Bringing Happiness Home
It's tempting to think that if we stick to poses we like, we'll be happier. But as Cyndi Lee explains, we can find a more lasting contentment if we embrace the asanas that challenge us the most.
One of the great things about a home practice is that we can tailor it to fit our mood. If we are tired, we can do a restorative practice. If we are feeling strong, we might choose a strenuous session that includes all of our favorite poses.
The downside to this freedom of choice is that we might not always be tuned in enough to fashion a practice that meets our deepest needs. We might end up practicing only the poses we like and avoiding those we don't, which ultimately bolsters our strengths and lets our weaknesses off the hook. Why do we indulge ourselves this way? Probably because it's easy to let ourselves believe that doing what we like will make us happy—and that doing what we don't like will make us unhappy.
But the truth is that indulging this belief actually plants the seeds for unhappiness to grow: As long as we depend on objects and activities for our happiness—chocolate, shopping, napping, or even sticking to the poses we love most—we will constantly be searching outside of ourselves.
The opposite of such conditional happiness is unconditional happiness, a state that allows us to find contentment in any situation, whether we are uncomfortable in a yoga pose or stuck in a traffic jam. When we let go of our narrow idea of happiness and open ourselves to all experiences, we take the first step toward santosha (contentment). One of the guiding principles of classical yoga philosophy, santosha has been described as a "peaceful kind of happiness in which one rests without desires."
Experiencing santosha takes practice, and one way we can work toward it is through a mindful and openhearted approach to our yoga. By following a varied asana practice that incorporates both our most and least favorite poses, we can practice staying steady with the breath as we move through the challenging physical sensations, powerful emotions, and ever-changing mental activity of our session.
Instead of wishing that some poses were different, we can get a taste of true happiness—a groundedness that is not shaken by feelings that stem from external activity, like the fear of going upside down in Sirsasana (Headstand). Even when our arms quiver and our hips whine, as long as we can stay awake and inquisitive to the process, we can learn to experience happiness.
For many of us, hip openers are associated with feelings of frustration and unhappiness. But through a steady home practice, we are constantly reminded that our happiness is not based on how much our hips open in an asana like Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose) but on how we choose to respond to the reality of our hips, whether they're loose or tight.
The following vinyasa is a great opportunity to explore the notion of santosha. While you practice, think about what my Buddhist teacher Gehlek Rimpoche says: "What is happiness?... Do you look for it somewhere in the sky or clouds?...When you look for happiness, look for pain, and when you find the pain, and you begin to see it lessening, you'll find happiness."
1. Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Stand tall with your arms at your sides in Tadasana
(Mountain Pose). As you inhale, bring your weight onto your right leg, lift your left leg, and place the sole of your left foot onto your inner right thigh. Bring your hands together in prayer position at the center of your chest. Feel the meeting of the palms as a mirror of the meeting of your left foot and right thigh. Lengthen the spine. Slowly raise your arms overhead, extending every finger up to the sky. Can you rest within the natural swaying motion of the tree, rather than trying to change it? Riding the ebb and flow of this organic movement can be a way to practice steadiness and openheartedness in the midst of change. Stay here for 5 to 7 breaths. To come out, release the left leg and return to Tadasana.
2. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)
From Tadasana, on an exhalation, stretch your left leg 3 to 4 feet behind you and place the left foot on the floor, pointing the left toes outward 45 degrees. Bring your right heel so it points toward your left arch. Bend your right leg deeply and turn your torso to the left as you stretch your arms out to the sides and look past your right fingertips. Feel the outward extension of the arms originate from the middle of your chest; let this expansion be a reminder of your own enormous capacity to open your joints, your heart, and your mind. Relax in this big space. Maybe feeling strong and expansive could be one of your definitions of happiness. Stay here for 5 to 7 breaths.
3. Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
From Virabhadrasana II, on an exhalation, reach away from the body with the right arm and place the hand on the floor to the outside of your right foot. Come up onto your fingertips or rest your hand on a block to create more space and length on the underside of your ribs. Reach your left arm toward the ceiling and then bring the left bicep alongside your left ear. Turn your head so you are looking up under your tricep and rotate your ribs toward the ceiling. Look for equal length and opening on both sides of the rib cage. Now that your body is organized in a way that creates the conditions for opening the hips, see if you can rest your mind and be content with the sensations you're feeling. Stay here for 5 to 7 breaths.
4. Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
While in Utthita Parsvakonasana, direct your exhalation to your back heel to create a sense of rooting in the foot. As you inhale, straighten your right leg to stand all the way back up and bring the arms parallel to the floor. Exhale again and on your next inhalation, allow the left side of your pelvis to swivel slightly to the right until your right knee comes directly in line with your right foot. On an exhalation, reach out with the right hand and lower it down to the floor, a block, or your shin—wherever you can reach and still maintain proper alignment in the hips. Notice if you have a craving to touch the floor even though doing so would overstretch your inner thigh or restrict your breathing. Make the choice that will enable you to have a sense of freedom in the pose, and practice being content there. Stay here for 5 to 7 breaths.
5. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)
From Trikonasana, rotate your torso on an exhalation so you bring both hands to the floor on either side of your right foot. Walk your hands to the left until they are equidistant between your feet; turn the right foot in so it is parallel to the left. To lengthen the spine, lift the torso slightly and lengthen the side body on an inhalation; fold forward on an exhalation so your spine and head release to the floor. Some people covet the flexibility of those who flop right over in this pose; others envy those with the strength to contain their looseness and avoid injury. These feelings aren't obstacles to happiness, but how you relate to your body's limitations could be. What do you choose today? Stay for 5 to 7 breaths.
6. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana Preparation (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose Preparation)
From Prasarita Padottanasana, walk your hands to the right to the front of your mat, point your right toes in the same direction, and turn the left toes in slightly. Bend your right knee and keep your left leg straight, coming onto your left toes for a low lunge. Bring both hands to the inside of the right foot, then slowly walk them forward and bring your forearms to the floor. If this is too intense, place your hands on blocks or lower your back knee to the floor. Rather than letting your head drop in despair, maintain length in the spine. This sensation might not be your favorite, but try to pay close attention to how uncomfortable feelings such as this actually begin to shift. Finding more space and clarity in your hips might even lead to a sense of lightness in your heart. After 5 to 7 breaths, it is over!
7. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana Variation (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose Variation)
Move into this posture from the previous pose by walking your hands back underneath your shoulders. Move your right hand to the outside of your right foot so your hands are framing your foot. Press down with your palms and use the strength of your left thigh to lift your hips up; rotate the front leg so your right shin rests on the floor with the right ankle near the left wrist and the right knee near the right wrist. Aim your hip points straight ahead. If this levitates the right hip, accessorize: Place a blanket or block underneath the hip so you can release into the organic support of the earth. Walk your hands forward; exhale as you fold over. Continue to let go of unnecessary effort in the shoulders, neck, elbow, and tummy. Learning how to not work too hard is an important part of our practice and an antidote to unhappiness. Stay here for 5 to 7 breaths.
8. Padasthila Janurasana (Ankle-to-Knee Pose)
From Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, walk your hands back under your shoulders and lift your torso up. Draw your left knee behind your right, sit back on your buttocks, and stack your shins so your right ankle sits on top of your left knee. Either stay sitting up with your arms at your sides or walk your hands forward and fold over, little by little. There may be a temptation to "cheat" by not really lining up the knees and ankles, but try to be precise with your alignment, which can pave the way for contentment and steadiness. This is not the most popular pose in yoga, but there is always a way to make it work: Sit on a block or straighten the bottom leg out in front of you. Stay here for 8 to 10 breaths.
9. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
On an inhalation, sit up straight and undo your stacked shins by sliding your knees away from each other. (If your pelvis is slumping under and you cannot sit up tall on your sitting bones, slip a folded blanket under your bum.) Place the soles of your feet together. Then bring your hands to the floor in front of you or hold on to your ankles, but don't pull on your toes. With-out using your hands, press the baby-toe edges of your feet together so the big-toe sides of the feet open up like a book. This action rotates the thighs outward, so protect them by not pushing down on them. Maintaining length in the spine, slowly fold forward. Get to know yourself and this pose gradually by applying the same kindness and friendliness you would with any new acquaintance. Hint: Take your time letting it all unfold. Stay here for at least 5 to 7 breaths.
10. Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
Sit up on an inhalation. Place your hands on the inside of your knees and use your arms to open your legs out to a straddle. Make sure your kneecaps and toes are facing the ceiling, not falling inward or outward. The first time you do this pose, sit up tall and press your fingertips down into the floor behind your sitting bones to stay lifted. Over time, fold forward and lengthen your sternum away from your pubic bone, bringing your abdomen and forehead toward the floor. Don't worry about this now, because wherever you are today is perfectly fine—even if you never fold all the way over, you can still live a full and happy life! Stay for at least 5 to 7 breaths. If you are folded over, come up on an inhalation.
11. Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose)
From the upright straddle position, bend your left leg and place the sole of the left foot high up against your inner right thigh so it's at a 90- to 100-degree angle to your right leg. On an exhalation, twist to the left and bring your right forearm onto the floor on the inside of the right leg as you bring your torso closer to the floor. Reach your left arm alongside your left ear, feeling open in the chest, strong in the back, and free in the breath. Create a sense of length in the spine from the firm grounding of the sitting bones. Lift the corners of your mouth too. After 5 to 7 breaths, inhale to sit up.
Prepare to repeat the sequence to the other side by crossing the legs and jumping back into Down Dog. Do Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), Down Dog, and Up Dog, then jump between the hands to Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Take Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), then Tadasana, and then repeat the entire happiness sequence to the other side.
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