The promise of obtaining perennial happiness, health and wellbeing has millions of people signing up for yoga classes at a time when we’re becoming increasingly desperate to find a sense of purpose and fulfilment in our lives.
Yoga’s benefits on the body-mind complex are innumerable and immense. Yoga increases bodily health and promotes mental and emotional clarity and ease. But, yoga for happiness? Is that the purpose?
If we can get past all the hubbub of the popular self-help books, blogs and social media one-line positivity quotes to study firsthand yoga’s rich textual corpus, we can see a comprehensive and timeless science of self-discovery that promises happiness as a foundational and easily achievable fruit of practice… and doesn’t stop there.
Yoga – not just postural yoga, but the complete and integrated system of yogic science (prayer, chanting, meditation, asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, deity yoga, kriya yoga, transformational death practice) – pushes us further inward to experience the unbound wholeness and freedom of our being. For the yogin who has stabilized this understanding, obstacles in life can be more skilfully met as our experience becomes less and less dependent on outer circumstances.
As we become healthier and more vital in the inner landscape of our being, we contact a pervading sense of joy that arises within us quite naturally. During the process of yogic unfoldment, “happiness” as we knew it – that emotionally heightened state whose opposite we call “sadness” – gives way to a more sustained feeling of contentment.
With sustained practice, yoga can’t help but enter us more deeply into the stream of reality. The wisdom we uncover compels us, at times kicking and screaming, to take responsibility for our lives and somehow more fully occupy the space we take up. Yoga helps us to cut through our conditioned personalities and unleash our more authentic nature. It lifts the veil of our distracted malaise to reveal who we deeply are and how we can genuinely express our uniqueness to the world. And suddenly, bam! We find the drive, passion and purpose to empower our lives.
Naturally, as we begin living our unique version of life as we were born to live it, we experience a greater sense of happiness, or, shall we say, contentment.
Commercial culture has sold us the empty promise that happiness is found by reaching outside ourselves and adding on a constant barrage of stuff. We’ve mistaken happiness for too long as comfort, safety, security, beauty, money, whatever. It’s been ingrained in us to chase this happiness spectre and try to avoid all possibility of pain, difficulty and suffering.
Yet somehow, when we either don’t get enough of what we want or too much of what we don’t want, we suffer.
The kind of happiness yoga offers isn’t the high of a pumping party with the soundtrack of your life on high whilst you dance drunk on the experience of unending intoxication. Yoga’s happiness is found in the simple acceptance of what’s happening in each moment and of life as it is. Yoga cultivates the sensitivity that allows us to experience the joy in simplicity. That happiness is much more subtle, expansive and wonderful.
Contentment is found in wanting what we have and not wanting what we don’t, or can’t, have. True happiness arises naturally since it isn’t something we could search for outside ourselves somewhere.
The experience of a deeper, broader and more permanent happiness is one of yoga’s fundamental gifts to the dedicated practitioner. And though it may not be the final fruit along the yogic path, happiness certainly is a valid motive for yoga practice.
Elke Avis is the founder of Free Girls Yoga organisation offering yoga and health education to teen girls in schools and throughout the local community. She has been practising and studying in the yoga tradition for 15 years and teaching hatha yoga since 2008.