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© NOVA MAY 2011
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
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
Contentment at the heart of yoga
is a powerful tool for health and
happiness. By Chandrika Gibson
ND M.Well (cand.)
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
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
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