The word namaste is an expression of deep gratitude and recognition. Twice a week for the past six months, I have heard this beautiful word from the lips of my yoga teacher as she presses her palms together in front of her heart center. The entire class repeats her gesture, first looking down at our fingertips to acknowledge the divine beauty within ourselves, then looking outward to see it in one another.
Every year at Thanksgiving, many families offer gratitude among themselves. Sitting around a plump turkey, relatives give thanks for comfort, for joy, and for each other. Now that I have built a regular yoga practice for myself, I realize that giving thanks on only one day a year is not enough for the benefits of gratitude to take root.
Gratitude and yoga go hand-in-hand, and both are essential to well-being. In all other forms of exercise, gratitude takes the form of relief. I used to run every morning and I was always grateful, on the last lap, that my strenuous routine had come to an end. Yoga, however, teaches us to be grateful for the present moment, not only for the promise of future reward. It allows us to appreciate the full spectrum of life, from pleasure to pain and joy to sorrow. Through the practice of yoga, I have learned that life is a chiaroscuro; the darker moments allow the lighter times to glow ever more brightly. Therefore, I am grateful for every moment of my life.
This same principle of holistic gratitude extends to the self. I am a perfectionist by nature, but incorporating elements of yoga into my life has encouraged me not only to accept my flaws and acknowledge my merits, but to find deep gratitude for both. Indeed, yoga exercises gratitude as it does every other muscle. Just as the asana and pranayama practice opens up the breath, and meditation the mind, so too does the holistic practice of yoga release the wellspring of gratitude that resides within you.
Gratitude is so important to our mental and even physical well-being. If instead of feeling pain, we focus on appreciating that pain and its importance in our lives, we succeed in ridding our bodies and minds of negative emotions, replacing them with positive ones. Although rooted in Eastern yogic philosophy, this idea is being incorporated into Western medicine. A study by the Mayo Clinic cites these health benefits of positive thinking:
- Decreased negative stress
- Greater resistance to catching the common cold
- A sense of well-being and improved health
- Reduced risk of coronary artery disease
- Easier breathing with certain lung diseases, such as emphysema
- Improved coping ability for women with high-risk pregnancies
- Better coping skills during hardships
By practicing gratitude, in essence, we create more reasons to be grateful.
Even if you don’t have a regular yoga practice, there are ways to incorporate gratitude into your everyday life. Setting aside a few moments a day to just reflect on what you appreciate today can be helpful. If you find yourself entrenched in negative thinking, try to replace those stressful thoughts with thoughts of gratitude for yourself and others.
For example: if you get caught in the rain, try not to focus on the fact that you’re wet, uncomfortable, and probably late, but rather focus on the benefits that rain brings to the Earth. Another thing that can be helpful is journaling three or five small things for which you are grateful every morning after waking, or every evening before falling asleep. That way, when Thanksgiving rolls around again next year, you will have a wellspring of deep gratitude to share with others.