In a series of previous blog posts I've covered the Yoga skills that deepen your practice: breath/movement coordination, "sandwiching the movement inside the breath," selective engagement/relaxation, playing with the edge, left/right coordination/mirroring. These skills, however, if practiced consistently, are a direct path towards greater fulfillment not just in your Yoga practice, but in life. They are, in my view, the steps to true contentment and happiness. Do I have your attention? Read on.

Step 1. By coordinating breath and movement together you are sending a signal to your nervous system that you are present for interaction. When your awareness focuses on this simple action - inhale arms up, exhale arms down - it is like petting a cat along the pile of the fur, it begins to purr with delight. So does your nervous system - it relaxes, and as it does, it allows you greater freedom of movement. Once your nervous system gets the message that you are present and paying attention, it can relax its own vigil a little, because the more attentive you are, the less likely you are to get hurt, the more it lets you do. You can gain some progress in your game with the edge.

Step 2. By refining the technique a little through the so-called "sandwiching" (I haven't come up with a better term for it - any suggestions?), we take this process of interaction with the nervous system a little further. This has been probably the most valuable skill in my practice. I even have a handy diagram:

The breath must play the supporting role to the movement: inhale and a nano-second later raise your arms, let the movement and the breath run concurrently until the end with the breath finishing nano-second after the movement, exhale and a nano-second later begin lowering the arms. The third line here is the intention - you always know if you are going to inhale or exhale next, so you can plan your movement accordingly. This technique of blending Pranayama with Asana infuses each breath and movement with meaning and purpose and creates a state of mindfulness. It also slows you down, so that you can feel more sensations, which leads us to the next step.

Step 3. In this mindful state we are able to feel more of the subtle internal sensations - Pratyahara. When we feel more, we can control the body with more precision, and so can practice selective engagement of certain muscles while keeping others relaxed. This is the essence of Yoga Asana - effort without tension. This sense of control is enormously satisfying to human psyche. Studies show that sense of control over certain things relates directly to overall satisfaction and happiness in people. The need for control is a very deep need that, if fulfilled, leads to greater happiness. It creates a sense of certainly, predictability and understanding of how things work. Which is why people are so keen on finding control over things in their lives, sometimes in ways that are not very healthy. Yoga and mindful body control offers us a healthy outlet for satisfying this very deep human need.

Step 4. Flow with it! The previous steps all lead here - a sense of flow, of being immersed into the process, which is another way of describing a sense of pure bliss and joy. Once you become completely absorbed in what you are doing, you are "in the zone", or in a state of Dharana, or absorption. The longer you stay in this flow, the closer you get to an even greater meditative state, which is our next step.

Step 5. The longer we stay in the flow zone, the greater our ability to maintain the state of focus and absorption, the more prolonged the sense of happiness and satisfaction. Yoga calls this stage Dhyana.

Step 6. By the time your Asana practice is done you are primed, you are ready for the final step - Samadhi. Just sit for a few minutes (or lie on your back in Shivasana) and enjoy the effects. It feels as if you melt into the world, you belong in it, you have a rightful place in the order of things, and you are just happy to be here. It is a mental state of relaxation without dullness. It can be achieved with potent drugs and hours of meditation, but it can also be achieved step by step without any harsh intervention in a few minutes, every day.

And here we come to the last step - regularity. The more you practice these steps, the faster this process will happen for you. It is as if you are keeping your path to happiness well-swept and well-traveled.

I think I will go to my happy place now! Join me.


Anna M.