November 2019: Yoga for Gratitude
Studies have shown that the shape and expression of our bodies can create changes in our emotions. For example, when participants strategically altered their facial muscles – at the direction of researchers – they most often felt the emotion that those muscles normally express.
They weren’t being told to “make a sad face”; they were given very specific, isolated instructions, such as “lift your eyebrows up and towards the corners of your forehead” or “draw the chin back and down 20%”.
And before the series of specific directions had molded their faces or bodies into a classic emotional communication, they were already experiencing that sensation, whether happiness, anger, fear, etc.
It’s pretty phenomenal that, while our bodies reflect our experiences – moment-to-moment – we can use that communication to better support our minds and emotions. Stretching your arms up and out can help you feel more energetic when you’re tired.
Squaring your shoulders and breathing into your heart can foster confidence as you walk into a business meeting. Relaxing your face and eyes can help alleviate tension during the day.
Practicing poses of gratitude in your yoga practice can help you feel more thankful, even when life is challenging and intense:
Mudras are the sign language of yoga, in which we form shapes with our hands and fingers to express particular qualities. They can alter our attitude and perceptions, while deepening awareness & concentration.
// Anahata Mudra
The most common mudra is the simple act of bringing your palms together in front of your heart. Not only do we typically end our yoga classes with this gesture of equanimity, it’s a commonly practiced form of respect and peace throughout the world.
This simple gesture helps calm the nervous system, focus your thoughts, organize your emotions, and harmonize the entire body! Use it not only when you feel grateful, but also when scared, scattered, overwhelmed or challenged.
// Padma (Lotus) Mudra
From Anahata, let the palms open, but keep the thumbs and pinkies touching, forming a flower shape with the hands. In Yoga (and many other traditions), the lotus is a powerful symbol: it’s literally rooted in the mud at the bottom of the river, yet opens into the most gorgeous bloom.
In the same way, we are called upon to show our best selves – to share the most beautiful, radiant version of ourselves – every day. We may not be able to bloom much; life is intense, and full of suffering. But we can always offer up our very best, no matter how feeble that may be, no matter what we’re experiencing.
This is the story of transformation and alchemy that Yoga offers us each & every day.
While we can express gratitude in any yoga pose, especially those in which we’re folding forward in a pose of surrender, there is actually an asana called “grateful pose”. From cow face pose (Gomukhasana), release the hands to the floor, folding over your legs and bringing your chin to (or past) your knees.
Hold this shape for 30 – 90 seconds, breathing deeply and focusing your thoughts on things that you feel grateful for and bring you joy. Make the pose even more powerful by bringing the hands into Anahata mudra, still on the floor, but pressed together. Switch sides and repeat.
We normally think of the warrior poses as intense, fiery, challenging shapes – but any true warrior knows that there are times to employ humility and softness! Humble warrior can be very challenging for balance, but is a wonderful way to open the heart & shoulders, stretch the hips and inner thighs, and remind ourselves of the balance between hard and soft.
From Warrior II, bring the hands together behind your back, interlacing the fingers if possible. Inhale, lifting out of the low back and lengthening the spine; then hinge forward over your front leg, engaging your core on the way down. When you feel a deep but safe stretch, hold and breathe deeply for 30 – 90 seconds.
Let the head be heavy, relax the neck and continue squeezing the shoulders & arms towards each other. Keep the legs strong and active, especially pressing into the blade of the back foot to increase stability and balance. To come back up, draw the navel in towards the spine, root the tailbone and roll back up, keeping the hands together until you’re upright. Switch sides and repeat.
When we feel grateful, our hands instinctively go to our hearts. How many times have you felt a strong emotion of “THANK YOU!” and found that your palms had unconsciously pressed together on their own? This spontaneous mudra is a perfect example of how our bodies, minds and emotions are vitally integrated.
Any yoga poses that open our hearts increase feelings of gratitude and connection. However, because they also tap into the vulnerability that’s necessary for connection with others, they can feel dangerous. If you have unresolved emotional experiences or a history of trauma, move gently in and out of heart openers, recognizing that they may bring up fear.
An example of an active heart opening pose is camel, in which the lower body is solid and supported by your shins on the floor, while your upper body is reaching up and back, opening the heart, throat and front of the shoulders. If you know or practice camel, be sure to engage your belly muscles the whole time, to protect the low back and hips. You can even bring the hands together in Anahata mudra, using only core muscles to hold yourself up.
A more gentle version is a reclining heart opener, in which you lie on a bolster, allowing the arms to extend out to the sides for a long, gentle stretch. The head and neck are supported by the bolster, and the legs are shaped around it in a way that is comfortable for the low back and hips.
Turn the palms up to encourage a stretch in the fascia of the chest throat and breathe deeply, focusing the mind on safety and surrender to goodness. If you experience discomfort in the pose, you might need to a) change the position of your legs; b) adjust the bolster under your body; or c) replace the bolster with a folded blanket.
Just before coming out of the pose, focus completely on gratitude and blessings for 10 deep, slow breaths.
Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects who did not.
Those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
Making time each day for gratitude is not only a proven way to feel happier and more fulfilled; it can also make you more productive, emotionally steady, and mentally focused. Use these yoga practices to increase gratitude in your life – both on and off the mat!
Leigh-Ann Renz is a massage therapist, yoga instructor and part of the management team at Waynesville Yoga Center.