In the March 2010 issue of ODE Magazine, there is a thought provoking article, Great Expectations: How hope therapy can help banish mild mood disorders and boost happiness, by Catherine Ryan. Among the many things that I started to think about was the way that yoga promotes hope.
What precisely is hope? Hope is a subtle sensation and state of being, sometimes an emotion, that provides a vague sense that something other than what “is” can be possible. It provides the foundation for every change, every decision and every transition that we find ourselves on the other side of. Without hope, the capacity to love, to move, to grow or to change is stifled and the great shadow of fear and doubt can overwhelm us. Hope is sometimes confused as faith, but although these both require one another, they are quite different. In order to act on hope, one must have faith in the potentially positive outcome of one’s actions. In order to have faith, there must be a song of hope in one’s heart or the faith grows hard like the stone of dogma.
The kind of hope that provides a boost to happiness is based on the idea that change happens. Those of us who practice yoga regularly are able to experience this on our mats in every practice. As we move through asana (poses) or pranayama (breathing), it is impossible not to notice that each breath is different, each moment of holding an asana or transition between the asana creates different sensation. Some of these sensations and changes in the breath are not welcome! But, we become uniquely aware through a practice that nothing is the same. If you have not practiced yoga before, this may sound terrifying. But, if you practice regularly, you are nodding your head and perhaps even smiling as you acknowledge the profound sense of liberation that this type of awareness creates. None of us are stuck. Not only do we have the capacity to change, but change is our natural state of being.
According to the psychologists who provided the data for the ODE article, “Hope, as defined by psychologists, is the belief that you have the skills and energy to make your dreams a reality (Ryan 2010: 53).” They suggest that our current emotional state is often determined by our expectations for the future (Ryan 2010: 53). In general, the idea is that hopeful people are happier (53). If this is the case, then one of the best ways that we can cultivate happiness is to cultivate hope. Research also seems to indicate that building high expectations doesn’t set you up for a harder fall (Ryan 2010:54). In fact, high-hopers seem uniquely prepared to bounce back after a fall due to their ability to quickly evaluate a situation and make changes (54). Yoga can play a role here too. What we learn in our practice on the mat is that when we feel something “not quite right” we take a moment to breathe into it. If things don’t change, then sometimes all we need is a soft blanket under our hip, or a block under our hand and, voila!, it feels just right. What we realize is that it isn’t that we aren’t doing a pose “right” or “wrong,” but rather that a simple modification can create an “ah ha!” moment out of an “uh-oh.”
Yoga also helps us learn how to set specific and achievable goals. Apparently, for adults who do not have high-hopes, one of the first steps of hope therapy is to learn how to set a specific and achievable goal (Ryan 2010: 54). In open level yoga classes, some students can do some amazing things with balance, with their strength, with their energy and some students struggle to just sit on their mat or lie still in savasana—yet they are all doing yoga. When we first start out, we realize immediately that, while yoga shouldn’t be goal oriented, we can determine the types of goals that are and are not achievable. It would not be realistic to think that we could come into an advanced balancing pose if we struggle to maintain balance in Warrior I, but it is not unrealistic to think that we can become more aware of our balance and the position of our feet in relationship to the earth. We also find that great happiness and the complete benefit of the practice is available to us no matter what the poses look like. After class, the person who could do a handstand in the middle of the room—feels great. The person who did child’s pose for most of the class—feels great. A regular yoga practice shows us that there is great benefit in simply being present. If that isn’t hope, then I don’t know what is.
Great Expectations: How hope therapy can help banish mild mood disorders and boost happiness. IN Ode Magazine, March 2010, pages 53-54.
Written and posted by Sharon Rudyk, Owner and Director of Yoga Matrika located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.