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Life Lessons From the Yoga Mat: You Have to Look Up to Lift Up [New study says if you want to be happy go dancing but skip the g

Posted Apr 24 2014 1:15am


Face down on my yoga mat is my least favorite position. Mostly because I never remember to wash the thing and it does a really good job as a “sticky mat” as evidenced by all the little flakes of my skin all over it. (Side note: If I ever go missing, use my yoga mat for DNA evidence. It’s a gold mine.) As I lay there, I felt the heaviness on my chest — and not just the weight of my body pressing down on it. Sometimes with a heart break, it feels like my heart is literally breaking. My chest was so tight I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My shoulders ached from tensing up. My stomach churned with worry. I hate feeling like that but the more I try to push it away, the heavier all those feelings get.

So I’ll admit it: I wasn’t really paying attention to my yoga teacher. I was too much in my own head. And also I was really digging the music she was playing. (She loves neo-gospel and hip hop; not your traditional namaste birds chirping but I gotta say there is something so satisfying about flowing to Bottom of the River .) Then something penetrated my mental fog. “Lift up your eyes first and then raise your arms and legs,” she was saying. Eh, I thought, I’ve done Locust Pose a hundred times. I don’t need directions. But then she added, “You have to look up to lift up.”

You have to look up to lift up. I felt a little shiver. “Your body goes where you look, so make sure you are looking where you want it to go,” my teacher explained. As I lifted up into extended locust pose, I thought about where I’ve been looking lately: It’s been a whole lot of down.

You don’t have to pay attention to pop culture for very long to realize we are all simmering in a stew of negativity. And it’s because it sells. Fashionistas telling us we’re not chic enough (so we buy more clothes). Fitness pros telling us we’re not buff enough (so we buy more supplements/equipment/tanning spray). Surgeons telling us we’re not pretty enough (so we buy surgery or makeup). Models telling us we’re not thin enough (so we buy into the cult of thin without being able to actually achieve it – possibly the most frustrating of all). And then there’s the news with its headlines designed more for grabbing eyeballs (and advertising dollars) than conveying, well, news.

It’s a dizzying cacophony and the funny thing is – while all of them are talking, none of them are really talking to me. So why am I listening?

I suppose for the reason any of us listen. We want to feel clued in, like part of the group. We want to know what’s happening. A schadenfreude sundae topped with a narcissistic cherry. But I feel like there’s a whole new level lately. It seems like there are just a handful of people actually doing things – taking risks, trying things, living their lives – and then millions of people sitting and watching them, waiting for them to screw up so we can tear them apart. So much offense, both in the giving and the taking.

But today I finally had to ask myself, what am I gaining by playing this game? Am I more fashionable, prettier, thinner and smarter than I was before this information? Perhaps. But am I happier?

Recently a friend was explaining to me her decision to quit Facebook. “Yeah, I don’t know what everyone’s doing anymore,” she said. “But I also don’t worry about what everyone’s doing anymore.” It occurred to me that this extends far beyond Facebook slights.

We live with a veritable firehose of information. Much of it is great – who would have thought even 20 years ago we’d have basically the entirety of human knowledge in our phones, right next to Flappy Bird and a Vine of our cats rolling in the dirt? But much of it is an endless circle of gossip, of building up to tear down, of fakery for entertainment, of an always-moving finish line. Obviously we can’t never read the news again and yet there has to be a way to balance it, a way to turn the firehose off, or at least down.

So I started asking: Which things are most likely to lift people up? What should I look at to look up?

Funny you should ask, said the London School of Economics, which recently published a study that examined over 40,000 people looking for links between activities and their perceived happiness. You know what won? Dancing! I can’t say I’m surprised. I love dancing. Lovelovelove it. And it always does make me feel happier. The other activities on the list were pretty interesting too. In order of “happiness value” they were swimming, going to the library (yesss!), playing team sports, arts and crafts, attending plays, individual sports and attending concerts. Other than swimming – which I still detest, I’m sorry – I can see why these things would rank so high.


But the real shocker for me was the #1 activity that made people most unhappy: going to the gym. (Number two was performing music, in case you’re curious). Wha?? I can say that going to the gym always makes me feel better and happier than I did before. Perhaps it’s the act of going to the gym that’s such a downer but the activities themselves (the weight lifting, spinning, whatever) make people happier? Maybe British gyms are particularly bleak? Or maybe I’m just a weirdo. (Certainly wouldn’t be the first time!) All of which begs the chicken/egg question. Does the gym make people unhappy or do unhappy people punish themselves with the gym? Does dancing really make people happy or do happy people gravitate towards dancing?

What really stood out to me though were all the things that weren’t on the list. For instance, if I had to pick my #1 activity that makes me happy it would be acts of service, volunteering or just helping someone out. So I came up with my own list of things, in no particular order, that help me look up. These things never fail to make me feel happier!

- Acts of service

- Hiking in the mountains

- Family time (where no one is fighting)

- Girls’ night out

- Unicorns (shush, they are real)

- Writing in my gratitude journal

- Petting my cat

- Reading a good book

- Improv comedy

- Meditating (when I can force myself to actually sit my butt down and do it)

- Date night with  my husband

- Praying and listening to that quiet voice that reminds me you were made for better than this. 

As I looked over this list, I realized that for the most part these are all things under my control. I’ve been letting things outside of me pull me down and feeling helpless and sad and scared. And I want to be clear that it’s okay and even appropriate to be sad when things are sad (or mad when things are maddening or scared when things are scary). We can’t be happy all the time or it would become meaningless to us. But I also don’t think that choosing happiness means you are unaware of the bad things going on around you. It’s finding that line between involvement and concern and getting caught in that vortex of sad until everything you see looks gray. And it turns out that I’ve got a lot of tools at my disposal to help me fight the overwhelming negativity. I can’t control what things weigh me down. But I can choose to look up .

I want to be lighter. And that has nothing to do with my weight.

Anyone else feel like they’re surrounded by negativity? What’s your #1 activity that makes you happy? Why do you think the study found that the gym makes people unhappy?




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