Contentment is one of the guiding principles of a yogi's inner life. In Sanskrit it is santosa, the state of acceptance of what is present. Contentment means being happy with things received unasked for, a feeling of ungrudging acceptance and cheerfulness. In a world where material desires dominate, it is a rare and peaceful state of mind.
Many ancient traditions including yoga have long held that simple techniques of awareness, reflection, contemplation, visualisation and meditation could bring us to such a contented state of being. Those techniques have become the focus of much research in the last 20 years. Suddenly, everyone wants to know how to be happy.
The repercussions of lost security from financial crises and natural disaster may be renewing people's quest to sustain their happiness from within. It looks as if humanity's love of chasing after more and more ephemeral "stuff" could be turning sour.
Neuroscience is the latest discipline to attempt to explain the mechanics of what yogis and contemplatives have known about contentment for millennia. As scientific enquiry has evolved, it is neuroscience's unique multidisciplinary appeal that has brought deeper understanding of our states of mind. Blending anatomy and physiology with psychology, it utilises the latest scanning technology to identify the physiological changes different states of mind bring to the structures of the brain.
Since psychologist Donald Hebbs' famous assertion, "neurons that fire together, wire together" way back in 1949, lay people, meditators and researchers have come to accept the neuroplasticity of the brain. Initially, it was thought that our ability to lay down new neural pathways ended in childhood, then adolescence. Now we know that lifelong learning is possible and although it can be challenging to change a "hard wired" response, we do have conscious control over where our minds go. The familiar tracks of our thought patterns are termed "neural attractors". They are a sort of mental shorthand that allows us to do many things on autopilot. They help us make sense of things which are similar but slightly different, like recognising words in various fonts or handwriting when reading. We skim a little because we know what to expect. The more we have practised, the easier it becomes.
However these shortcuts also go into action when we have a repeated negative emotion, thought or experience. In fact, one strong negative emotion such as anger, leaves us primed to blow up at the next little thing that annoys us. The challenge for yoga practitioners and anyone who seeks mastery of their own mind, is to circumvent the "easy" response and develop mindfulness.
A much bandied about term in many circles, "mindfulness" is at the heart of most meditation including yoga. It has been Buddhism that science has really engaged with perhaps because of its philosophy of personal enquiry and the lack of requirement for a belief in God.
Yoga and Buddhism, though, have closely interwoven histories and techniques. The research findings from Buddhist meditation or the modern version, MBSR, (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), can be applied to yoga as well. Indeed, the field of yoga research is also expanding exponentially as academics seek explanations of the shift in consciousness yoga practitioners experience and describe. Positive psychology is interested in the outliers, the "happy for no good reason" monks and yogis.
Simple breath awareness has been shown to increase gamma waves in the brain, immediately inducing a positive cascade of neurotransmitters. It is not so difficult to access bliss after all.
We are equally well programmed to experience happiness and contentment as we are anxiety and depression. It is through repetition that we begin to feel we have no choice any more; the neural pathways are easily triggered so that the smallest of disappointments can feel like major depression. The reverse is also true. If we tune our mental default position to optimism, the smallest aspects of beauty can light up the pleasure centres of the brain. We actually do have freedom to choose how we feel.
Feeling happy has more benefits than simply feeling good. It also helps us achieve our goals. Four year olds were motivated to feel happy by being asked to think of their happiest memory. They were then invited to build with blocks. The children in the control group who had not activated a positive memory first build fine structures, but the children whose brains had been primed with feel good hormones and neurotransmitters displayed greater focus, creativity and speed in their constructions.
A similar experiment was done with doctors. The researchers thought these would be the most analytical, least emotion motivated group of people to study. Yet when one group was offered candy (but didn't eat it), one group was not offered anything before the test, and a third group was asked to read through medical journals before the test, the differences support the idea that happiness helps us do everything better. The test for the doctors was about diagnosis making. They had to go through cases quickly and make their best diagnostic attempts. The happiest group displayed the most intellectual flexibility and were the most accurate. It seems that your baseline emotion can influence how well you do in many areas of life.
So how can we access these positive pathways in the brain? What is it that makes us optimistic and can we learn it at any age? Overwhelmingly, the research in neuroscience is saying yes. Anyone can learn to meditate; there are no prerequisites. With or without a physical practice, there is a form of yoga accessible to virtually everyone. Seated in a chair, lying down, or moving the body into postures, the possibility is available to breathe with awareness, to feel the sensations in the body and to observe the present moment without judgment.
Like anything worth having, it takes some effort at first. The brain/mind well versed in mental chatter, faultfinding and analysis has some deeply ingrained neural pathways. So the power of breath awareness can be supported with autosuggestion or self talk. Some methods use mantras, in the language of the practitioner or in Sanskrit - they are more than a positive affirmation, they are the road builders of the brain. New areas light up when people attempt meditative techniques. Highly adept practitioners can enter that space instantly, whereas beginners may take longer. Biofeedback can help make clear to the observer when the practitioner has found that new groove, but most people are content to simply feel the power of their own experience.
Canadian research used MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) before and after simple yoga practices. They saw that there were dramatic changes to the blood flow through different areas of the brain. This research is now being furthered to assess whether yoga might help deliver chemotherapy drugs more efficiently to brain tumours. When it has been through the necessary trials it could potentially lead to oncologists advising patients to do some yoga before treatment.
In relatively well people the shift in consciousness from before practice to after is health promoting. Not least it can shift priorities from rumination and worries to a more accepting and contented feeling. Knowing that happiness increases productivity, it's a wonder all workplaces don't have inhouse yoga. For individuals it can clearly help us achieve our goals. And yet the urgency to achieve some external gain is less intense, life seems less pressurised, when we come back to our own experience of simply breathing.
Taking even a few minutes a day to become quiet and observe the breath will alter the way we process everything else that happens to us. No longer are we stressed until we sleep and anxious as soon as we awake with all the ensuing cellular and relationship damage that goes with it. Instead, we have unencumbered tools to work with. We can structure our minds the way we want them to be and direct our consciousness to focus on the things that matter to us. Along the way, we might find that "things" don't matter much at all, and we are simply at peace with ourselves.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath