One of my yoga instructors, Ruth, teaches me an invaluable lesson every time I attend one of her classes. It’s why I make it a point to attend as many of them as I can.
The lesson is about finding joy even when you think you can’t.
It serves as the inspiration for this post.
The Batshit Crazy Suggestion That Worked
Ruth’s was the first yoga class I attended last year, and I give her a lot of credit for helping me get through those first few weeks and months when my muscles and joints felt like they might snap … and when an unbiased observer of my yoga practice might have said, “Well, I sure hope that poor whale is able to flail itself off the beach and back into the ocean.”
Nearly a year later, I can touch my toes, salute the sun with my eyes closed, keep my breath fairly steady throughout class, and I even held bakasana - crow pose – for 5-6 seconds earlier this week.
It’s taken a lot of consistent hard work. Yoga is definitely not easy, especially in the beginning. But it’s never felt like work. The transformations I’ve made haven’t been easy, they’ve just felt easy.
And the reason for this goes back to the lesson I learned from Ruth in that very first class.
Ask any consistent practitioner of yoga what their three least favorite poses are, and I bet 90% say utkatasana — chair pose. (Back in my basketball-playing days, standing like this against a wall was punishment for doing something dumb during practice.)
Rarely will you go through a yoga class without sinking down into utkatasana, often being forced to hold it for excruciating periods of time while diabolical teachers like Ruth walk around telling you to “sink lower” as they revel in your pain and misery. The worst of the worst will tell you, “Almost done!” before seconds later saying, “Okay, just eight more breaths!”
All you want to do is rescue your quads by either standing up or collapsing back onto your mat, but you can’t. Because there is Ruth, making the rounds, her watchful eye seemingly using forces of telepathy to simultaneously lower all of the trembling asses in the room an inch or two more back towards the floor.
It is right about this time, when your thighs’ lives are passing right before their eyes, that Ruth will say the most rigoddamndiculous thing you’ve ever heard:
Smile? You think to yourself. Are you serious? I couldn’t smile if Shakira came and did a hip tease right here in front of my mat!
But you came to class to follow instructions. Thus, you decide to follow this one too, as batshit crazy as it sounds.
So you smile.
As you do, Ruth tells you to “Find your joy.” She instructs you to think about or visualize something that makes you happy.
So you think about a girl’s pretty smile. You think about your post-workout meal. You think about your dog. You think about how grateful you are for your family’s continued health. You think about how lucky you are to have two functioning quads you can punish so mercilessly.
Then funny things start to happen: your quads hurt a bit less; your mind strays from the pain and gets back to focusing on breathing; seconds that were passing like minutes start passing like seconds again.
Before you know it you are being instructed to “Forward fold!” … and forward fold you do, your quads feeling the sweet joy of relief and your mind realizing you could have actually gone a little bit longer.
Could just the simple of act of smiling – even if it was a forced smile – have actually made these painful moments not just bearable but … enjoyable?
Now you’re going to think I’m batshit crazy…
Did You Know … Smiling Causes Joy?
The answer is yes. Smiling caused joy, which in turn allowed me to power through a tough moment with vigor.
This is an integral part of why yoga has never felt like ‘working out’ and why my hard-earned fitness gains of the past year haven’t felt hard at all. In the toughest moments, I just smile. I think of something I’m grateful for, I distract my brain from the pain with gratitude, and my muscle memory does the heavy lifting.
It’s a lesson I’ve learned has application well beyond the yoga mat.
Seems a little counter-intuitive though, doesn’t it? We usually think that people are smiling and energetic because they are happy. But maybe they are happy and energetic because they are smiling. (Argue with that logic if you want to; just know YOU’RE ARGUING WITH SCIENCE.)
I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you that it works for me.
Just a few hours ago I was lifting weights. I was on my last set of a particular exercise and struggling to reach my goal number of reps. I smiled. I miraculously found a little bit of extra strength and energy to finish the set.
When I get stuck in traffic, I choose to smile. The frustration fades away.
Even when I just wake up on the wrong side of the bed. I smile. It doesn’t always make things perfect, but it sure does make them better.
I’m not saying smiling is a panacea. If you are stressed about debt and smile about it, your debt and stress do not magically go away. If you get your heart broken, and you choose to smile, the pieces aren’t instantaneously sewn back together.
But maybe by smiling you can push your stress away for a moment and devise a proactive plan to dig yourself out.
And maybe by smiling you can appreciate the love that made your heart breakable in the first place, in the process purging yourself of some of the negativity weighing you down.
I’m reading a book right now called One Small Step Can Change Your Life. It’s about the principle of kaizen — the art of making great and lasting change through small, steady increments. It’s a principle that has worked as a change agent in business as well as for people in their personal lives. (And yes, its effectiveness is also backed up by science.)
What greater, easier, more immediate small step can be there than smiling?
And what greater timing can there be for a smile than when it’s least expected? It’s easy to smile when the going is easy. That’s why it means so much more to smile when the going is tough.
Take it from me, someone who thought it was crazy the first time I heard it: just smile.
Find your joy.
It just might be a small step that leads to you changing your life for the better.