Cultivating Happiness by Going Back to the Breath.

When I first stepped into a yoga studio, I was not in search of an awakening of sorts. I was twenty and I had not started the search for my life’s purpose or meaning. I wasn’t even aware that I had yet to find my true self. In a way, Yoga was the one who found me, and has been creeping into life’s little crevices ever since, teaching me that only one thing keeps us fully alive, that which is our life source: the breath.

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I attended my first yoga class to support a best friend from high school , J. Lowe,  (pictured above and throughout this post) who just discovered yoga and was teaching her first class. A third bestie completed our trio and we brought along Mike and a roommate of his. I saw the class solely as an exercise routine. Although we were being reminded throughout class to return to our breath, I was too busy concentrating on the sweat dripping down from my forehead to my toes, causing me to slip and slide from my mat like a waterslide laid out amidst summer grass. My mind, a restless wanderer, was constantly wondering whether anyone was looking at me and what they thought of my stance. I was shy of my newbie skill set and the inability to hold postures as gracefully as some of the other swans in the room. I was exhausted ten minutes in, and realized that I didn’t have a single thread of muscle in my puny body. I kept wondering when the hour would be up, looking forward to eating something soon, despite the late hour. I thought that this would be way easier, if only I didn’t have bangs. I was looking around to see what posture to hold, what everyone was wearing, how my friends were faring.

At that point in my life, I had what they call a monkey mind. All these thoughts that had nothing to do with the yoga itself kept barging in and disrupting me and my process. Accompanied with these thoughts were a collection of emotions. Shyness, frustration, insecurity, loneliness, tiredness, empathy, embarrassment, anger, happiness, restlessness, hunger, to name a few and not necessarily in that order. It was an accurate representation of what my life was, a mirrored reflection of a million particles squeezed into a tiny space and creating tumultuous friction as they collided and fought for my attention.

A chase is a word I so lovingly use to describe my past lifestyle. Fast forward a few years later, where I started to do a bit of soul searching to answer one main question. How can I find happiness? I started with the question, “What will make me happy?” and I didn’t stop asking follow up questions. Even now, I still haven’t stopped.

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If you ask somebody what will make them happy, they may say, money will make me happy. Okay why money? Because I will have the ability to pay for food on the table. Okay why food? Because I want to go through every day knowing that I won’t go hungry. Okay why don’t you want to go hungry? Because I don’t want to suffer or feel pain. What will make you feel pain? Being constricted. What else will make you feel constricted? A work schedule, a timeline, expectations… and so on and so forth. And when you strip it down to the barest ingredient, what I found in all my answers was that external forces, things you cannot control, those are what causes a majority of our negative emotions. These external causes of unhappiness include material goods, status, pressures, expectations, and so on. Internal forces, those that we can control because they are inside of us, are the weapons with which we can yield and carve and create our own happiness. They say that happiness comes from within, and I wholly believe in that. I write all the time about how all these things we try to purchase and achieve and accomplish, maybe they will bring us happiness, momentarily, but that happiness will fade. And like some addicting drug, you will then need more to trigger that happiness again, and then even more. The chase will have you wasting your life away trying to find a happiness that is temporary, when you can slow life down and find happiness that is constant.

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As with the yoga example, the external forces are what create a majority of our discomfort on and off the mat. When I was first learning the poses, I would remember being uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of having pain, in some of the more advanced body configurations. What was even worse, was the narrative that quickly followed that pain. My monkey mind would ask me questions like, “What am I doing here?”, “There’s no way you can make it until the end of the class”, “Everybody is watching you fail”, “You’ll never get to be as good as them”, etc. And with that story comes the emotions listed above. As those emotions got triggered, the physical pain would actually feel worse, solely because it is perceived as larger than what it truly is, after being brought to the forefront of the mind. Much of the suffering comes from the emotions we tie to the actions, rather than the action itself. It’s the story that kills us. Slowly, over time, I developed a way to let these thoughts go, which then allowed me to control the amount of suffering there was. Once I let the narrative float by, like clouds, or the thoughts run through, like water, I became more able to sit in those positions with a feeling of groundedness, or contentment. There is a sense of peace that comes with letting things go and returning to the breath, focusing on the one thing that really matters in our life. I learned so much from this lesson than any other lesson about what it really means to be a human being.

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“There are inevitably going to be these pains that arise, whether they are physical, emotional, loss of a loved one, things not going exactly as you want them to go. But the story that we layer on top of that… that actually creates a more intense layer of suffering that can impede this deeper layer of happiness that we are often looking for.”                                                                                            -Corey Muscara

Do you ever notice how a lot of tension in our lives come from the resistance towards things that are happening to us? Instead of pushing back, trying to reshape what happens, forcing control over situations, try to just let it happen. Once I got into that space, I started to really feel free. It was not that everything became one hundred percent perfect, la-dee-da in my life. There were still days when I felt tired, when Mike and I had different viewpoints, when money seemed to control everything, when I had an explosion of emotions, and when my thoughts continued to be all over the place, but my relationship towards everything has shifted to a place of disconnect from these external factors, and somehow, I ended up more grounded. Imagine being tied down to all of these things when the hypothetical tornado hits. These things will just fly up in the air, and you along with it. But to be fully free from it means that you will find an easier time planting your feet solidly on the ground. The ability to watch a whirlwind of life’s surprises pass you by without being swayed is a superpower that we have, but we fail to cultivate. I have found only one way of strengthening that power, and that is to return to the breath.

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To try, at home.

Try to sit cross-legged in a room for even five minutes and focus on your breath. If this is the first time you are trying this, it will be very difficult. Your mind will wander through a rabbit hole, and may possibly never come back. But try to allow these thoughts to simply pass. Practice letting it go and coming back to the breath every time.

Do this at least once a day when your space and mind is clear. I do this while going through a flow in my living room in the early mornings, as the sun peaks through our glass door. Usually, it’s after my roommate and Mike have left, so that the space is quiet and still. Typically, I prefer to do this prior to work, just to clear my head and reap all the benefits. Sometimes, it’s good to come back to in the evenings before bed, just to let everything go. Whatever works for your schedule will be fine.

It has taken me years to get to the point I am at now, but it is still nowhere close to the point I want to be. I have an outlandish dream of being ordained as a monk at some point in my life, and while that seems too crazy to come to fruition, I try in my everyday life to at least be a bit better at letting go. While I am not writing this as a way to get all hippie on you, I am hoping that sharing this experience will (even minutely) increase happiness in the world.

For flows from my friend J. Lowe, check out her YouTube channel or subscribe to her newsletters.

2 thoughts on “Cultivating Happiness by Going Back to the Breath.

  1. This is an excellent post, and it applies to those of us at any age! As I recently posted, “Yoga sneaks up and changes you from the inside out.” I’ve found that even if I do little else but show up on the mat and breathe for a while, my day, along with my outlook, is improved. Any asanas that follow are icing on the cake! ~ Lynn

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