Updated: May 10
Joy can seem pretty elusive. I used to think it was available only in rare and exceptional moments such as festivals, travelling, falling in love... But the funny thing was that when those moments came, I wasn't always able to appreciate them. I remember reaching the top of a mountain in Peru to look down at the ancient ruins beneath and all I could think about was how to get the right photo. Back then I just didn't know how to be in the moment and experience it for what it was.
Yoga can give us a glimpse of how it feels to find joy inside ourselves, rather than looking to external events, people or places. We may settle into relaxation at the end of a practice and notice a sense of wellbeing that feels entirely natural to us. In the yogic tradition, joy is our true nature not a state that we have to seek out. This is known as 'ananda' or the bliss at the centre of our being. When we experience joy we are actually remembering who we really are.
But the reality is that life, and our thinking minds, pull us in many different directions and away from that deeper self. We find ourselves ruminating on the past and flashing forward to the future. Yoga offers us practices to enter the present moment and this naturally gives us access to more joy. But we can also take conscious steps to increase the amount of enjoyment we experience on a daily basis.
Changing our habits
According to yogic philosophy, we all have certain habits of behaviour known as 'samskaras' and these influence the way we see and act in the world. The more we repeat a behaviour, the more we reinforce the samskara. Samskaras can be healthy and contribute to our personal growth or they can hinder us.
But the good news is we can choose to challenge the samskaras that are no longer helpful in our lives. Neuroscience has shown this to be true. Behaviours that we repeat create pathways in our brain that become harder to break over time. But when we commit to new behaviours we have the power to rewire our brains.
By looking out for moments of potential joy in our days and making the effort to be present for them, we can actually start to establish this as a new habit - a new way of seeing the world.
Savouring the joy
Here are a few ideas that I find helpful for finding more joy in the everyday moments:
Make an intention to find moments of joy throughout your day
When you notice a moment that has an element of pleasure to it, stop to fully take it in. Experience the moment with whichever of your senses it calls for
Notice when your thinking mind tries to take over the moment (to analyse it or dismiss it perhaps) and reconnect with one of your senses
Finally take a moment to notice how the joy feels inside you. Even if it's the tiniest glimmer, feel it as fully as you can as a sensation in your body. Stay with that feeling as long as you can.
So if we take the example of coming across some beautiful flowers, first we notice them as something that might awaken joy; then we stop to really look at them and inhale their scent (if they have one); when thoughts arise we bring our attention back to the visual details of the flower or the smell; and finally we let go of the flower altogether and rest in any sensation of pleasure in our body.
Recently I have practiced this with hugging my daughter (and really feeling the hugs), feeling the sunlight on my face as I sat on a bench and savouring my morning cup of coffee!
The longer we can linger in the sensation of joy, the more it will benefit our emotional wellbeing. Research has shown that when we savour an emotion such as joy we activate a part of the brain called the ventral striatum. The more time we spend activating this part of the brain, the longer the positive emotions will last. Joy doesn't just feel good in the moment - it can actually enhance our long-term wellbeing.
Welcome it all
But it's important to note that practicing more joy in our daily lives doesn't mean pushing other emotions away. In fact feeling all our emotions and allowing them to pass through us makes more space for joy to arise within us. It's when we suppress our feelings that we tend to find ourselves blocked or stuck on the inside and less open to enjoying ourselves.
We don't have to be joyful all the time but we can take steps to bring more joy into our lives. For me, as someone who used to think I might be incapable of very much joy, yoga has opened me up to a place where joy is alive. Making joy a daily practice means we don't need to postpone it for life's bigger events - it can be experienced in little doses on a daily basis.
If you live locally, you might like to come along to Yoga for Wellbeing, a mindful class suitable for all levels, on Fridays 11-12 at Reigate Community Centre. You can book via this website or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.