By Marcia Miller
Well Being and Can I Have More of It?
This was the topic of a lecture I attended last week given by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., father of Positive Psychology as he is often called. Instead of asking what is wrong with someone, he has been asking what are the qualities that cross time and culture that have promoted the highest level of emotional health and the kind of resilience that makes it possible to heal from painful and traumatic events including PTSD. These qualities include wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. These qualities can be measured and learned in order to enhance the well being of an individual as well as an entire community.
Seligman defined well being with the acronym PERMA, which stands for:
P-Positive Emotion The positive emotions that were most closely predictive of who grows stronger when challenges are present are religiousness, gratitude, kindness, hope, and bravery.
E-Engagement, or the ability to be totally absorbed in flow. The crucial determining factor of what it takes to be in flow is that our strengths are just strong enough to match the challenge.
R-Good relationships These must often be fostered through skill building, especially if healthy relationships were not modeled for you in your childhood.
M-Meaning and purpose in life. For Seligman, this means belonging to and serving something bigger than oneself. He quoted research showing that those people who did simple altruistic acts found that their entire day improved, while people who experienced pleasure were only pleased briefly, while the pleasing stimuli lasted.
A-Achievement Self discipline and grit are twice as important as IQ in terms of personal growth and achievement of one’s personal and professional goals.
After the talk I mused about how this all fits into my understanding of yoga and a couple of things came to mind. There is a way of practicing yoga that relates to PERMA that I call Yoga for Thriving. This is not yoga where we focus only on healing our aches and pains. Relieving pain is a valid reason for practicing yoga, but it is not the only goal—so much more is possible. We can also use yoga to enhance our well being in just the ways Seligman suggests.
The positive emotions can be easily and consciously cultivated in a yoga class or practice. Gratitude and kindness, for example, can be practiced every moment and can transform a mechanical pose into one of delight and wonder. I have seen many students be so brave in a yoga class. For students who worry that they might not be as thin or as flexible as others in a class, just showing up is an act of bravery. And I have often interacted with students who cannot imagine they could do a handstand or a deep backbend, yet try anyway, despite their fear.
Working with fear moves beyond positive emotion into Engagement and Flow. “Flow,” as defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, has a very specific meaning to psychologists. Here is a quote from Seligman’s most recent book, Flourish.
The second element, engagement, is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity. I refer to a life lived with these aims as the “engaged life.” Engagement is different, even opposite, from positive emotion; for if you ask people who are in flow what they are thinking and feeling, they usually say, “nothing.” In flow we merge with the object. I believe that the concentrated attention that flow requires uses up all the cognitive and emotional resources that make up thought and feeling.
There are no shortcuts to flow. On the contrary, you need to deploy your highest strengths and talents to meet the world in flow….Hence, the importance of identifying your highest strengths and learning to use them more often in order to go into flow.
When we practice yoga at the level where we are deeply challenged but within our capabilities, given our strengths, we are more likely to experience that sense of total engagement that results in the joy of flow. For make no mistake—flow is characterized by a sense of joy and absorption. Often as teachers or practitioners we focus only on what is wrong in a pose, rather than what is working. Instead, the next time you get on your mat find the challenges and strengths in every pose. Can you feel the strength of your arms and legs in dog pose, staying for 5 or 10 breaths and then floating to the ground or into the next pose as light as a feather? Even if your body is sore and not feeling light as a feather, notice what it can do. Notice how much your body can do even as it hurts, and give thanks for that. Can you feel a sense of kindness toward all parts of yourself? Can you feel the power and discipline of coming again and again to this practice, even when you don’t feel like it? What are the questions you want to ask yourself to help you flourish on and off the mat? Let’s talk together and share what we learn. Leave your comments here or on Facebook or talk to me in class.