This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).
By Elizabeth Gibbs
Gratitude is defined as being thankful and appreciative for something or someone. An attitude of gratitude helps us live with a greater sense of well-being in spite of challenges, difficulties, and disappointments. Research shows that gratitude can activate the production of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, the "feel good" chemicals, resulting in deeper feelings of contentment. That’s good news!
How long do those benefits last? The answer is: it depends. Just like exercising, healthy eating, or living a healthy lifestyle, developing a consistent gratitude practice can keep the benefits flowing.
If we choose to work with gratitude in our yoga practice, we will find ways to take it off the mat, out of the chair, and into our daily lives to keep those "feel good" chemicals flowing.
There is a concept in the niyamas, the second limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, that sheds light on the practice of gratitude. It’s santosha, often translated as contentment. Not surprisingly, gratitude and contentment are closely related. They’re like two peas in a pod. Gratitude can be seen as a subtler aspect, or shade, of santosha. In her book, The Secret Power of Yoga, Nishala Joy Devi offers this example:
“In South India, there is a heartfelt way of expressing one’s appreciation. Instead of saying 'thank you,' they say Santosha (I am content).”
In spite of our challenges, difficulties, and disappointments, an attitude of gratitude can help us find a measure of contentment with who we are, what we have, and how we can live with more clarity and resilience. An attitude of gratitude helps us remain centered and peaceful; not getting too upset when daily glitches and messy life situations show up (and they will) and not getting too excited when things go 100% the way we hoped (and we always hope they will). Finding the middle ground is not always easy but practicing gratitude is one way to find it consciously and more often.
A quick search on the Internet offers many ways to practice gratitude. I found some sites with seven, 25, 29, 31 and 40 suggestions. These include waking up in the morning and naming five things that you are grateful for before getting out of bed, making daily entries in a gratitude journal, or choosing affirmations to repeat as you brush your teeth or make your breakfast smoothie.
You can do your own search or try out the following suggestions that you can do on your mat, in your chair, or anytime throughout your day. I practice all three.
Gratitude for the Breath
When we are dealing with illness or physical limitations, it can be hard to feel or experience an attitude of gratitude toward the body. However, as long as we are alive we have a way to consciously experience gratitude for the act of breathing. Consciously coordinating breath and movement is a deep practice. Taking a deep breath in as we raise an arm or a leg can feel empowering. Exhaling while we lower an arm or leg can bring a restful release. We can be consciously grateful for each breath and movement accomplished. If some or all of the body is unable to move, we can focus on moving the breath, feeling grateful for each inhalation and each exhalation.
The Upanishads are a collection of Vedic spiritual wisdom writings from India. They are over 2,000 years old. The Taittiriya Upanishad recognizes the importance of being grateful for breath as seen here.
“Man and woman, beast and bird live by breath.
Breath is therefore called the true sign of life.
It is the vital force in everyone
That determines how long we are to live.
Those who look upon breath as the Lord’s gift
Shall live to complete the full span of life.”
—The Upanishads, translation by Eknath Easwaran
In The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work, Donna Farhi give us another reason to be grateful for breath: “Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular, and psychic systems and also has a general effect on your sleep, your memory, your energy level, and your concentration.”
Breathing happens whether we pay attention to the process or not. When we point our awareness and attention toward the breath, we can use it to deepen an attitude of gratitude. Here is a powerful practice.
Gratitude Breath Practice
1. Bring yourself to a comfortable position, seated or lying down.
2. Place your full attention on your breath.
3. Begin to notice the four parts of your breathing process:
· The inhalation and slight pause before you exhale
· The exhalation and slight pause before you inhale
4. Let the breath come and go naturally.
5. Silently say “Thank you” on the inhalation and again on the exhalation.
6. Spend three to five minutes watching the four parts of your natural breathing process and consciously practice gratitude.
Affirmations are positive statements that help us reinforce helpful, productive states of mind and well-being. When repeated often, they help to encourage a positive outlook. You can think of affirmations as exercise for the mind. Affirmations are short and stated in the present tense: “I am” as opposed to “I will.”
Here is one that cultivates an attitude of gratitude: “Thank you for everything, I have no complaint whatsoever.” This affirmation is attributed to Sono, a female Zen master, who lived about 150 years ago. I use it because it helps me feel grateful and content.
This is one of my favorite daily practices. When I take a moment to tune in to my surroundings a few times during the day, no matter how busy I am, something that I can be grateful for almost always "pops" into my consciousness. Here are a few examples.
After days of cold weather and rain, the sun comes out, the sky brightens, my mood lifts, and I experience a sudden onset of gratitude for sunshine. I smile and whisper “Thank you.”
As a recovering perfectionist with a long daily "to do" list, my mind says "Do it all!” When that happens, I feel anxiety creeping in. If I take a moment to tune into my body, I can hear it saying "Edit! Edit! Edit!" If I follow through (I don’t always but I’m a work in progress, as are we all) I will take skillful action and choose three items for the day. Anxiety eases. I smile and whisper “Thank you.”
While watching the news, I see a story about someone struggling with a serious health condition. I reflect on my health, which is good in spite of aches, pains, moody blues, and minor chronic stuff. I smile and whisper “Thank you.”
To get your own bag of gratitude popcorn, remember to tune in to your surroundings a few times a day. If you do, something you can be grateful for will "pop" into your consciousness. Then smile and whisper “Thank you.”
Here is a quote that reminds me to practice being grateful:
“A contented heart is a calm sea in the midst of all storms.”
Let an attitude of gratitude be your boat. Santosha.
Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a guest faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children. For more information please visit her website at: bethgibbs.com
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
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