, instead try to aim them towards fulfilling your life’s purpose.
Santosha means contentment without excess. It involves accepting your life and enjoying simple pleasures. Contentment reduces the grasping attachment and aversion cycle. Combined with satya, truthfulness, santosha gives you courage to change a difficult or unhealthy situation in your life, leading to greater harmony and tranquillity.
Practise saucha or cleanliness for your body and mind. Cleanse your mind of negative thoughts and reactions and cleanse your body for healing so you can meditate without pain. When you feel far from happy within, be honest with yourself and practise isvara pranidhana again; continue on the path forward.
Practise the four attitudes
Happiness is found in right thought, word and deed in relationship with others. According to Patanjali, there are four powerful attitudes for cultivating happiness and reducing suffering:
- Maitri: friendliness and happiness to the virtuous
- Karuna: compassion to the sorrowful
- Mudita: rejoicing with the happy
- Upeksanam: equanimity or indifference to the errors of others
These attitudes can prevent negative thoughts forming and avoids taking things personally. Yogananda says, “Joy awakens compassion in the heart. It makes one long to infuse divine bliss into those who are weeping in sorrow.” Keep positive prana moving throughout the community by restraining and avoiding toxic conversation and gossip about others and yourself. This spreads happiness and honours everyone to be their best.
Bring relaxed effort to the postures
Sthira and sukha applies relaxed effort, or “attention without tension” to yoga postures. It is firm but calm, active yet relaxed. Advanced yogi Simon Borg Olivier (yogasynergy.com) suggests living so it’s as easy as possible for your mind to choose happiness. In asana practice, ensure the body does not feel under threat by reducing sympathetic (fight or flight) output and increasing the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response. Then your mind will reflect a flexible, strong, balanced body that moves freely, says Borg Olivier. He teaches students a 12-point check in the body during asana that ensures a parasympathetic response, such as being able to move fingers and toes, relax the neck, soften tummy, check you can swallow, blink and roll your eyes. This protects against fear and aggression so you can make the mental choice to be happy.
Aim for purity
Sattvic living is a joyful state that denounces impurities. When you try to force this state, it is no longer sattvic. Sattva is gentle, relaxed discipline, practised in a loving, unattached way. Bring yoga incrementally into your life to gently shift your state of being towards aligning with joy. This is ahimsa, the nonviolent path, and is far more honest and uplifting than beating yourself into submission. The sutras explain, “When nonviolence in speech, thought and action is established, your aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in your presence.” The quest for yogic happiness is merely revealing the joy within by coaxing your being into the safety of relaxed effort, applying discipline for positivity in your life and removing fear. Then you find the joyful state of who you already are.
The food you eat affects your state of happiness. Eat little. Learn prakriti, your individual Ayurvedic constitution, and eat accordingly of seasonal, local and sattvic, pure food to nourish you with prana. Eat what you need with joy and gratitude. This contributes to your nourishment in happiness and prepares you for samadhi.
Find your community
Satsanga is the company of likeminded others committed to finding sat, the real and true. Sanga refers to association, joining, and promotes destruction of delusion. Find an uplifting community to join. Attend yoga classes, workshops or retreats to build your community of likeminded others on the same path.
Practise yoga nidra
A sankalpa is a resolve you make during yoga nidra to bring divine happiness to your life. The deep relaxation of this lying down guided visualisation process is transformative for the habit of happiness and letting go of suffering. You can practise with a CD, free online recording and in yoga classes.
Meditate for happiness
Meditate with joyful intention and allow the experience of simply sitting for meditation to uplift you. If you can’t still your mind, that’s OK. Swami Shankarananda in Happy for No Good Reason suggests you “have the meditation you are having” and to “be with the emotion you are having”. Even if you feel angry, Shankarananda advises to sit with the negative emotion while calming the mind and focusing internally. Once awareness develops and you can find peace at your centre, the intensity of the negative emotion will subside through the meditation process.
When you still feel unhappy
Take solace in an uplifting yoga practice and do whatever you can to nurture your spirit to make it easy to choose happiness. If you can’t feel happy, monitor your self-talk, be gentle on yourself so you can keep moving forward in a positive way. Seek the guidance and support of a skilled yoga teacher you resonate with.
Make joyful intentions
Bring joyful intentions to your day, your interactions, your work, your practice, your life. Before dawn, if possible, contemplate the day ahead and connect with the sacred quietude of daybreak, expressing gratitude for life and your day’s tasks. Bring joy to the responsibilities of the day and gratitude for joyful awareness. Breathe and relax. Follow the happiness sequence below.
In the evening, review the day’s events and contemplate where you could have chosen happiness in your day with kindness. Celebrate the happiness you achieved without attachment to it. Prioritise relaxation and freeing the mind from constant thinking. Include a restorative pose prior to bed such as viparita karani, legs up the wall pose.
Enjoy the sunshine, the changing seasons of life, and may you be happy and free. Namaste.
As you practise this sequence, allow the state of happiness to seep through your pores and submerge your soul in the ecstasy of movement, prana, power and divine joy in being alive.
Gesture of knowledge (jnana mudra)
Sit in a comfortable seated position, lift spine. Make a closed circle with index finger, touching first thumb joint on each hand as shown. Extend other fingers, hands facing up, wrists resting on knees. The closed circle represents unification of Atman, individual soul, with Brahman, universal soul. Close eyes and repeat, “Divine knowledge enriches my soul and fills me with sacred wisdom. Divine wisdom leads me to joy, a place of peace and purity within my heart.” Connect with the natural breath.
Sing the happiness chant below for a few minutes with joyful awareness. This powerful, unifying chant centres your intentions for happiness within the hearts of all. Listen to a free online recording for rhythm, pace and pronunciation.
Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.
“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”
Warm up the joints, circling ankles, knees, hips, wrists, shoulders and neck. Perform a few rounds of surya namaskar, salute to the sun.
Tree pose (vrksasana)
Standing, firm thighs and place weight evenly across feet. Lift right foot and place sole of foot against inner left thigh. Bring hands above head, shoulders down. Draw right hip down, square navel and chest to centre, find a drishti point of concentration to focus your balance. Breathe. Feel strong and balanced as your internal gaze focuses on peace inside your heart. Bring foot and hands down simultaneously. Repeat on other leg.
Warrior II (virabhadrasana II)
Standing, step feet one leg-length apart on mat. Turn left foot out to 90 degrees, right foot in to 45 degrees. Line up left heel with inner arch of right foot. Inhale, raise arms to shoulder height, extending to sides. Exhale, bend left knee, stacking knee on top of ankle, straighten and energise right leg. Continue breathing, turn right hip slightly towards the left, turn chest back to centre. Gaze beyond third finger of left hand. Breathe. Embody a peaceful warrior spirit of courage and strength to combat suffering and reveal the true, joyful self. After a couple minutes, bring feet together. Change sides and repeat.
Warrior III (virabhadrasana III)
Standing hands in prayer mudra, step right foot back one leg-length. Inhale arms up, exhale, bend left leg as you pivot forward, raising right foot off floor to hip height, bringing torso in line with extended leg. Straighten left leg, align hips, stretch arms out in front, keeping neck in line with spine. Breathe. Slowly release and repeat on other side.
King of the pigeons (eka pada rajakapotasana)
On all fours, bring right knee forward to floor, behind right hand. Bring your right foot in front of left straightened knee. Straighten left leg behind you. Work the right foot towards a perpendicular placement to the right knee if possible. If hips are tight, bring foot closer to torso to alleviate the stretch. Square hips and bring hands together in prayer mudra at heart centre. Breathe. Slowly release back to all fours, repeat on other side.
Note: Do not do this pose if you have knee or sacroiliac injuries.
Reclining spinal twist (supta parivartanasana)
Lie down on back, shift hips to right. Raise right knee to chest, straighten left leg along floor. Take right leg across torso to left side of body. Bring arms out to side at shoulder height, turn head towards right. Hold outer right knee with left hand, keep right shoulder on floor. Bring knee back to centre and change for the other side.
Supported bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana)
Position two bolsters lengthways on mat. Sitting on bolsters, strap thighs together above knees. Lie over bolster so head and shoulders rest on floor, and mid-thoracic spine presses into edge of bolster. Bend knees up if lower back feels uncomfortable. Close eyes and enjoy this restful pose. Turn your gaze inward toward your heart centre, allow joy and peace to awaken within your being and life. Let layers of tension melt away. After a few minutes remove strap and bolsters and lie flat in savasana, lying down relaxation posture. Feel contentment arising within you, joyful serenity for the practice of yoga and the happiness it can bring to life.
Kylie Terraluna is a writer, yoga teacher and mum who used to go by Kylie De Giorgio. Kylie runs a series of yoga workshops that dive into themes from her articles and happiness is at the top of the list. Visit kylieterraluna.com.au for more details and to read more of her work.