We are all looking for ways to be happier, now more than ever. After years of being locked in, with travel bans that kept us separated from our family and friends, happiness is in high demand: we all want it, we all need it, and yoga can give us the foundations to create more of it.
What makes yoga unique in terms of happiness is its multifaceted approach. By working at the physical and psychological levels simultaneously, yoga reduces stress and facilitates the relaxation of both the brain and body, helping us reach higher levels of contentment and happiness.
I know now that this joyful state is triggered by feel-good brain chemicals released during yoga: serotonin, GABA, and dopamine, responsible for serenity and fulfillment.
I began practicing Ashtanga in my early twenties during a period of turmoil in my life. My first teachers were Sandy Carmona and Jose Arando, who ran a shala in Pasay Road, a little haven in the midst of one of Makati’s busiest and noisiest streets. I remember skeptically rolling out my matt and thinking, how will I focus with all the traffic commotion coming in through the open windows? But when the class began, I instantly felt the energy of the space rise, the sequence of the Asanas flow, and my focus sharpen.
For those next 90 minutes, there was complete silence inside my head; I could only hear the slow deep rhythm of my breath. Nearing the end of the class, we all rested dead still and exhausted in Shavasana. Suddenly my eyes welled up, and I was overwhelmed with deep feelings of gratitude, love and inner peace for myself and the universe. I was not sure how to interpret those emotions or where they stemmed from at the time, but I knew I wanted to continue feeling them as long and as often as possible. I called it the Happiness High, which has kept me committed to my practice for the last 25 years. I know now that this joyful state is triggered by feel-good brain chemicals released during yoga: serotonin, GABA, and dopamine, responsible for serenity and fulfillment.
“Yoga has another bonus,” says Dr. Sarah Dolgonos, who points out that “in addition to suppressing the stress response, yoga actually stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down and restores balance after a major stressor is over.”
With all this positive input and my own curiosity, I eventually took the plunge and completed both my Teacher Training (YTTC) and Yoga Therapy certificates primarily to improve my own practice. These were the best 350 hours I have ever invested in. After finishing the course, I volunteered in a local Recovery Center that treated all forms of addictions: drugs, alcohol and compulsive behaviors such as gaming, gambling, and shoplifting.
Many had served time in jail, and yoga was a tool offered to help them recalibrate, work on their self-esteem and quiet their minds. It was a significant time commitment for me as my kids were still quite young and the commute was far, but I took the challenge and stepped out of my comfort zone.
It was a small group of nine men and two women. None of them had ever done yoga before or were familiar with the practice. I was their teacher for the next six months, and they were my most devoted students who wholeheartedly surrendered to each class.
Beautiful transformations unfolded during those months. They taught me far more than I ever did by just sharing their life stories, their struggles and their eagerness to heal. They too welled up at the end of our classes.
They, too, experienced the Happiness High, and a few of them ultimately decided to become teachers themselves. I felt a full circle had been completed. So yes, I believe that practicing yoga does make you happier.
So what exactly is yoga?
Yoga is a ‘‘spiritual discipline which focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body through physical poses, concentration, and deep breathing’‘ as defined by Vikas-pedia. This ancient practice allows you to establish a compassionate and caring relationship with your body. Yoga was never intended to be a workout: height, weight, and flexibility are not important.
It’s a non-competitive, non-judgmental practice that will benefit you at any stage of your life and embrace you regardless of your fitness level.
So many choices, where to start?
With all the different styles of yoga being offered today, it could be confusing to decide which one is for you. Here are a few choices to narrow your search:
Hatha. Considered by most as a gentler form of yoga with slower basic movements that require you to hold each pose for a number of breaths.
Vinyasa. This dynamic practice links movement and breath together almost in a dance-like way. You won’t be lingering too long in each pose, and the pace is quick, so be prepared for your heart rate to rise.
Iyengar. This style is all about precision, detail, and perfect alignment for each pose, so get ready to be finicky. You will need many props: blocks, blankets, straps, ropes and chairs that will help you work within a range of motion that is safe and effective. Unlike Vinyasa, each posture is held for a longer period of time (from five to 30 minutes). Iyengar can be practiced at any age and is beneficial for those with injuries — though you should consult a doctor first.
Yin. This is for you if you want to calm and balance your body and mind. You will be holding your poses for several minutes at a time. This meditative practice is designed to target your deeper connective tissues and fascia, restoring length and elasticity. This is the preferred style of people who want to stretch, unwind and keep movement limited to a minimum.
Bikram. Prepare to sweat profusely: A series of 26 poses and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity. This 90-minute sequence of dynamic practice combined with the heat can tire you out quicker than you think. It’s important to remember that heat will make you feel like you can move deeper into some poses compared to a non-heated class; you will have a tendency to overstretch, so be aware of this and don’t push beyond your capacity. Take it easy and hydrate well beforehand.
Hot Yoga. It is similar except for the constrained 26 pose sequence.
Ashtanga. If you’re looking for a challenging yet orderly approach to yoga, try this one. Consisting of six series of specifically sequenced yoga poses, you’ll flow and breathe through each pose to build internal heat. You will be performing the same poses in the exact same order in each class. Best forType-A practitioners. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll like this routine and its strict guidelines.
What are the main benefits of yoga?
- Improves flexibility. This would be the first and most obvious benefit. After all the stretching, lengthening and twisting, a gradual loosening of your torso and limbs will make seemingly difficult poses achievable.
- Improves your posture. Yoga Alliance Board chair Kerry Maiorca believes that “yoga can be beneficial for anyone seeking to improve posture because so many of the poses build core strength which is crucial to finding healthy spinal alignment.” The mindful practice of yoga also enhances self-awareness, making it easier to notice when you’re slumping in your chair or inadvertently extending your head forward while using a device.
- Reduces stress and teaches you to breathe properly. Every cell in our bodies needs oxygen to function properly. So it’s no surprise research shows that “a regular practice of controlled breathing can decrease the effects of stress on the body and increase overall physical and mental health,” according to OneMedical.com
- Eases pain. Yoga can help people with arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraines, low back pain, and many other types of chronic pain conditions. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that among 313 people with chronic low back pain, a weekly yoga class increased mobility more than standard medical care for the condition.
- Encourages self-care. Yoga is one of the best methods of self-care since thebenefits can be both physical and mental. Physically it improves your strength, balance, and flexibility. Mentally it teaches you to practice awareness, kindness, and calmness, which keep you in a high-spirited mood longer.
What to look for in a teacher
Yoga instructors have a great responsibility and enormous amounts of knowledge, experience, and wisdom. Everyone teaches their classes differently making yoga fun to explore.
From a student perspective, these are the traits I have valued through the years:
They must have good communication skills. A yoga teacher’s voice is perhaps their most powerful tool. Being able to confidently direct a group of people in and out of postures using only words can be challenging enough, but doing it smoothly and clearly to maintain the flow of the class is a trademark of a top teacher.
They should be able to cater to all levels. Today, many yoga classes are open level, which means it caters to beginners and advanced students. Yoga can be intimidating for beginners and teachers must make them feel supported and included without compromising the challenge for the more advanced students.
They take the time to correct and align students during the class. My favorite teachers are the ones who ‘‘walk the room,’’ check on their students’ form, aligning them when necessary or helping them to steady a challenging pose. Human touch connects and makes you feel looked after. I have always appreciated that extra care.
So, join that class you have been thinking about and embrace the learning it might bring you. It’s not only about movement and breath but about life and inner peace. Honestly, what do you have to lose?