Gratitude: Simple Practices for Profound Healing
More than just the physical poses, yoga is a dynamic system of healing that includes ethical considerations. These ethics of practice guide our intentions to come from our heart and not just our ego in both yoga practice as well as in the world. Yoga practice is, in part, about establishing and maintaining healthy, loving relationship with ourselves, with our families, with our communities, and with all living beings. One of the ethical principles of yoga is called “Seva” or “Service-Mindedness”.
Seva means to live in a way that supports the wellbeing of others. To incorporate Seva into your yoga practice is to harvest the sense of wellbeing that you cultivate on your mat and to share it with others through compassionate and selfless actions. You approach your practice as a way to ease suffering in yourself as well as to ease suffering in the world around you.
Seva is a yoga pose that we hold not with our bodies but with our hearts. Serving the wellbeing of others is a practice that, like all yoga practice, can awaken and enlighten us on our journey of self-discovery and self-healing. Service-mindedness as a living principle is more than setting aside a few hours a month to volunteer, it is viewing every moment of your life as an opportunity for service-mindedness. Seva is a pose of the heart that we would do well to practice daily to maintain healthy balance in relationship with others, with the world, and with our highest truths.
At the end of the day, which do you think about—the ten things that went well or the one thing that went wrong? It’s only human to dwell on the shortcomings in yourself, in others, and in your life. Our brains are wired to be like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences. It’s part of how we learn, but at a certain point it becomes a major source of suffering. Recent discoveries in neuroscience and psychology are revealing to us that we have much, much more power than we realize to shape our mental habits—to transform self-destructive thinking patterns into creative thinking that reminds you in a million ways what you love about being alive.
We have many life-affirming human qualities that, like muscles in the body, can be strengthened through use and practice. How well we exercise these positive qualities can make or break our experience of life. If we don’t make the effort to work the mental muscles associated with love, joy, gratitude and happiness, they weaken and we find ourselves easily tormented and overwhelmed by life. Taking time to count your blessings strengthens neural pathways that have immediate and lasting physical and mental health benefits. Strengthening your gratitude muscle will make you more buoyant through times of suffering and more present for moments of beauty. Gratitude is a feeling that can occur spontaneously, but if we practice gratitude, we water the flowers, instead of the thorns, that grow in our minds.
Here are a few simple practices for cultivating the healing power of gratitude.
Identify what makes you happy. Our tendency is to become hyper-focused on the struggle of life. But what makes life easier for you? What makes you happy even in the midst of the struggle? Sit down and make a list. Seriously. You will be surprised at how much you learn about yourself. You are likely to find that you already have easy access to what makes you happy. Human joy tends to hide itself in the simplest of pleasures, but we lose sight of that in the hustle and bustle of accomplishing and achieving. The desire for more can be endless—there is always one more thing to want. Consciously knowing what brings you happiness and making the time for simple pleasures can recycle bitterness and discouragement into gratitude and hope.
Take in the good. Good things happen every day. Most of them we take for granted (waking up with a roof over your head, for instance) and others we notice only for a moment before becoming distracted. We can work toward having a mind that is Velcro for the good and Teflon for the bad by actively taking time to let the good stuff stick! Research shows that the longer a moment of gratitude is held in our awareness, the more we allow it to stimulate us emotionally, the more our neurons fire and wire together, creating stronger pathways for gratitude to bubble up on its own. You can generate moments of gratitude by delighting in what you have, by savoring the good things that happen, the things that go right, the people you love, and the things you do well.
Give thanks. If you do your homework by practicing the first two suggestions, this third one comes naturally. When we create an atmosphere of gratitude within ourselves, it wants to flow outward. We have the power to generate happiness not only in ourselves but in the world by expressing gratitude to others. Write a letter to someone who has had a positive impact in your life. Give a genuine hug—let it last for two full breaths—to a friend, spouse, or family member that supports you. Volunteer for a charitable event or organization as an act of gratitude for the grace you have been given and the grace in giving back.
Begin and end your day with gratitude. We often go to sleep thinking of all of the things we didn’t get done. What if you counted your accomplishments, and your blessings, before going to sleep? How would it change your day to enjoy a moment of gratitude when you first wake up every morning? In every moment there is something we can find to be grateful for and something we can find to feel bitter about. It doesn’t take much effort to identify what is lacking, but what if you stretched your mental powers to become the kind of person that also notices the beauty there is in every moment? What you appreciate appreciates.