Is yoga the path to happiness?
(CNN) — Devoted yogis will tell you that yoga is not only the path to enlightenment but also happiness. Numerous studies support this claim, pointing to yoga as a general practice for quelling stress, easing anxiety and elevating mood.
Although there’s no scientific analysis of whether particular yoga poses make us happy, research shows that certain body posturing, respiration and thinking positively influence our physiology. When we feel any emotion at all — happiness, unhappiness, anger, etc. — we experience specific hormonal reactions that feed each feeling and prompt unique mental and physical manifestations, such as smiling when happy, crying when sad or crossing our arms when angry or defensive.
Science has shown that we can effectively, and quite quickly, reverse the emotion-to-body-response process by leveraging our physical and mental states to alter our emotional state. For instance, even forced smiling in stressful situations immediately lessens your stress response and elicits happy hormone production. As such, my yoga for happiness sequence is based on poses, breathing and meditation proven to boost feel-good physiology within minutes.
Because everyone wants to be happy, I’ve been using this yoga practice myself and with clients for years; so, I can happily attest to its benefits.
Breathe in the present moment
According to a 2010 Harvard study, people spend 47% of their time worrying about things that aren’t happening … and, understandably, are less happy because of it. By focusing on your breathing during yoga, you keep your mind in the present moment on your current action.
Better still, in as little as 90 seconds of deep, diaphragmatic breathing, you can initiate your parasympathetic nervous system, which shuts down the stress response by lowering cortisol (stress hormone), blood pressure and heart rate while increasing oxytocin and endorphins (happy hormones).
Establish diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing uses the expansion and contraction of your diaphragm to take long, deep breaths. To stimulate diaphragmatic breathing, inhale deeply for a five count into the lowest lobes of your lungs, focusing on expansion of your lower ribs while avoiding any arching in your midback. Then exhale for a five-or-greater count to completely empty your lungs. Continue breathing this way for at least 90 seconds.
Practice present-moment awareness
While breathing diaphragmatically, focus all your attention on the sounds and sensation of your breath. Notice the expansion and contraction of your rib cage. Follow the full path of air in through your nose, down your throat, through your lungs and back again. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing.
Be a warrior, not a worrier
A 2010 Harvard Study on “power posing” showed that holding open-body postures for two minutes decreases cortisol and increases testosterone, a confidence-boosting hormone, for less anxiety and more self-assuredness. Because of this, the first two yoga poses in my happiness sequence, Warrior one and two, fit the bill by maintaining an open body without slumping or crossing the limbs. Holding these poses for five breaths on each side takes about two minutes total. Spending just 30 seconds challenging your balance with the third pose, Warrior Three, refocuses your mind in the present moment.
From standing, step back into a lunge but drop your back heel and point your toes out 45 degrees. Keep your back leg straight with your forward knee flexed above your ankle. Lift your arms overhead, shoulder-distance apart. Hold for five long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Step your right leg back, as though you are coming into a lunge position, but drop the right heel and point the toes out to almost 90 degrees. Keep your right leg straight with your left knee bent to align above your ankle. With your shoulders aligned above your hips, reach your right arm back and left arm forward with your palms down. Look past your front hand and take five long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Shift your weight into your right leg and begin to take weight off your left leg. Exhale fully to drop your rib cage and have better access to core muscles to help stabilize you. When you feel steady, reach your arms forward and left leg back along a horizontal line. Try to hold it for two or three breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Relax and remember, happily
If you want to be happy, taking a few minutes to relax and focus on happiness is essential. A 2012 study showed that practicing an intentional “relaxation intervention” not only reduces the perception of stress but also facilitates wound healing. Talk about feeling better. That’s why I close out the seven-minute practice with two minutes of relaxation.
While you’re relaxing, you can think your way to more happiness. Studies show that recalling a happy memory makes you happier. Too many people don’t meditate because they believe it requires a significant time commitment and the ability to clear your mind. But concentrating your attention on one happy memory actually serves as a simple and effective form of meditation. And adding a smile — even a fake one — will boost your propensity for happiness by mitigating stress and elevating mood.
Legs on a bolster or pillow
Resting on your back, place your legs on a bolster or pillow. Let your arms rest at your sides. Raising your legs up above your heart promotes venous blood flow to improve circulation and reduce swelling. Changing your relationship with gravity also takes noticeable physical stress off your body.
Pick a happy memory, close your eyes, turn up the corners of your mouth (yes, smile) and meditate on a few-minute snippet of past happiness. The trick is to recreate the richness of the memory, using your five senses. What do you see? What can you hear? Where are your hands — do you feel anything? Are there any smells or tastes you can recall? After allowing your mind to focus in your happy memory for a few minutes, slowly open your eyes and relish the happy feelings that came with your memory.
Could yoga be your path to happiness? Science says, “Yes!” With only a seven-minute commitment for the chance to feel happier, why not give it a try?