Why we practice feeling grateful at the end of every yoga class.
In honor of our national festival of gratitude. Or food. Or being grateful for having food. Or eating our feelings. Don't eat your feelings. Feel them.
Right after your luxurious Savasana, after you've reconnected with every sense, moved every joint and begun to breathe... well, less like a corpse, I invite you to feel gratitude for three things in your life.
This isn't just a nice way to end class, a touchy feely, oh-see-how-grateful-we-all-are, pie in the sky, there ain't no danger in the world, special secret mumbo jumbo. This is based on real data that neuroscientists at the highest levels are using to transform their own lives while they study the brain some more. So I figure that school administrators, financial analysts, procurement specialists, social workers, paramedics and nurses, fathers and mothers, ministers, veterans, high school teachers and you should benefit from it, too.
If you come to yoga classes with me, you know we've been curling up in renewasana between corpse and closing class to feel feelings of gratitude for a long time. I recently listened to an interview of Dr. Rick Hanson by Tami Simon of SoundsTrue - listened over and over, it's that good - that made the science and procedures behind gratitude practice really come to life. Now if you've listened to Simon interview before, you're already a fan and may have heard this yourself. If not, head on over for a listen instead of longing for another installment of America's Next Top Model (Corey so should have won). You'll need to sign up for a free "Direct Access" Membership but then search on "Rick Hanson" and you'll be in. It's worth it.
The interview is about "positive neuroplasticity" and leverages what we know about neurophysiology to overcome our natural bias toward looking out for threats, so activating our fight or flight response, and grow our tendency toward a more relaxed nervous system. This procedure "comes from tough minded clarity about the ways life is challenging" and is "based in brain science."
The trick is to feel your feelings. But Hanson has a much catchier way of putting this.
Hanson notes that having a positive - or useful - mental state is the prerequisite to this method, but also notes how infrequently these transient states actually change us in any fundamental way. He gives 5 modifiers that lead to "positive neuroplasticity:"
(You really should listen to him talk, his interview is crazy packed). His recommendation is that "half a dozen times a day, half a minute at a time" you "help the good stuff stick to you" by stopping to notice the sensations and feelings associated with the positive experience and "install" these experiences by increasing each of the 5 modifiers. Make it last a little longer by noticing it. Up the intensity by savoring it. Notice every sense it hits, even moving your body to capture more sensation. Allow it to be on its own - new, not lumped in with other experiences. Acknowledge the experience's importance to you.
The experience doesn't have to be a rock-your-world kind of moment. It can be a "one or two on a ten scale," petting your dog and a stranger smiling at you are a couple of examples they discuss.
So now you know why, while you're curled up in a ball, preparing to take your practice out into the world, I ask you to feel the feelings that surround 3 things for which you are grateful. Yoga practice, we all know, is not so much practice for handstands and down dogs: it's practice for traffic and lines and challenges and grace. Practice for grace, practice for love and install a little extra light into that noggin.
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