The Health-Promoting Power of Joy (And How to Obtain It)
“Healthy plants and trees yield abundant flowers and fruits. Similarly, from a healthy person, smiles and happiness shine forth like the rays of the sun.” A recent reading of this observation by renowned yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar converged with my new understanding of the health-promoting power of relaxation and joy.
How it works is surprisingly simple. States of joy and relaxation induce hormonal releases in the body that counter the hormones caused by stress. This is important in light of recent findings by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that 90% of doctor visits are stress related. That’s not a typo. 90%.
So, it’s vital to our health that we learn how to transcend stress and tap into our body’s natural reserves of joy and relaxation. One simple way to achieve this combination of health and happiness is the practice of yoga. Ask almost any yoga enthusiast, and he or she will probably tell you that joy and relaxation are two of the main byproducts of the practice. I like to think of it as the santosha-savasana effect.
Santosha means contentment and it is one of five qualities that make up the second limb of the yogic path (called niyama). Santosha is the ability to find satisfaction with the way things are regardless of outer circumstances. Try on this concept for a day (even an hour) and it becomes apparent that it’s easier said than done. But it is possible through practice.
On our yoga mats, we can find the joy-inducing power of santosha by relating to our bodies and the yoga poses in a reverent way, appreciating what we can do instead of lamenting over what we cannot. When we remember to add a simple smile in a pose that we vehemently dislike, we notice it suddenly becomes easier, showing us firsthand the power of contentment. We might even use the word santosha as a verbal or mental mantra to invoke the energy of satisfaction.
As we flex our mental muscle for santosha on the mat, it invariably follows us off the mat. It becomes natural to smile during a difficult time or to look for the simple joy in less than ideal circumstances. Instead of complaining over the fact you’re stuck in traffic on a busy freeway (a regular occurrence for us southern Californians), you may find yourself appreciating a beautiful piece of music on the radio, relishing in the stillness that allows you take some deep conscious breaths, or rolling down the window to feel the breeze in your hair.
"On our yoga mats, we can find the joy-inducing power of santosha by relating to our bodies and the yoga poses in a reverent way, appreciating what we can do instead of lamenting over what we cannot."
One translation of the Yoga Sutra verse pertaining to santosha reads, “When at peace and content with oneself and others, supreme joy is celebrated.” (Sutra 2.42) And that brings us to the science. The hormone DHEA, known as the feel-good or life force hormone, is produced in the adrenal glands. It’s the precursor to other important hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. DHEA supports the immune system, aids tissue repair, improves sleep, and counters stress hormones.
And guess what? Research shows one of the best natural ways to increase our DHEA levels is to create more joy in our hearts and lives. So the daily practice of santosha is not only good for our mental and emotional well-being, but it’s good for our physical well-being, too.
Now let’s consider relaxation. The pose most closely associated with relaxing for the majority of yoga practitioners is savasana (corpse pose). The final posture in most yoga classes where we lie flat on our backs, legs extended, palms turned upward, eyes closed.
I’ve come to think of this position as a full-bodied mudra (seal) that imprints the energy of surrender, receptivity, and letting go into our psyche. It’s what allows us to integrate the neuromuscular changes that our yoga practice has induced. It also decreases heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and anxiety. I find I can bring about this shift in my body and mind at any point during the day simply by visualizing myself in savasana.
"I’ve come to think of this position as a full-bodied mudra (seal) that imprints the energy of surrender, receptivity, and letting go into our psyche."
All of these same physiological responses were confirmed to be part of an overall “relaxation response” by Harvard physician Dr. Herbert Benson in the late 1960s. His findings were published in his 1975 book, The Relaxation Response. He coined the phrase because it countered the “fight or flight” term used for the stress response that had been discovered sixty years earlier by famous physiologist Walter B. Cannon.
Cannon’s work revealed that every time we’re faced with a stressful situation, our bodies release hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) that increase our heart rate, breathing rate, metabolic rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to the muscles gearing us up to fight or flee. But Dr. Benson’s study found that just as stress can be induced in the body, so can relaxation. Inducing this relaxation response prevents and compensates for frequent nervous reactions by decreasing heart rate, breathing rate, metabolic rate, and blood pressure.
For decades, Dr. Benson continued amassing a body of clinical proof that supported and elaborated on his initial findings. Ultimately, the way to elicit the relaxation response was narrowed to two steps:
- Repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity.
- Passively disregarding everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and returning to your repetition.
Doing this for ten to twenty minutes has been proven to bring about what Benson called the relaxation response.
Putting Them Together
The cool thing is that these two practices of finding satisfaction and inducing relaxation can be done anywhere and at any time. You don’t have to be in savasana. If in public, you can make a quiet humming sound or repeat your chosen word or prayer mentally. When your mind starts to chatter, you simply say, “Oh well,” and go back to the object of your focus until you feel your mind and body come to a place of equilibrium.
"More and more the practice of yoga becomes internal. It’s something we can do anywhere, anytime, throughout our day."
As Dr. Lissa Rankin, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, put it, “The key is to remember that how our minds feel as we go about our day - how relaxed, happy, and fulfilled we are - gets translated into the physiology of the body.” So while we may not immediately feel the effects of anxiety and stress as we would a bee sting or stubbing our toe, the effects are nonetheless there.
At any point throughout our day we can check in with our emotional and mental state, knowing that even though we may not feel it physically, it is being manifested in the physiology of our body. Then if our state is not one of joy or relaxation, we can call upon things like santosha and savasana to bring us into equilibrium and balance.
You don’t need a yoga mat to turn the corners of your mouth up or to take a deep breath. Nor must you be lying on your back in a yoga class to find savasana consciousness. More and more the practice of yoga becomes internal. It’s something we can do anywhere, anytime, throughout our day.
A New Normal
Now that you know the scientific healing power of joy and relaxation, each time you find these states within yourself you can celebrate that you are cultivating health - not only mentally and emotionally, but physically, too.
As each individual takes responsibility for countering stress, the collective trend will shift, and we will see a dramatic reduction in the toll that stress is taking on our health. We can be part of bringing about a change where well-being is the new norm.
You'll Also Enjoy:
- Savasana Isn't Just for Dead People
- A Little Laughter Goes a Long Way: Yoga Pose for Joy
- How to Turn Stress Into a Strength
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.
2. Patanjali, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Translated by Mukunda Stiles. Boston: Weiser, 2002.
3. Lissa Rankin, MD, Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, United States: Hay House, 2013.
4. Herbert Benson, MD with Miriam Z. Klipper, The Relaxation Response, New York: Harpertorch, 1975.
5. “A Hormone That Stimulates Fat Loss and Improves Mood and Energy Levels?” Eat, Heal, Love Blog. November 21, 2013.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.