The Secret to Happiness, According to Yoga
A yoga teacher explains how to find contentment on and off the mat.
“How is yoga meaningful beyond its poses? How can we practice yoga beyond the physical experience?” asks yoga teacher and blogger Rebecca Pacheco in her book, Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life ($17; amazon.com). “What do we need to know to get the most out of our yoga, and by extension, our lives?” In this excerpt, she explains the yogic approach to happiness, and how to make it work for you.
I’m not sure who said, “Happiness is an inside job,” but it’s a great thing to remember as a yogi. According to yoga philosophy, santosha, which means contentment, is a form of self-discipline. In other words, happiness is a skill and practice. Happier people do not have easier lives, with less hard work, grief, divorce, or financial strain than the rest of us. They’re simply more grateful for what they have and choose to be conscious of their contentment more often.
Modern yogis view yoga as a process of self-improvement. We do yoga so that we can get better at it. Gain greater flexibility. Become a kinder or more patient person. Excel at sports. Look better naked. The list goes on. In all the years I’ve practiced and taught yoga, I have never heard someone walk into a class and pronounce, “I’m here because I’m totally content with my life, body, and world view. There’s nothing I seek to change or improve. I just want to learn how to do yoga, for fun.” Never.
It’s not that seeking self-improvement is bad. It’s fantastic. The trick is to remember to enjoy the process. If we continually seek betterment, without a genuine appreciation for the present and “whatever fate may bring,” we run the risk of missing the entire essence of yoga and, quite frankly, life. There is no fancy pose, enlightened style of yoga, venerable guru, or brilliant book that can manufacture or deliver your happiness. It comes from within you, and finding it is a different process for everyone.
When I demonstrate challenging yoga poses for my students, I often joke that no matter how impressive, graceful, or fun a yoga pose looks, it cannot change the quality of their lives in any major way. Performing a headstand won’t save someone from getting a parking ticket, losing a job, or getting dumped. Meanwhile, the learning process, attention level, and attitude of the pose can have a positive compounding effect on the rest of our lives. Whenever you catch yourself hungry for the look and flash of an elaborate posture, remember your higher mission. Ask yourself if you’re enjoying the process, not just flinging yourself toward an idealized destination.
When we forget that happiness is an inside job and look for validation externally—the house, car, or outfit—we will always end up disappointed. The house will never be big enough, car new enough, outfit in season enough. We’ll lose the bigger picture of the process and fixate on the small stuff. Selfish stuff. Ego stuff. Want to know the shortest, most direct route out of ego? The opposite of the obnoxious voice in your head that says: what about me? It’s santosha. It’s gratitude. It’s the skill of taking yourself out of the tailspin of scarcity and reconnecting to contentment. Because as soon as you put yourself in a state of gratitude (for anything, however small) you can no longer operate from ego. The two are polar opposites. The practice of santosha removes us from the rat race and rests us in a gentle hammock of gratitude for a little while. Ahhhh. Doesn’t that feel better?
Do Your Om Thing: Notice Contentment
- Keep a gratitude journal in which you write one to three things each day for which you are grateful. They can be incredibly small and ordinary: a warm house, someone who held the door, an email that made you LOL. Review the list before bed. Notice how this makes you feel.
- Think of someone in your life who seems to be deeply content. What do you think they might do to achieve that contentment?
- To unhook from a feeling of discontentment or ego, a funk or feeling of scarcity, Judith Lasater, cofounder of Yoga Journal and author of Living Your Yoga, recommends using the mantra: How should it be? Notice how your response to this question is an expectation. Not reality. If we are discontented with reality every time it does not go as planned, we lose the skill and gift of santosha.
Excerpted from the book DO YOUR OM THING: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life by Rebecca Pacheco. Copyright 2016 by Rebecca Pacheco. Reprinted with permission of Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY. All rights reserved.