“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” – Melody Beattie
Before triangle pose and headstand, the term yoga was a philosophical study of how one could unite with the divine. Yoga means union: to yolk and come together. We can liberate all parts of our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical bodies from the suffering of the human condition and unite with truth.
Gratitude is a key to liberation. From the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, we can remain grounded in gratefulness to sincerely unite ourselves with the true meaning of this time: connection and giving.
We can take time to be present enough to what is happening, acknowledge it, and make a connection. This act completes an energy exchange. I give something to you, you receive it and express gratitude. Transaction completed. Elements of yoga philosophy can assist in completing this cycle.
One of the seminal yoga texts, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are a collection of philosophical suggestions in how to reach enlightenment. Enlightenment encompasses concepts of liberation, divinity, bliss, peace, and truth. Sutra means thread, and these verses all weave together to create a beautiful resource of inspiration and encouragement. It is estimated that these offerings range from 5,000 B.C. to 300 A.D. Before yoga pants and downward facing dogs, sages were dedicating their lives to investigating and gathering information on how to live peaceful lives. Patanjali is said to be not only one single person, but an accumulation of sages, each having a jewel to offer.
One of the these jewels, santosha, is described in Patanjali’s sutras as contentment. One of the personal observances to remind us to accept what we have and do not have in our lives.
Sutra 1.42 By contentment, supreme joy is gained.
Gratitude is rooted in acceptance, from a place of non-judgement—by receiving what comes our way and acknowledging its purpose, whether in that moment or after time spent in reflection. And gratitude does not always have to be directed at a person; it can be directed towards a situation or turning point in your life.
At times, these turning points can seem like incredible obstacles or not ‘part of the plan’. Sure, it’s easy to thank the moments in your life that were shimmering with positivity and made you feel good. But can you honor those moments that were not so pretty? For me, that is where the real yoga comes in—to honor it all: the good, the bad, the ugly. Because it really does all happen for a reason. I know, you have heard it before and you almost threw up in your mouth a little bit, but it is true. We may not see the reason in that moment, but it is happening to learn more about yourself and how you relate to the world. As you take time to show and express gratitude, thank your struggles as much as your high points, the valleys, and the peaks.
HEART & GRATITUDE PRACTICE
Thankfulness stems from the place of the heart. The heart space is extended through the shoulders, arms, and hands. How we use our hands can express appreciation and acceptance. When we come to the physical practice of yoga, asana, we use our hands a lot: on the ground and on our own bodies. There are certain poses and sequences that will jumpstart your grateful heart.
Mudras are yoga poses with the hands. They can be practiced at any time of day and pretty much everywhere. A simple but powerful one is the anjali mudra, the gesture of prayer. Let both hands come together right in front of the chest and breathe. If you are feeling scattered or little whiny, sit down and bring your hands together.
The backbending portion of asana classes can be scary for some. Regardless of the physical fear, backbending goes directly into the emotional center of the body: the heart. In this place we hold feelings of love, compassion, and forgiveness. Some of my teachers call these poses ‘heart openers’ because you are literally opening your chest to get into poses like locust, bow, camel, bridge, and full wheel. When I teach these poses, some students shed a few tears. The physical release allows for the emotional body to let go.
It took me a while to trust myself to get into upward bow, urdvha dhanurasana. Allowing my hands and feet to support me so I could open my front body up to the sky as my head released with gravity. I am still a little hesitant to do upward bows in class, but once I do, I am glad I did it. My resistance at times comes from not wanting feel and these backbends blow all of that out of the water. The image of Superman comes to mind with these poses. Ripping off the the Clark exterior right at the chest to expose your true self, Superman/Superwoman!
Flipping your perspective can also generate gratefulness not only in your practice but in your life off the mat as well. Going upside down shakes out any heaviness or negativity that is weighing down your heart. It reminds us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Flip the situation. Inversions include headstand, forearmstand, and handstand with many variations. But downward facing dog is also an inversion as is a standing forward bend. Again, these poses may bring up fear, but embracing these poses can shine a light on how gratitude can change your perspective.
Forward bends allow a time for reflection. It is in the reflection that we can cultivate the thank you’s. When the front body is surrendering to the legs, the back body is being called to open. We carry our past in the back body. By going inwards and investigating what we still carry with us, gratitude can help us let it go. “Thank you for that lesson, now I can move on.” Some helpful forward-bending poses include child’s pose, forward-bending pigeon, seated butterfly, seated star, head-to-one knee, and seated forward-bend with two legs (paschimottanasana).
The word namaste is becoming more mainstream these days. Its translation, “the light in me bows down to the light in you,” is a refreshing reminder to appreciate the people in front of you and the moment: Gratitude for this yoga practice, for this vessel, and ability to practice. We do not need anything extra to achieve balance and peace. Experiment with focusing on gratefulness in your next seated meditation. We have all the tools within us and by taking time to honor the abundance in our lives, we are reminded that we have enough, santosha.
OFF THE MAT
One of the highest forms of gratitude is through giving back. Through the action of seva, selfless service, we help our fellow man and woman. Check out your local volunteer options and see where you can lend a helping hand. Volunteering connects us to everything, and the holiday season offers many opportunities to donate your time. Check out newyorkcares.com—they have many opportunities to give back in all five boroughs. Instead of giving physical gifts to your family and friends, consider donating in their name to a foundation/organization that could use your support.
Create a gratitude list and thank your blessings and obstacles by writing them down. Take a moment to thank your food away from the computer and TV. Have a gratitude list running that sits right next to your bed. Write three things that happened within the day that you are grateful for. A simple one here: kindness is also a form of appreciation. Give in kindness.
The holiday season is a special time because it happens around the same time every year and can be a great way to check in with ourselves. One of these check-ins can be structured by gratitude. What has transpired in the past year that you are thankful for? Hard times can receive some gratitude too. It is through the lows and struggles that we value what is really important and the lesson we can receive from these turning points will be with you forever. The awareness of learning from a particular experience can impart wisdom. Wisdom is a defining element of enlightenment. If you are having a hard time being thankful, because it does happen, ask for help. Call a friend or family member and re-inspire yourself with the people in your lives.