'The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.'
If you had told me two years ago that I was going to spend one of the most challenging years of my life feeling incredibly grateful every day, I would have probably laughed in your face and assumed you didn't know me very well. If you had told me that so many professional opportunities were going to disappear into thin air without it completely ruining my life, I wouldn't have believed you. If you had told me that I would successfully create my own opportunities in those professional gaps, I would have assumed you were talking about someone else.
2020-2021 was and is still hard and I'd be lying to you if I didn't admit that a lot of things in my life feel delayed now, maybe you feel the same? I had envisaged myself being a bit further on in some areas, but the vision I had was based upon a pace of living that I couldn't, in all honesty, keep up with. It is prevalent in our modern culture to want success and the gratification it brings quickly, but when that gratification comes it seems to go almost as quickly as it came, and then its on to the next thing.
I had heard of 'practising gratitude' before, and the benefits it had for people who were going through challenges in life, for example, it's a common practice amongst those in addiction recovery, but I didn't quite understand how or why it worked. If you're in a position where you've lost a job, a partner, or are just generally down on your luck, surely the natural instinct isn't to feel grateful for your circumstances, rather the opposite, if anything?
Whilst this may feel like the natural way to react, it isn't the best. Despite being a yoga teacher, I am, even now, often cynical and surprisingly stubborn. I don't try to silence or deny these aspects of my personality, but I use the yoga to manage them. Can I downward dog my way out of cynicism and up-dog my way into gratitude? No, but there is more to this practice that can help with such things.
Yoga is supported by endless amounts of written philosophy, spanning back thousands of years, far preceding the inception of the physical postures. As a teacher and a student, I draw on the philosophy daily, not just so that I can give my students a well-rounded understanding of what yoga is, but to support myself in my own life.
There's a yoga sutra, from the prominent yoga text 'The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali', that has become my most unlikely gratitude reminder. This sutra (which translates to roughly mean 'thread') falls in the 2nd 'Pada', or portion, and is thread number 33. It says:
Sutra 2.33: vitarka-bādhane pratipakṣa-bhāvanam which translates to mean 'When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana' (Swami Satchidananda translation).
When I first read this, I genuinely thought it was suggesting you gaslight yourself. It felt very 'good vibes only', which for me falls under toxic positivity. However, like a lot of yoga philosophy, its meaning runs a lot deeper than the initial impression it creates.
Bringing it back to practising gratitude, as I said before, when you're down on your luck it seems strange to suddenly find a list of great things in your life, because great things might seem pretty scarce, however, as Patanjali suggests, that is exactly when you need to do it.
When the pandemic hit and lockdown began, I watched as the studios I taught for cancelled all my classes one by one, and a teacher training that I was desperate to complete get postponed, amongst the knowledge that far, far worse things were happening throughout the globe to so many, where on earth was I going to find things to put on a gratitude list?
But then, after a few days of stubborn resistance, I just started making daily gratitude lists. Just 3 things, and those 3 things were, at first, embarrassingly simple, but then I realised that the sheer simplicity of the things I was listing made the extravagant things I had placed so much value on before pretty embarrassing. I started to learn that, whilst there is nothing wrong with wanting nice and extravagant things, they won't mean much in the end if you can't feel deep and unwavering gratitude for the most mundane things in life.
Not only that, I started to learn to flip my perspective on my circumstances. This borrows from Patanjali's idea of replacing the negative with the positive thought. For me, that looked like changing my attitude to my to-dos. What would normally be 'I have to do x', would become 'I get to do x'. I would be lying to you if I said this came naturally straight away, it didn't, and in the early stages, yes, it felt a bit as if I was indeed gaslighting myself. But like any habit, you have to take time and effort to build it, before it starts becoming 2nd nature. It's the same with brushing your teeth and taking your makeup off before bed, you could go without doing it, but over time it would give you bad skin and tooth decay. Its the same for your thoughts, which become energy, which become actions.
Let's look back to the second part of the given dictionary definition for the word gratitude: 'to show appreciation for and to return kindness.' This is important, because it hints at a sea change in our attitude and mood when we practise gratitude. I have met a lot of people, especially within the yoga community, who always seem to be beaming from the inside out. They are people who seem genuinely content, abundant, and like their life is a pleasant breeze. But ask them why they are always so seemingly joyful? The answer is always gratitude. Not practising it once life is good and abundant, but also when it is not.
This takes practice, but I have been doing it for over a year now, and it has genuinely made me a happier person, in spite of all the challenges covid has thrown at me. Because I have been practising gratitude for the most mundane, day-to-day things, I consistently feel a great deal of appreciation for life, and as a result finding that my output is far more effortless. Not just output in my work, but in relationships too, both with friends and family, but also in my exchanges with strangers. I feel, because of practising gratitude, like there's an overflowing well of kindness, good will etc. that I'm adding to daily, and therefore able to draw from. Even if I had to fake it a bit at the beginning.