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5 Steps to Happiness

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Which are you doing right now, living or waiting? Various yoga practices are all techniques for becoming skilled at living more and waiting less, so that we get to make the most of this human experience. Last month, I was teaching a pose called hanumanasana, and it reminded me of the time that I first learned how to channel my energy toward being more fully present in each moment.

Hanumanasana is more commonly called "the splits", with the floor of the pelvis on the ground, one leg stretched out in front, the other reaching straight behind, and with the torso upright. For most people, getting into it safely only comes after much work.

As I was teaching it, I mentioned that it's named after Hanuman, a Hindu deity who takes the form of a monkey. A student asked why, so I explained that the pose, which looks like a giant leap, represents the myth about Hanuman, who, in immediate need of medicine for a relative, crossed the ocean in one giant step. He was able to do so because of his tremendous devotion to his family. Devotion itself is one of the things that Hanuman represents, and this story illustrates the concept that, through true devotion we are able to overcome the limitations that we place upon ourselves when we identify with the physical.

Although I don't believe that the literal Hanuman has ever existed, I find the symbology in the Hindu pantheon of deities to be invaluable in directing my life toward a happier place. I use these myth figures as metaphors for actual parts of myself. They teach me how to work with different facets of my experience in a way that has been highly beneficial.

When I first learned that Hanuman represents the power of devotion, I realized that I didn't consciously devote myself to anything, really. I had been so anti-devotion since leaving the Catholic church in my 20s, that I'd become resistant to a cognizant devotion to anything.

But, I knew I had to be devoted to something, whether I had named it or not, because I was putting out a lot of energy toward something every day, as we all do. So I took a good look at the recipients of that energy. The insight I got then, and still get every day, from that particular kind of self-study has changed my life for the better. Here is a breakdown of how it happened:

1. Pay attention to what you are doing.

Actions speak louder than words, so I took measure of my actions to see where my energy was going.

In the viewpoint of yoga philosophy, it's stated repeatedly that a person is what her or his actions are. You are what you do, but the "do" is less about visible behaviors and more about the thought patterns that fuel them. Your experience in this life is defined by the content of the mind in those experiences.

In this first step, examine where your energy and focus go. First, look at your actions and thoughts, and then go deeper by identifying the patterns that underlie them. Until you deal with the underlying pattern of thinking, the surface behaviors and thoughts will not change.

2. Discern which patterns serve you.

Now, ask yourself if each behavior is helping or hurting. Specifically, is it taking you closer to the infinite now or toward strengthening harmful identity with things?

When I did this, I saw that the output that was most beneficial came from the energy I put into my yoga practice and into teaching yoga practice to others. That pattern of behavior had taken me to a new life. Indeed, I was devoted to the lineage of teachers that preceded me, and to the students that will follow and, above all, to the practice itself.

So, I discerned that my yoga practice was a good pattern for me. But, that doesn't mean that the same is true for you. A behavior that takes me closer to the true self could actually take you further from it.

I can't tell you what to do with your life. As a teacher, I trust that my students are wise enough to make these decisions on their own. Deep down, we all know what is good for us. In this step, we find what we are doing right.

3. Cultivate the beneficial patterns.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the author lists several possibilities as objects of focus for a yoga practice. Then he ends the list by saying, "Or by meditating on anything one chooses which is elevating." In the previous step, you identified a behavior that is beneficial. Now, you aim to repeat it. Focus on that which elevates you.

The previous step taught me that the practice of yoga, done with appreciation for my teachers and students, took me to a good place. So, next I took Patanjali's advice and set out to make more room in my life for repeating the experience of practice in that context.

Whatever you've identified as helpful for you, do it more. When you find you are doing it, keep it up.

4. End the harmful patterns.

In this process of self-inquiry, you will likely find many harmful patterns of thought and behavior. Any thought or pattern that doesn't acknowledge your inner perfection is harmful to you. This kind of thinking also happens to be much harder for most people to stop.

Fortunately, Patanjali provides an effective tool for positive change. It's called pratipaksha bhavanam. That means to simply do the opposite. If you hear yourself repeatedly thinking anything that will leave residual negativity, turn it around.

In the example of the pose named for Hanuman, most people meet their limit when they try to do it. When that limit is met, in that pose or any other experience, one might focus on their inability in such a way that it takes them out of pure experience of the moment. Practicing pratipaksha bhavanam there might mean hearing the negative thought-form of "I can't," and replacing it with, "I am practicing." In moments of harmful energy output, find a way to channel it to something beneficial instead, then do that thing.

5. Repeat.

These steps describe a way to use something finite and manifest our thoughts as building blocks toward an existence that feels better because it is based on the reality that at the core we are all just fine. The physical is there to transport us to the experience of the indefinable non-physical. But, unchecked, the ego will embrace the physical, incorrectly, as the true self. It doesn't have to be that way. And you're the only one who can change.

At first, it may seem impossible to change your patterns. When I started practicing yoga, I truly believed that I would never be able to govern my thoughts, but I was wrong. Because I trusted my teachers, I kept at it, and it started to happen. Stay with this. It may take years to be able to regularly employ it, but it's worth the work.

Recognize that this is a process. As you endeavor along, building skill here, embrace the unfinished state that we are all in. It's okay to not do this perfectly. In the world of the finite and manifest, we all behave imperfectly. You decide whether you will embrace that and use things to get to non-thing.

Or you can choose not to. But, you can only put it off for so long. As is beautifully stated at the end of the Bhagavad Gita, "If you say in your self-will, 'I will not fight this battle,' your resolve will be useless; your own nature will drive you into it." All humans, including you, will inevitably find freedom, now or later, by doing some form of this work. Right now, all the tools for liberation are at your disposal. You, and only you, decide when you'll pick them up and get to work.

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