Have you ever wondered what makes you happy and what the key ingredients are to happiness? Yoga and happiness go together naturally – and there’s a very good case for this.
Research shows that Yoga practitioners are happier and healthier than non-practitioners. Mindfulness practice in Yoga, such as breathwork and relaxation, plays an important role in this. Yoga also has a very positive effect on key brain chemicals and the nervous system, boosting mood levels and happiness.
In this article, we explore what it means to be happy and how Yoga comes into it. You may be surprised by how ordinary happiness essentially is.
What Is The Key To Happiness?
Research suggests our “happiness baseline” is set when we are children, in direct response what happened in our home and wider external environment. Subsequently, our ongoing happiness levels seem to remain at that early baseline.
As a result, if we have had a difficult childhood, it may be a struggle to develop a greater sense of happiness later in life. However, finding greater peace and happiness is very possible, provided go about this with consciousness and intention.
Dr Todd Kashdan is a professor of clinical psychology and a recognised “happiness” expert. His goal is to find out how we can achieve a happier and more meaningful life.
In the first place, we need to define what happiness is and how we can improve it.
Recipe For Happiness
Intuitively, we may think that is we want to find true happiness, we need to take targeted action for finding happiness. However, Dr Kashdan suggests that this may, in fact, be detrimental to being happy.
This is why:
“… Much of what we desire often has nothing to do with happiness but is just as important. This includes meaning and purpose in life, wisdom, satisfying relationships, the ability to tolerate distress, spirituality, creativity, compassion, feeling a sense of competence and mastery, and so on. Sometimes trying to be happy actually gets in the way of making inroads toward these other elements…” – Todd Kashdan
In essence, we need to focus on those things that give positive meaning to our lives, rather than happiness itself.
In his book, Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, Dr Kashdan explains how our happiness baseline can be shifted with intent.
He suggests that we can achieve this by becoming more curious about life and everything in and around it.
By developing this sense of curiosity, we tend to be more willing to leave the familiar behind and venture into new areas. We embrace uncertainty and start to learn, explore and grow. In the process, we become better and happier people.
Are Yogis Really Happier?
Is there truly a relationship between Yoga and happiness? The first thing to do is, of course, to ask Yoga practitioners themselves.
Most serious Yoga practitioners would heartily agree with the fact that Yoga generates a feeling of happiness and well-being.
There is also a considerable amount of science that confirms this fact. An observational study carried out in India in 2016 focused on two groups of young college students age 17-27. One group included students practising Yoga and the other non-practising students.
All students were assessed in terms of happiness and wellbeing and also mental balance, using the same interview method.
The results showed that the group with students practising Yoga experienced significantly higher levels of wellbeing and mental balance that the non-practising group.
Another US-based study carried out anonymous interviews of 4307 randomly selected Yoga practitioners from 15 different Yoga studios. Results showed that regular Yoga practice generated a range of improved health-related factors, including an improved sense of wellbeing.
Interestingly, Yoga practice at home was found to have the most positive effects. In contrast, years of experience or number of Yoga classes attended on a weekly basis seemed to matter less. This shows that a simple, home-based Yoga practice can be very beneficial for well-being.
Yoga, Curiosity And Happiness – The Puzzle Unravelled
How does Yoga contribute to a greater sense of happiness and well-being?
And as we know now, curiosity is an essential ingredient to finding greater happiness. The practice of Yoga promotes stillness and mindfulness. This allows our bodies and minds to relax so that curiosity and also courage can emerge.
Jason Crandel, a well-known Yoga teacher and writer, explains:
“Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are”
Thus, Yoga practice makes a valuable contribution to a happy, peaceful and meaningful life.
How Else Does Yoga Contribute To Greater Happiness?
Research shows that yoga also contributes to happiness in other, equally important ways. They include a positive effect on the brain neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and the lesser-known Vagus nerve.
Effects On Brain Neurotransmitter Levels
Now it’s getting a bit more complicated! But also very interesting.
GABAs are neurotransmitters or chemical messengers that are located in the brain. They play a key role in lowering the general activity of the body and the nervous system.
Overall, higher GABA levels are associated with a higher level of relaxation, lower stress levels and better mood and sleep. In contrast, low levels of GABA have the opposite effect. They contribute to a sense of anxiety, stress and depression.
An important study has shown that a single hour of Yoga causes the brain’s GABA levels to peak. A single hour of Yoga, therefore, significantly changes your brain chemistry in a positive direction.
That alone makes your Yoga class worth it! Further, regular longer-term practice of Yoga has even more positive effects.
Another study shows that long-term Yoga practice reduces stress and anxiety. It also improves feelings of emotional, social, and spiritual well-being.
Overall, the regular practice of Yoga improves happiness and better mental well-being over an extended period of time, by stimulating GABA levels.
Yoga’s Effect On The Vagus Nerve and the Nervous System
The Vagus nerve is a relatively obscure nerve. Its role is to relay messages between the brain and the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems – and vice versa.
It may well provide the explanation for such sayings “I feel it in my gut” or “I have a gut feeling”!
The Vagus nerve plays a critical role in our ability to relax. It helps regulate the parasympathetic nervous system (“the rest and digest nervous system”) and the activity of GABA.
It also activates a “relaxation response”. This, in turns, decreases anxiety, stress and inflammation.
Body-mind practices such as Yoga and meditation appear to play a key role in stimulating the Vagus nerve. This explains why we have a sense of calm, wellbeing and relaxation after a Yoga class, especially if it involved breath work and relaxation.
Yoga and meditation have also the capacity to calm the sympathetic nervous system (“the flight or fight nervous system”). This is essential if we seek relief from the stresses of our daily lives.
Does Yoga increase endorphins? Most athletes know the effect of endorphins and the feelings of euphoria and happiness they can create. Endorphins are hormones that act as a chemical messenger between the brain and the nervous system.
They are released in response to factors such as stress and pain. By activating the body’s opiate receptors, they are able to create an analgesic (pain-relieving) effect.
Science has found that endorphin levels can be increased after Yoga practice, creating what is sometimes called the “Yoga High”.
Does Yoga release Dopamine? Dopamine is another brain messaging hormone that plays a vital role in promoting our sense of wellbeing.
Dopamine is closely connected to the motivational and reward system of the body. The more dopamine floats around, the better we feel.
Conversely, low levels of dopamine have a direct negative effect on mood and everyday functioning. Regular and vigorous Yoga, together with relaxation methods such as Savasana and meditation is one of the ways to increase our Dopamine levels.
Overall, Yoga and happiness – whatever that means for you – go hand in hand. Yoga practitioners have always known and valued this immense benefit.
Of course, this is one of the main reasons why Yoga has been practised for so long. It is also an important reason why it is having an almost exponential growth in the west today.
Understanding these basic connections between Yoga and happiness in greater detail is incredibly helpful. Science is now making a significant contribution to this understanding, by studying the effects of Yoga at the physiological level.
This knowledge gives us all the more reason and motivation to continue and expand our Yoga practice, and reap the significant benefits at a physical, mental and emotional level.