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Why Yoga Works (How to Find Your Sweet Spot)

Posted: 02/21/2013 7:20 am

It turns out that everything you've ever loved to do has a pattern. Every moment of zen; every experience of feeling swept away; each extraordinary, even divine moment, followed the same experiential melody.

The reason most of us struggle so often to feel good in our lives is that we didn't notice when we were totally absorbed and happy. We didn't realize we were actually acting in a particular, repeatable way.

Imagine you're at yoga class. You begin with some breathing. The entire goal is to relax and leave stress behind. After you ground yourself in the present moment, you begin to do poses, sometimes intensely like in Bikram, sometimes deliberate like in kundalini. Depending on the school, classes vary, but what's the same is the purpose: Yoga means "to unite" and the goal is to unify all parts of yourself as you breathe and flow with the movement of each position. Classes end with another time of breathing and meditation. The hope is to feel the change in your body and spirit.

When you entered the class, you were likely wrapped up in the chaos of reactive living. You were doing what you were supposed to do and at the pace of others' demands and expectations. At the end of a session, however, you feel grounded and at peace with yourself and the world.

The reason yoga works is that it follows the pattern of all focused human experience. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of Flow, describes our happiest moments. He writes, "The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."[1] But what most of us have not been taught is what we do to create these moments of bliss and satisfaction.

Your sweet spot, the best moments of your life, follow a simple pattern. They begin when you center yourself. Before you can stretch to your limits and choose what you want to do that's difficult and worthwhile, you have to be present.

Like in a yoga class, the first thing you do is choose to slow down and be where you are. This is what happens when an athlete does their ritual or routine before a serve, an at-bat, or a game. It's what musicians do when they warm up their voice or instrument. It is the chef sharpening his knives or the writer lighting a candle before words hit the page. You can't just jump into a moment of total peace and happiness, you first have to activate the part of your brain that makes happiness possible.

The second key to finding your sweet spot is to focus, or orient on what's most important to you. Your sweet spot is possible because your frontal lobes, the thinking center in your brain, fire on all cylinders.

If it weren't, you'd be anxious or nervous, wanting or needy. When you choose to think about or experience what you're doing right now with full attention, that's when the nerves and cravings quiet down. Doing yoga, this is focusing your mind entirely on your breathe or the feeling of your body as you move through a pose. Giving a talk, this happens when instead of worrying about whether the audience will like you, you focus on telling a great story or inviting the listener to look at things differently. When a parent soothes a child in the middle of the night, they should be miserable. They are exhausted and may not even know what's wrong. But the intentional choice to comfort a child is what creates the absorbtion and fulfillment. The parents who want to sleep will stay miserable, but parents who center after the stress of the crying, sit in a rocking chair and slowly bring the child to peace have entered their sweet spot.

The final step of finding your sweet spot, however, is what yoga does so well and most of us never realized was essential. You have to self-check how you're feeling to truly register an experience as valuable. For your brain to consciously store the memories of a peak experience, to recognize an experience is worth repeating, you have to intentionally differentiate what's just happened from the moments in your life where you're reacting to what others want or a situation demands.

This is what happens when you mediate at the end of yoga, or stretch after a run. It's when you write in your journal after a date to register how you really feel, or when you sit with a coach or helping professional to process a recent event. It's not about the score, the profit, or the accolades. Your sweet spot is about how you feel when you're focused and when you feel at your best. Those are the experiences you want to replicate each day.

The moments we want more of in life have a formula to them. Center, focus, and self-check: These three behaviors are at the core of why yoga works and the three phases of any experience you've loved. It's the way to find precious moments in relationships and at work, when what you already do matches the formula, and how to rejuvinate experiences that need a boost by applying this way of living.

Next time you feel grumpy, angry, or alone, remember you already have parts of your life where you've found your sweet spot. Now you also know how you can live each moment like it's the best yoga class you've ever taken.

References:

[1] Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály, Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: HarperPerennial, 1991, p. 3.

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