Sukha, the Sanskrit word for happiness, is sometimes translated as “unobstructed space.” We don’t actually create joy when we practice yoga; we create space for it to flow more easily through us. The key to this approach lies in the mind/body connection. When life challenges us, we protect ourselves by withdrawing, constricting—in short, tightening up. As trust flies out the window, along with it goes the ease we once felt in our bodies. This physical reaction to emotional challenges builds a kind of body armor that ultimately separates us from the joy of being human.
The early yogis found that certain movements and breathing exercises can help dissolve this armor, releasing internal blocks so that we open up to the natural flow of our own life force, or prana, and to joy in all its abundance.
Sherry, a 40-year-old financial analyst and local radio host, came to our private yoga session one day clearly distraught. After many months of a painful separation, her former partner had just told her that he was dating someone else. More than missing her partner, Sherry deeply missed the person she once was. “I used to wake up feeling joyous at the new day,” she told me. “I’d be happy to greet the sun and my garden, and I’d feel content with my life. I wonder if I will ever feel that way again.”
In Sherry’s case, we “cleared the space” with a breathing exercise called the Breath of Joy, which promotes the flow of oxygen throughout the body. I encouraged her to practice her postures with a deep ocean sounding breath, inhaling for four, holding for four and exhaling with the mantra, “so hum,” meaning “I am that.” I suggested she add a visual image called a bhavana to the breath retention. Throughout the next month, Sherry visualized joyful images: walking her dog in the morning; spending time in her garden; drumming in her women’s circle. After several weeks of practicing with intention, she rediscovered her joy. She was ready to live unencumbered by blocks that might prevent her from feeling happy.
Anyone can help reset a joyless outlook with specific space-clearing yoga exercises that accommodate a naturally happy state. If you add images that nourish your spirit, and a mantra, you are pouring joy through the clear space you are.
The following two practices clear the inner space so that joy or peace or whatever you wish to manifest can course through the body unobstructed.
Bellows Breath (Bhastrika)
When to use it: Morning or afternoon on an empty stomach. (It may be too energizing to do in the evening.)
What it does: This breath helps clear the space by forcing air out of your lungs like a bellows. It creates a sense of clarity, energy, even mild elation, followed by a feeling of relaxation as prana flows more freely in your system. Space-clearing breath brings oxygen to your brain, stimulates the lymph nodes (which help support the immune system), and makes space for your own vision of joy.
How to do it:
1. Sit on the floor on your knees or in an easy cross-legged pose, or sit in an armless chair. Lengthen your spine.
2. With hands closed in fists, bend your elbows all the way so that your fists almost touch the front of your shoulders, knuckles facing out
3. Take a normal breath in and out.
4. Inhale vigorously through the nostrils, sending your arms straight up over your head, opening your hands with palms facing front, fingers spread wide.
5. Exhale with great force through the nostrils as you bring your arms back to the starting position in a swift gesture, again making fists with your hands (as if you’re grabbing something up high and pulling it down to you).
6. Continue at a moderate pace 20 times and then rest for 30 seconds. Practice two more rounds of 20 each, pausing between rounds.
When you’ve completed the practice, sit for several moments, observing the sense of space inside; visualize something that brings you joy.
Breath of Joy
When to use it: First thing in the morning, or whenever you’re feeling lethargic.
What it does: This easy, invigorating breath expands your lung capacity and brings more oxygen to your brain, encouraging the flow of prana throughout your body.
How to do it:
1. Stand up and spread your arms out into a downward-facing V.
2. Inhale to one-third of your lung capacity as you bring your arms in front of your body, palms facing each other at shoulder level.
3. In one fluid gesture, inhale to two-thirds capacity and stretch your arms out to the sides.
4. Inhale to full capacity and swing your arms over your head, so they’re both reaching straight up.
5. Exhale through your mouth as you lean forward and stretch your arms out to the sides and slightly behind you, as though you’re taking a bow. Imagine you’re releasing the obstacles to joy with each exhalation.
Repeat four more times. Close your eyes and experience the energy circulating through your body.
Posted by: Amy Weintraub, MFA, ERYT-500, author of Yoga for Depression
Amy Weintraub, MFA, ERYT-500, is the founding director of the LifeForce Yoga® Healing Institute and teaches professional trainings and workshops on yoga and mental health internationally. She is involved in on-going research on the effects of yoga on mood, edits a regular research newsletter and is featured on the award-winning, evidence-based DVD and CD series, LifeForce Yoga® to Beat the Blues. She is the author of Yoga for Depression and Yoga Skills for Therapists (forthcoming). Amy will teach LifeForce Yoga at 8 Limbs Capitol Hill the weekend of September 9 – 11, 2011.