I am grateful for… the Holiday season. During the holidays, it is easy to fall into the trap of continuing the stress mode of our daily life. It can be easy to find new stressors relating to the holidays and/or keep holding on to all the past ones. Or, we can take the opportunity and shift our minds to a state of gratitude this holiday season.
Thanksgiving has always been a very special holiday for my family. For the last couple of years, no matter where we are, my brothers and I go home to Tijuana, Mexico for it. My mom cooks an amazing feast that combines Mexican and American delicacies. Who knew that langosta burritos and honey glazed ham would taste so good together? We talk about the old days; share funny stories; relate where we are in our lives and where we want to go. And of course, we go around the table and say what we are thankful for. For one night, the world goes still.
State of Gratitude
This stillness has a lot to do with the fact that for one day we focus purely on the good in our lives. The racing to do lists, regrets, disappointments, sad thoughts…all the bad parts of life are overlooked. The blessings come to the forefront. The blissful happiness experienced in Thanksgiving dinner is due to the fact that for this day we are in a state of gratitude. There should definitely be more days like this.
We are constantly in stress mode over something. So much, that it is often hard to go through a day smiling and remembering all the blessings we do have.
This year we may have received bad news; experienced sad events; felt overwhelmed at work; and went through days feeling unmotivated. The Thanksgiving holiday provides a break from these types of events and other daily stressors. It forces us to take a break from the “if only this were different in my life” attitude and just enjoy the moment we have with people we love, eating really good food, and reflecting on the things we are thankful for. Because even if we had tough moments this year, I am sure all of us can find really good ones too. We are lucky to have something in our lives. These are the things that make life a little more enjoyable and that make us happier. There is always something to be thankful for.
However, it would be good to live in this state of gratitude more often. Research shows that acknowledging what you’re thankful for can lead to a happier, healthier life. And what is more important than that?
A Gratitude Practice
Unfortunately, this will be my first Thanksgiving away from my family. Since I still want to experience the stillness and happiness this holiday usually provides, I will be hitting the mat and turning my yoga flow into a gratitude practice all weekend.
The good thing about this is that I can practice this flow even when it’s not Thanksgiving. I can bring the state of gratitude more often into my life.
Already, practicing yoga is a way to achieve a state of stillness. We are free from racing thoughts as our mind shifts to focusing on our mind body connection through our breath and flow. The physical and mental awareness that comes from a regular yoga practice can help you feel gratitude towards yourself, others, and your body. So, is there a way to introduce even more stillness and gratitude into the flow? The answer is YES.
Below are five steps to turn your yoga flow into a gratitude flow.
1. A Gratitude Attitude
Start to shift into a state of gratitude. This starts the moment you enter a yoga studio for class or when you are preparing your home for your practice. We take a moment to be grateful for this time that we have on the mat and that we have set aside for ourselves.
When we are in a sincere state of gratitude our energy is one of acceptance and harmony. According to Chuck Danes, author of Abundance and Happiness, in this state “you resonate, and as a result project a much higher vibrational frequency which is exactly what attracts to you the events, conditions, and circumstances that you desire.” This state of gratitude will attract more positive benefits into your flow. It is the law of attraction. If we practice being in this state more often, we will draw more blessings into our life.
The importance of this step and the reason it comes first is captured by Yoga Master Teacher, Rod Stryker. He says that in order for the next step of setting an intention to grow and flourish, we must first prepare the mind by shifting into a state of gratitude. One of the things he encourages before planting the seed of our intention, which is step 2, is to find gratitude for this moment in time and everything that has led up to this moment.
2. Set a Gratitude Intention
While we are in the first pose of our practice, whether it’s Child’s Pose (Balasana), Easy Pose (Sukhasana), Downward-Facing Dog (Adhi Mukha Svanasana) or any other pose, this is the opportunity to turn inward and prepare for the flow. We usually set an intention or resolution for the practice. This is typically what it is that you are hoping your practice will help you achieve. Why are you doing yoga; what brought you to class; why are you on your mat. During this practice we will set our intention to one of gratitude. Throughout the flow, we will bring our attention and awareness to the blessings we’ve experienced this year.
By setting gratitude as our intention, we are building a bridge between what we will work through on our mat, and what we will continue to focus our mind on, when we step off the mat. Hopefully, we will leave the mat still focusing on our blessings and therefore with a more positive thinking than when we started.
Take a few breaths to focus on what your thankful for. Make sure your statement is simple and something you can easily repeat over and over again to yourself.
Setting an intention seems like such a simple thing. However, many people make intellectual resolves all the time but they rarely bring results. Swami Satyananda Saraswati writes in his book Yoga Nidra that the reason for this is because the resolve is not planted deeply enough and is made when the mind is disturbed or when the mind is not ready to receive it. Luckily, yoga creates the perfect opportunity and the right atmosphere to set a gratitude intention.
We are already in the state of gratitude from Step 1 and now our mind is prepared for the intention. When we plant the seed of gratitude during this time in our yoga practice it has the chance to take root and work on the subconscious layers of our mind throughout the practice. It will also extend beyond the flow. The key is that the mind must be open and receptive and ready to receive the seed of the intention for it to be effective and for us to see results.
3. Start Connecting with your Breath
The first fifteen minutes of the flow is designed to warm up while focusing on our intention and our breath. We safely ease our self, both physically and mentally, into the exercise. Postures, such as light twisting and bending, shoulder rotations and spinal rocking, help us prepare for the activity ahead. We are not only improving our muscle flexibility, loosening areas of our body, and increasing blood flow to our extremities, but are also focusing our mind on the flow ahead and start moving along with our breath and intention. We start establishing a mind body connection.
We can establish this connection by practicing gratitude breathing. Let’s take the typical warm-up of the Cat-Cow gentle flow between the two poses as an example. We begin by inhaling as we move into Cow Pose (Bitilasana) and we drop our belly towards the mat. Lift the chin and chest, and gaze up toward the ceiling. We exhale as we move into Cat Pose (Marjaryasana). We draw our belly to your spine and round our back toward the ceiling.
As we flow between the two, we imagine breathing in and out of our heart. As we do, we focus on a positive feeling or attitude. While moving into Cow and breathing in, we think, “Breathing in the gift or blessing.” This is the person, object, or event we are thankful for. By doing this, we are opening ourselves to actively and intentionally taking in the experience of what we’re grateful for being a gift in our lives. As we move to Cat Pose and breathe out, we think, “Breathing out my gratitude.” We imagine ourselves surrounding the object of our appreciation in a cloud, bubble, or field of gratitude.
4. Use Yoga Poses to Move your Gratitude Intention Forward
Below are 4 Examples:
Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
⇒ How to do it
This is one of the most common yoga poses and is considered a foundational pose. The pose opens up the heart. It is my favorite heart opener due to the fact that we keep coming back to the pose throughout the practice. We have multiple opportunities to open up the heart.
Heart-opening yoga poses are huge emotional releases. We store countless memories and emotions in the heart center, including past traumas that no longer serve us. By holding this pose and coming back to it, we allow ourselves to bring to the surface buried emotions and finally releasing all those that we don’t need to keep holding on to. When we release those heavy emotions that have been holding us down, we invite space in our life for joy and gratitude.
We can visualize our chest and heart opening to let go of negative emotions and invite gratitude in instead. By going back to this pose, we will leave our practice feeling lighter, more energized, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Reverse Warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana)
⇒ How to do it
This pose is also known as Peaceful Warrior. It starts in Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II) with feet wide apart and front knee bent. The arms are raised to the side to shoulder height, so they’re parallel to the floor. We go into Reverse Warrior by bringing the back hand down to rest on the back leg and with an inhale bring the front arm up towards the ceiling, reaching the fingers away from each other.
The poses are aptly named after a fierce warrior named Virabhadra. According to legend, Virabhadra had a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet, and wielded a thousand clubs. The physical expression of Warrior II represents the focused attention and warrior strength required to prepare for battle. When we practice yoga, our mat becomes our battlefield, and our “enemy” becomes our mind. Over time, as we strengthen our bodies and our minds, we learn how to face and defeat all our challenges swiftly and gracefully.
Often, in order to feel gratitude, we need our minds to let go of whatever is not serving us. In yoga we strive to be present and quiet our minds from racing thoughts and to do lists. By living in stillness we invite gratitude to take place. This is fully expressed in Peaceful Warrior.
Warrior II is one of the basic yoga poses. It is considered among the most powerful of all the yoga asanas. It can help you feel gratitude toward the strength of your own body. It helps increase our capacity to be in alignment with our body and our heart. Once we’re in alignment, we take the pose further by going into Peaceful Warrior. This builds stamina and concentration so it helps focus our intention even more.
Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana)
⇒ How to do it
This forward bend, particularly with hands in anjali mudra (anjali appropriately means “offering”), evokes an image of bowing and offering gratitude to the world.
In Pyramid Pose, you first have to create boundaries through alignment. Once you set up a steady outer structure, you create the conditions for a vast inner spaciousness, which then frees you to fold, lengthen, spread, or soften more deeply into the pose. It releases tension and brings flexibility into your life.
Building a firm foundation with alignment in Pyramid Pose will teach you how to cultivate a sense of freedom. The boundaries and structure of alignment and muscular action that you’ll establish through this sequence will allow you to release safely and deeply and to experience more freedom of movement in each pose. This is why technique is so important. After you have good technique you can go further into all the poses.
In the pose, imagine that all of your worries and stress from the day roll down your spine and pour into the floor. As you leave all the negativity outside of your body, you can feel renewed with gratitude and positivity in your life.
Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
⇒ How to do it
This is a hip opening stretch pose. Hip stretches allow you to connect with the tightness and tension in your body and mindfully, consciously, let it go. Any time we bring awareness to where we’re tight and can release it, we can feel grateful. Pigeon is a deep hip opener that has that effect.
We can’t fully embrace gratitude if we are holding onto grudges or anger, so we must focus on letting go of the things that prevent us from being grateful. The pose requires consciously releasing tension in our body. It reminds us of the importance of letting go.
With each exhale, focus on releasing the tension in your hips so you can press them close to the ground. At the same time picture letting go of whatever may be blocking your gratitude.
5. Find Stillness in Savasana and Renew your Intention
Savasana, Sanskrit for “Corpse Pose,” is the supine resting posture performed at the end of a yoga class. Yogis all over the world use this time to quiet the mind and body, allowing the asana practice to settle in.
We settle into it by lying on our back with our legs slightly apart and our arms extended to our side, palms facing upward. We inhale and exhale through the nose, allowing our breath, muscles and mind to be completely relaxed.
We express gratitude by taking this opportunity to be still, calm and present while soaking in the benefits of the practice. We can reflect on how it felt to be in a state of gratitude throughout the practice. We review our intention set at the beginning and set the new intention of taking our gratitude with us off the mat.
Swami Satyananada Saraswati says the resolve you make at the beginning of the practice is like sowing a seed, and the resolve at the end is like irrigating it. The body and mind are very relaxed and very receptive at the end of your practice, especially when you have just come out of a deep savasana. This is the moment where you decide to take your intention with you.