The pursuit of happiness as a ‘destination’ may well be futile – but practicing yoga can help us find something even more valuable – radical self-acceptance, writes yoga and meditation instructor Lisa Portolan.
People start practicing yoga for a number of reasons: cross-training, to find a quiet space set aside from their lives, or to achieve a lanky yoga bod or the flexibility of a gymnast. Others among us are searching for something more – a way of life or mindset that we can’t put our fingers on – and we’re drawn to yoga as a solution to this problem that we can’t quite articulate.
We sense there’s something more to life than the humdrum of the everyday. We can feel it at the edges of our world, a memory or vision, barely conceivable, hardly credible, but there.
Some people might call it happiness. The ultimate state of being. A place where our anxieties and stresses melt away, and what is left behind isn’t simply average – a state of catatonic despondency – but joy. I believe that our pursuit of happiness goes beyond that. I believe we search for connection and ultimately meaning.
We arrive at yoga in different ways. Our first meeting with this Eastern spiritual tradition, commoditised by the West, might be a series of postures. From sun salutations, through to warrior, we come to understand yoga on the mat, straining, and pushing, learning flexibility and silence at the same time. Focusing on our breath, pranayama, the life force, as we weave our way through often-complex series. Each posture compliments the next. Sun salutations warm us up for an intricate standing and balancing series, followed by inversions, and finally rest on the mat.
For those of us who have suffered through more than one class (because yoga can be daunting and hard for many), we shortly find ourselves obsessed. We become addicted to the way our bodies feel, but also the quietness of mind that the postures afford us. As we master these postures, we might ask for something more. After all, learning how to pull off a headstand might provide us with a genuine party trick, and maybe even a banging-bod, but on the road to that headstand, we learnt a few more things, and we asked a few more questions.
Like, why yoga?
You could have taken a Pilates or acrobatics course. The cognisance and participation in yoga means you were searching for something else. We all know that behind the exercise transcends a deeply spiritual practice.
Yoga is a tradition that survives the test of time. Some might even draw the arrow back to 3,000 BC when Arjuna battled an invading army on the planes of the Hindu Kush, and Krishna whispered wise words into his ears that came to spell the letters, thoughts, and fundamental tenets behind the Bhagavad-Gita (the Gita) – the great spiritual text, and a yoga fundamental.
During the eve of this great battle, Krishna came to impart a series of learnings to a fearful Arjuna. These can be synthesised into three key ideas (as articulated by Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita):
- There is an infinite, changeless reality beneath the world of change
- This same reality lies at the core of every human personality
- The purpose of life is to discover this reality experientially: that is, to realise God while here on earth.
On the mat we learn these things. The postures are a gateway to something greater, to a more nuanced understanding of self, the world around us, and how we cope with the everyday joys and tragedies which come to colour our lives.
The asanas (postures) we practice on the mat were developed to train the body, and in doing so, the mind. Like any form of athletic mastery, whether it is running a marathon, playing an A-Grade tennis match, or trikonasa (tree pose), a level of commitment, practise, energy and mental connection is required. In pushing ourselves to overcome the limitations of our corporal form, we are going deeper within our own understanding of self, our own capacities to deal with and conquer situations or states of being.
Yoga and Asana practice is the pathway to self-mastery, to attaining a level of contentment. It prepares us for the world and its challenges, allowing us to accept things we can’t change, and move forward with those we can.
Santosha is a Sanskrit word that defines our practice. The concept is a difficult one to translate directly, as the original definition has changed and evolved. It can be described as a state of acceptance, contentment and satisfaction. We come to learn and practice santosha through our postures – we recognise the journey, the physical and mental strength required to practice, for example, kukkutasana (rooster pose). We also learn our kukkutasana may never be as perfect as our teacher’s or friend’s – and we accept that. We find contentment in our own realisation.
The road to happiness is a fraught one. Today’s society might quietly shape our perception of it through ads, billboards, digital and social media, and of course the people around us. A happiness narrative is sewn into the very fabric of our world. It’s sold with a series of adjuncts (which have to be bought separately), such as success, love, and physical perfection, as well as more tangible milestones that need to be achieved to reach this state of being, like the right car, home, spouse, child and job. We’re told that we’re unrefined, that these baubles and decorations are required to reach this elevated emotion.
This is what has been coined the ‘arrival fallacy’ – the idea that you’ll be happy when you get there. Yoga teaches us that ‘there’ doesn’t necessarily exist, and that the road traversed and the lessons learnt are instead the real personal victory. It also allows us to practice radical self-acceptance – a notion that is truly anarchic in today’s modern world.
At the end of his sleepless night waiting for battle, Krishna, the God expressed in tangible form, turns to Arjuna and says: ‘I am the Self in the heart of every creature, Arjuna, and the beginning, middle and end of their existence’ (10: 20).
The Gita, and Arjuna’s journey, is an expression of the war within – one that each of us experiences. A war to reach a sense of contentment, satisfaction, happiness and meaning. Our greatest obstacle is our notion that we’re not enough – and that we need to fundamentally change and conceal our nature to reach that ideal state.
Yoga, and any other physical practice which requires mastery, teaches us that we are.
Lisa Portolan is a qualified yoga and meditation instructor, as well as being a writer, freelance journalist and communications and marketing professional. Her interest in happiness began as a result of a personal quest for purpose. Lisa’s book Happy As – why the quest for happiness is making us miserable, is available from Echo Publishing. lisaportolan.com