The Yoga of Gratitude

We’ve all heard that gratitude is good for us. Feelings of thankfulness and gratitude are related to feelings of wellbeing, to general good health, overall functionality, likeability, more restful sleep, and to happier, more fulfilled days.

At the University of Michigan, researchers touted expressions of gratitude as a way to improve mood, physiological health (heart rhythms and sleep patterns), decrease physical symptoms like headaches and colds, increase performance at work, produce higher states of alertness, determination, and energy, and be more connected to others. The researchers also stated that expressions of gratitude by one person tended to motivate others to express gratitude.

What Exactly is Gratitude?

Researchers define gratitude as the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself. Writer G. K. Chesterton said that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder and that it is the highest level of thought.

Studies have found that gratitude arises in two ways. It can be a response to a gift or to something nice that happens to us, or it can be a general inclination towards a happy, appreciative attitude.

But let’s be real here. Researchers know that correlation is not the same as causation. And sometimes we just don’t feel grateful. Constant happiness (or gratefulness) is not a realistic mental health goal or a sign of enlightened spiritual practice.

Gratefulness arises from the heart and cannot be superimposed by the mind.  Our feelings must be felt and paid attention to in order to pass through times of stress.

Sometimes we feel anger, sorrow, or fear because illness, divorce, the loss of a loved one, poverty or personal danger produce legitimate emotional responses. A grateful attitude should not be cultivated by mind control, nor is it ever good to repress our feelings.

Yet there comes a time when the worst of the storm is over, some freshening arises, and one is able to choose. Shall I keep thinking about the problem, prolonging the depressed feelings, or can I turn my attention to something that pleases me? It is at these moments that the yogi learns to choose gratitude.

In general, many studies found that gratefulness exercises do not improve or change the way that anyone responds to incidences of getting something nice. But they do improve the general habit of feeling grateful and are especially helpful for those who are experiencing a hard passage. The yoga of gratefulness, then, like all yoga practices, is more concerned with cultivating the inner life rather than getting rewards or achieving goals in the outer world. 

The Yoga of Gratefulness: Ways to Cultivate Gratefulness

The yoga of gratefulness is not dependent on what is happening that might feel nice.  The yoga of gratitude is not forced. It arises naturally from the heart that is centered, stress-free, and that has been cultivated to feel gratitude.

Here are some ways to cultivate an attitude of gratefulness: 

  1. Redirect your attention to the present. Many negative feelings arise from our response to the past or future. We can get caught up in the habit of chewing over the past or worrying about the future. From your hatha yoga practice, you know that when you bring your attention back—from what your mother-in-law said or worrying over your budget or your bank statement—to the posture you are engaged in, the power of your attention.  Being present in the moment of the posture helps discomfort to pass and further openness and ease to follow. In the present, the reporting of the senses can produce continuous interest and pleasure. While driving to work you can think about your problems, or you can look at everything around you. 

  2. Many experts recommend a gratitude journal. Each day write five new things you are grateful for without repeating entries. Entries can be anything from the movement of the spheres to the hummingbirds at your feeder. 

  3. Make a gratitude visit. Think of someone you’d like to thank. Write a letter of thanks. Make an appointment to visit and read the letter. Not only does the positive human contact result in increased feelings of happiness for days to come, but studies have shown the recipient is more likely to continue helping. 

  4. Compliment your friends and coworkers. Say thank you often and publicly.

  5. Celebrate your good health by taking care of yourself with fresh meals, good exercise, and regular sleeping habits.

Gratitude and Well Being, Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2010 November; 7(11): 18–22.
PMCID: PMC3010965, Randy A. Sansone, MD and Lori A. Sansone, MD
How to Cultivate Gratitude this Holiday Season, Institute for Integrative Nutrition
Dr. Weil’s New Book Asks Us to Redefine Happiness, Everyday Health

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