My anatomy teacher used to say that if we are in a pose that feels difficult and then we consciously smile, that sends a message to the brain and then certain relaxing hormones are released and the pose actually feels easier because the muscles relax. So, it’s always helpful to smile even when you least feel like it. I suppose this is where the saying “Fake it till you make it” comes from.
It is a bit odd to place this concept of faking it in the yoga context where one of the primary rules is satya: being truthful. But many a time in yoga one does have to employ strategic tactics to either fool the mind a little or fool the body into getting it to cooperate with you. If it’s the larger good you have in mind such as bringing the body in balance by adopting healthier patterns and you happen to be stuck in a not-so-healthy space then a little bit of pretending and faking helps you to get unstuck and move towards Satya as in your higher truth which will always be a space of balance and peace.
The theory underlying yoga practice tells us that we carry a treasure of happiness within and that it is futile to keep chasing after people and objects believing they would make us happy when all we have to do is look within. But of course, that is easier said than done. If I don’t actually feel happy currently, then how can I believe that my inner nature is happiness? So here too you have to apply a little willing suspension of disbelief and just trust the ancient teachings which tell us about this inner treasure. I’m sure any pirate will tell you that the path towards treasure is filled with stormy seas, struggles, skirmishes and plenty of aches and pains. But who cares when you are a treasure seeker? You will just roll out your yoga mat every day, move, breathe and carry on.
Take a moment right now and smile. Yes, I know I haven’t given you a single reason to do so. What I am writing is far from delightful. But do it with the spirit of an experimenter. When you stretch your lips into a smile, don’t you feel a softening and an inner nudge to relax a bit. If you keep at it then chances are that you will soon be smiling in earnest if at nothing else then just at yourself for being in a silly experiment! Now the physiology of this is as my anatomy teacher had explained – triggered hormones and brain signals – but at a deeper lever, the fake smile connects with the dormant happy treasure inside and is trying to help you to realise how easy it is to just get happy whenever you want to.
You may practice for hours on your mat without a single smile on your face. And you still feel good as you practice and especially at the end and this good feeling will definitely spill over into your day. But if you were to smile at times during your practice – you will feel a lot of joy seeping in and you will feel free, more relaxed. Your muscles and connective tissue will relax and you will find yourself being more flexible and doing more.
If there is anyone else around who sees you smiling to yourself as you practice, they may wonder what the joke is or tease you about how silly you look with your body all twisted and smiling for no apparent reason.
But of course, the most natural reaction when in a tough spot is to frown scarily, and certainly not to smile! When a pose feels difficult and you are really struggling to hold it for as long as the teacher is asking you to or you yourself want to – all the muscles tense up, even the ones which are not necessarily needed for keeping you in that asana – and as the muscles in various body parts tense up, so does your face. You have a prize frown on your face. And you are probably also grunting loudly. Now if you just come out of the pose, and make a mental adjustment, telling yourself to come into the asana with a sense of ease and light-heartedness. The whole experience could transform if you allow it to, making you a lot more comfortable. And the frown will have melted away.
One of my yoga teachers says that keeping the face calm and relaxed is a good practice to hold on to during your yoga practice and through the day. If you can keep your face relaxed, it means your stress levels are in check. When problems turn up, you are able to handle them without taking them too much to heart and getting terribly disturbed. Actually, by focussing on facial expression and consciously relaxing it a bit, on the inside, you are learning little lessons in equanimity. On the mat this translates to: whether you are doing something as easy as lifting one leg up or as challenging as holding a push up for a long time, your face is at peace, your mind is not screaming at you to give up and crash onto the mat, but saying sweet, encouraging words instead.
So, try being cheerful on your mat. When you can’t reach your toes or when your headstand is more about falling than standing and balancing, when your tummy gets in the way of a forward bend or a spinal twist – laugh a little at your attempts and continue to do as much as you can. That cheerful attitude will actually help you to improve your practice as the days go by. You may also find yourself indulging in facial yoga and smiling a whole lot more (and often with no good reason) all through your day. Happy treasure-hunting!
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