Off Your Mat

Bringing yoga off your mat into your life, one pose at a time.


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The Smile Pose: A Happy Practice

Are you happy? I hope your answer is yes. However, given the ups and downs of life, you might not find yourself happy at this very moment. Here’s the good news. Happiness is just a smile away.

In studio practice, I will find myself lunging into a deep warrior pose. The class will be holding for a very long count. The room will become intense with trembling quadriceps and focused pranayama then the instructor will say, “Remember to smile!”cardio-yoga-art

The first time I heard that I thought it was a joke.  I assumed the instructor was being pithy, poking fun at our collective effort.

That wasn’t the case. There is a real physical benefit to smiling when you are under physical or emotional stress. Go ahead and google benefits of smiling and you will find article after article giving you reasons to turn that frown upside down.family yoga kid smile

Here are four reasons to smile:

1) Smiling lowers stress and anxiety

Smiling during times of stress might seem counter intuitive, however studies show that it can be beneficial. When recovering from a stressful situation, study participants who were smiling had lower heart rates than those with a neutral facial expression.

2) Smiling releases endorphins

Endorphins are hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system that have a number of physiological functions. They result in feelings of euphoria and a higher pain threshold. So, when you find yourself stuck, stressed, or uncomfortable, remember to smile. It might not change your situation, but it can make you feel better.

3) Smiling strengthens your immune system

Smiling increases your body’s production of white blood cells that fight illness. One study found that hospitalized children who were visited by story-tellers and puppeteers who made them smile and laugh had higher white blood cell counts than those children who weren’t.

4) Fake it until you make it

Paul Ekman, PhD, a psychologist who is an expert in facial expressions, taught himself to arrange the muscles in his face to make certain expressions. To his surprise, he found himself feeling the emotions that he was mimicking. When he raised his cheeks, parted his lips, and turned the corners of his mouth up, he felt happier.

He conducted a study examining the feelings brought about by forced and spontaneous smiles. Whether the subjects smiled spontaneously or on purpose, the activity in their brains was virtually the same. They felt happy.

So there you have it. Maybe the key to happiness is much more simple than expected. Next time you find yourself feeling stressed or blue, remember, a smile can be the quickest path back to happiness.

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The Stressful Pose

There are times in yoga that the challenge is not to move through a series of asanas, but to remain still.

You will have moved into a pose that takes you to the edge of your physical abilities and you will hear the instructor say, “Let’s remain here for 5 deep breaths.”

Bound Revolved Triangle

Bound Revolved Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana)

Your muscles tremble, the sweat pours. Only you can know for sure if you should stay there for all 5 breaths. You might be at a stage in your practice that you only feel one breath is beneficial, you might need to modify the pose to remain still, or you might feel so good in the pose you linger beyond the instructed time limit. Only you can determine where the line is between moving out of your comfort zone and risking injury.

The practice of breathing through a stressful physical pose conditions your mind as well as your body. Breathing and keeping your mind still through the physically stress of a challenging pose teaches you a valuable mental skill – the ability to breathe through stressful situations that life can drop at your door.

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Cave painting of panthera leo spelaea (cave lion) chasing prey.

Being human is a stressful condition. Our ancestors had to endure incredible stressors to survive. Before the advent of technology humans were lower on the food chain. Food, shelter, and companionship were harder to come by and safety was a fragile fleeting thing.200170582-001

As a result, our human brain developed a fight or flight strategy to stress. When faced with stress, adrenalin is pumped into our system, our heart rate increases, our breath becomes rapid and shallow, and our minds only take in minimal information.

Thousands of years later, our brains will still go through the prehistoric motions of fight or flight, even if our lives are not threatened.

Public speaking, a missed appointment, getting stuck in traffic on the way to pick up your child, waking up late, the nasty surprise of a personal betrayal or heartbreak – You will live through all of those stressors, but your brain might decide to send out all the physical symptoms of a life threatening situation. Your heart beats faster, you sweat, your mind fogs in a panic.

It is in those moments that it is most important to take your deep breaths and find mental stillness. It is then you can evaluate if you have been pushed to the edge of your emotionally abilities.

The same way you might decide whether a pose works for you on your yoga mat, you can also decide in life if a stressor is beneficial in the long run.

Is it a stressful challenge that is making you stronger? Or is this a potentially painful position in life that needs to be released?

Only you can decide.