Editor’s Note: Dana Santas is the creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga style designed to help athletes move, breathe and focus better. She’s the yoga trainer for the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning, Orlando Magic and dozens of pros in the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.
Certain body posturing, respiration and thinking positively influence our physiology
Studies show that recalling a happy memory makes you happier
Devoted yogis will tell you that yoga is not only the path to enlightenment but also happiness. Numerous studies support this claim, pointing to yoga as a general practice for quelling stress, easing anxiety and elevating mood.
Although there’s no scientific analysis of whether particular yoga poses make us happy, research shows that certain body posturing, respiration and thinking positively influence our physiology. When we feel any emotion at all — happiness, unhappiness, anger, etc. — we experience specific hormonal reactions that feed each feeling and prompt unique mental and physical manifestations, such as smiling when happy, crying when sad or crossing our arms when angry or defensive.
Science has shown that we can effectively, and quite quickly, reverse the emotion-to-body-response process by leveraging our physical and mental states to alter our emotional state. For instance, even forced smiling in stressful situations immediately lessens your stress response and elicits happy hormone production. As such, my yoga for happiness sequence is based on poses, breathing and meditation proven to boost feel-good physiology within minutes.
Because everyone wants to be happy, I’ve been using this yoga practice myself and with clients for years; so, I can happily attest to its benefits.
Breathe in the present moment
According to a 2010 Harvard study, people spend 47% of their time worrying about things that aren’t happening … and, understandably, are less happy because of it. By focusing on your breathing during yoga, you keep your mind in the present moment on your current action.
Better still, in as little as 90 seconds of deep, diaphragmatic breathing, you can initiate your parasympathetic nervous system, which shuts down the stress response by lowering cortisol (stress hormone), blood pressure and heart rate while increasing oxytocin and endorphins (happy hormones).
Establish diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing uses the expansion and contraction of your diaphragm to take long, deep breaths. To stimulate diaphragmatic breathing, inhale deeply for a five count into the lowest lobes of your lungs, focusing on expansion of your lower ribs while avoiding any arching in your midback. Then exhale for a five-or-greater count to completely empty your lungs. Continue breathing this way for at least 90 seconds.
Practice present-moment awareness
While breathing diaphragmatically, focus all your attention on the sounds and sensation of your breath. Notice the expansion and contraction of your rib cage. Follow the full path of air in through your nose, down your throat, through your lungs and back again. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing.
Be a warrior, not a worrier
A 2010 Harvard Study on “power posing” showed that holding open-body postures for two minutes decreases cortisol and increases testosterone, a confidence-boosting hormone, for less anxiety and more self-assuredness. Because of this, the first two yoga poses in my happiness sequence, Warrior one and two, fit the bill by maintaining an open body without slumping or crossing the limbs. Holding these poses for five breaths on each side takes about two minutes total. Spending just 30 seconds challenging your balance with the third pose, Warrior Three, refocuses your mind in the present moment.
From standing, step back into a lunge but drop your back heel and point your toes out 45 degrees. Keep your back leg straight with your forward knee flexed above your ankle. Lift your arms overhead, shoulder-distance apart. Hold for five long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Step your right leg back, as though you are coming into a lunge position, but drop the right heel and point the toes out to almost 90 degrees. Keep your right leg straight with your left knee bent to align above your ankle. With your shoulders aligned above your hips, reach your right arm back and left arm forward with your palms down. Look past your front hand and take five long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Shift your weight into your right leg and begin to take weight off your left leg. Exhale fully to drop your rib cage and have better access to core muscles to help stabilize you. When you feel steady, reach your arms forward and left leg back along a horizontal line. Try to hold it for two or three breaths. Repeat on the other side.