Yoga and GratitudeNov 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Mila Burgess
Historically, the practice of gratitude has deep connections to yoga. In one of the oldest yogic texts, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yogis are encouraged to cultivate positive emotional practices to counter negative feelings. Kritajna, the Sanskirt word for gratitude, loosely translates to “an acquired state of consciousness so that one can be fully aware and appreciate the gifts of life.” The goal of yoga is to calm the mind, and incorporating affirmative, optimistic thoughts such as thoughts of gratitude, helps quiet undesirable mental chatter, which in turn provides greater clarity and allows us to be more present.
While ancient yogis understood the benefits of gratitude intuitively, there’s a large and growing body of research today that emphasizes its positive effects.
Gratitude’s Many Benefits
There are a variety of ways to incorporate gratitude into daily habits. Keeping a gratitude journal, sending thank you notes, expressing gratitude verbally and making a mental list of things for which one is grateful are all techniques that have been used in the study of gratitude’s impact. Studies on gratitude’s physical, emotional and social effects have been conducted by a variety of institutions, including Harvard University, The American Psychological Association, the University of Pennsylvania and The American Journal of Cardiology. The research can’t prove the specific cause and effect; however, all the studies show a correlation between gratitude and overall health and well-being.
Physically, being grateful optimizes blood pressure and cardiac functioning, improves sleep, increases energy levels and strengthens the immune system. Expressing gratitude also affects the brain. People who feel and express gratitude have a higher volume of gray matter in the part of the brain that supports language, memory processing, visual perception and sensory integration. It increases activity in the part of the brain that has an integral link to emotional regulation and decision making. Further, when one feels grateful, the brain releases a combination of dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins—collectively known as “the feel-good hormones.” They create a natural high that motivates people to habitually express gratitude. Gratitude is also associated with pain reduction, presumably due to the influx of dopamine that occurs in its expression. Grateful people often eat healthier, exercise more and have fewer doctor visits than others.
Emotionally, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater levels of happiness. There’s an old saying that it’s not happy people who are grateful but, rather, grateful people who are happy. Expressing gratitude enables more generosity and compassion, increases optimism and joy, and offsets the effects of materialism. Thankfulness reduces anxiety and depression. There are numerous studies that have shown gratitude journaling and sending thank you notes can increase happiness levels by as much as 30 percent.
Gratitude also reduces aggression and increases self-esteem. It improves mental fortitude and lowers the risk of PTSD. Recognizing all there is for which to be grateful, even in the worst of times, fosters grit.
Gratitude strengthens relationships and relieves loneliness and isolation. Studies that examined how gratitude can improve couples’ relationships found that those who express appreciation to their partners not only feel more positively toward the other person, but also are more responsive to their partners’ needs. They also feel comfortable openly and honestly expressing concerns about their relationship and prioritize the effort to maintain the relationship long term.
Gratitude and Yoga
Incorporating gratitude into daily life is simple. Combining it with yoga is not only easy, but an even more powerful practice. Interweaving gratitude into a yoga practice can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
Both the practice of yoga and that of gratitude require presence. As the ancient yogis suggested, the practice of presence is a vehicle for cultivating a quiet mind. This yogic mindset allows practitioners to have greater focus. Allowing gratitude to be the primary focus for a yoga practice is an effective method of expressing thankfulness and reaping its benefits.
Often, a yoga practice includes an invitation to set an intention or create a personal mantra upon which to call throughout the class. Both provide opportunities for students to express gratitude and then carry those grateful words, ideas and thoughts throughout the experience.
On the mat, yoga practitioners physically express gratitude through both heart opening and humble yoga poses. Additionally, when pausing in any given pose, one might count blessings instead of breaths or use the rhythm of the breath and movement as an opportunity to repeat the mantra or intention created at the top of the class. Poses that include anjali mudra, a hand gesture in which one brings palms together at heart center, are also considered to be expressions of gratitude.
Finally, many yoga classes close with a few moments of meditation in which practitioners extend thoughts of good will, good intention and gratitude to themselves and others.
The benefits of gratitude are well studied and documented. The yoga mat is an ideal place to offer expressions of thankfulness to oneself and to the world.
A Gratitude Yoga Flow
- Begin in an easy seated position with hands at heart center. Take a few minutes to check in and set an intention of gratitude or create a gratitude mantra.
- Move into a tabletop position. Walk the hands forward, come down to the forearms and allow the chest and forehead to drop towards to the earth into melting heart pose. Pause there for several breaths and call to mind three to five things for which to be grateful. Return to tabletop position.
- Tuck the toes so they point towards the wrists, lift the hips to transition to downward facing dog. Walk the feet forward to a standing forward fold.
- Roll, vertebra by vertebra, all the way up to standing. Reach the arms up and overhead for a gentle backbend and then float the hands to heart center. From this mountain pose variation, step the feet out as wide as the mat, turn the toes out towards the corners of the mat, bend the knees and drop the bottom towards the heels for garland pose, a deep yoga squat.
- Hinge forward and step the feet into a standing forward fold. Lift halfway to lengthen the spine and then step back to a high plank.
- Lower all the way down to the belly. Bring the hands under the shoulders and press into the palms, straighten the arms to find cobra pose. Tuck the toes and lift the hips for downward facing dog.
- Step the right foot forward between the hands, bend the right knee and drop the left knee to the mat. Reach the arms over head, bend the elbows at a 90-degree angle, squeeze the shoulder blades together, press the hips forward for a kneeling crescent lunge.
- Tuck the left toes under, lift the left knee, pivot down the back heel, continue to bend the right knee, interlace the fingers behind the back and slide the right shoulder down inside the right thigh, reach the crown of the head towards the floor and move the hands away from the low back for humble warrior.
- Release the hands, swivel up the left heel so that the legs are in a lunge position, place the left palm on the mat inside of the right foot, and reach the right fingertips towards the sky for an easy twist.
- Position the right hand outside of the right foot, step the left foot in closer and straighten the right knee for pyramid pose.
- Shift the weight into the right leg and bring the sole of the left foot to the inside of the front leg for tree pose. Hands come to heart center.
- Lower the left foot, returning to mountain pose. Repeat the sequence on the left side.
- From mountain pose, fold, lift halfway, plant the hands, and step back to plank, then downward facing dog.
- Step through to a seated position. Find balance on the sit bones, lift the feet, bend the knees or straighten the legs with the arms parallel to the earth for boat pose.
- Rock forward into tabletop and then lift the hands away from the earth coming to a kneeling position. Bring the hands to the heels, press the hips forward to find camel pose, a deep backbend.
- Release the backbend and slowly rise to kneeling. Sit on the heels and take a few breaths before moving through tabletop and into child’s pose.
- Transition to the back. Bend the knees, feet flat on the mat about hip distance apart, take the arms to a T shape and allow the knees to fall to the right side. Keep the left shoulder glued to the mat and turn the head to the left. Take five to 10 deep breaths there before changing to the other side.
- Once complete, bring the soles of the feet together, knees fall out towards the sides of the space for reclined butterfly. Bring the left hand to the heart and right hand to the belly. Stay for five to 10 breaths, repeating the mantra or intention created at the start of the practice.
- Eventually, extend the legs long, let the feet fall open, bring the arms down by the sides and rest in corpse pose.
- After several minutes, slowly rise back up to an easy seated position. Take a few moments to extend thoughts of gratitude in whatever directions feel right in the moment. Revisit and repeat the intention or mantra set at the start of the practice. Seal the practice by bringing the hands to heart center and bow forward in gratitude. ❧
Mila Burgess, E-RYT 500, YACEP, teaches at LifePower Yoga in Sandy Springs. She is the owner of Metta Yoga, offering workshops, private lessons, virtual classes, teacher trainings and retreats. Contact her at [email protected].