The Secret to Happiness: How Yoga Builds Better Mental Health

Editor's forward:

The past year has been a challenge for everyone. Even the most dedicated yoga teachers and practitioners are no exception. From adjusting to home practice and online teaching to the uncertainty of what’s to come, we’ve all been forced to adapt to a new way of life.

Learning to adjust, accept, and make the most out of this new way of life is part of my yoga practice. It’s this mental aspect of the practice I aim to share with you today as it’s been one of my most used tools over the last year and a true gem.

As a teacher with Alpha Yoga and a US citizen barred from Europe for almost a year now due to pandemic restrictions, I have been forced to pause my nomadic lifestyle and settle down for a bit. Now learning to adapt to the extreme winter of Vermont after years of thriving off tropical destinations and the pleasures of the beach, my life has taken a complete 180.

The nature of the mind is drawn to the negative

What do you see when you look at this image? Take a moment.

Chances are your answer will be some sort of black shape in the center of a white background. But what if that’s not what it is? It could very well be a black canvas covered in white except for that one spot. Either way, you will notice that the mind's natural inclination is to be drawn to the blemish first. The same way we notice a stain on a shirt before we notice its appeal, the mind by nature, is drawn to the negative. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation 80% of your thoughts in a day will most likely be negative and about 90-95% of them you have had before; that’s right, they’re repetitive.

Consider the impact those consistently spinning negative thoughts have on you over time. Fears, insecurities, and doubts digging a deeper groove into your psyche every day, holding you back from living your life to its fullest potential.

But while negative attraction may be the current natural inclination of the human mind, we can change it! The ability to change our thoughts has helped humanity evolve and continues to do so.

So now, take a moment to imagine if you could make your thoughts just 1% more positive, 5%, or even 10%. How much brighter life might be! More confidence, strength, and grounding not only to get you through tough times but propel you forward as well.

Guess what? It is possible! Here’s how…

Yoga for the Mind

Negative thoughts can be recognized and changed with some intentional focus and practice. How? Well, first you need to realize that you are not your thoughts – positive or negative, you are the awareness of the thoughts. If you can observe a thought, feeling, or emotion, you are obviously not them – you are something greater. You are the awareness of them. The same way the clouds are not the sky and only pass through as its by-product, we are not our thoughts. Thoughts are simply a by-product of our environment, past conditioning, and current molecular makeup. What’s more, we have the power to change these thoughts. We can change a negative thought into a positive and vice versa. Thoughts are interchangeable and the ability to do so is a healthy step in harnessing the power of the mind.

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to give this a try. Take a minute and close your eyes. Observe and label any thoughts that come up. When you open your eyes, write down the thoughts you just had. For example, you may have thought, “this is silly, this will never work,” or you may have noticed a noise in the room, felt a body ache, etc. For each negative thought, cross it out and replace it with a positive. Doubt, replace with faith, boredom replace with interest, irritability replace with acceptance, and so on. Now try to do this mentally. Every time a negative thought comes up, switch it to a positive.

This simple practice is outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and was developed more than 1800 years ago. It is also the premise behind modern success practices such as The Secret, as well as scientific studies around happiness. It all comes down to perspective. Change your perspective and remove the things that mentally don’t make you happy and voila, you’ve found the recipe for happiness. For happiness is nothing more than the absence of unhappiness. Much like Buddhism also says, you need only change your perspective, not the circumstance to remove suffering.

Check out the below video for a quick story on perspective 😀

Yoga Sutra 2.33 says:

“When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite (positive) ones should be thought of. This is pratiprakṣa bhāvanam.”

Pratiprakṣa bhāvanam asks us to cultivate opposite thoughts when negative ones arise. As our thoughts ultimately create our actions, in thinking positive thoughts, we take the first step toward creating positive results. If you think you are weak, you will remain weak. If you think you are strong, you will grow strong. To quote Swami Vivekananda, “We are what our thoughts have made us.”

Through the process of yoga, we recondition the body and mind, returning it to a place of awareness. We do this first through awareness of our bodies and then through awareness of our thoughts, emotions, words, and actions. Through awareness of our thoughts, noticing negative ones when they arise, and replacing them with positive ones, a reconditioning of past thoughts and habits takes place. We are able to move past traumas and mend old wounds we might not have even known existed.

As you can see, yoga is considered the Vedic school of psychology for a good reason. Alexis Cabrera LPCC, psychotherapist, dedicated yoga teacher and student elaborates: