We may take gratitude for granted, or feel it is overplayed. Yet according to the teachings of Yoga and Ayurveda, gratitude is not only essential for our well-being, it actually endows us with superpowers. Don’t just save it for Thanksgiving dinner; practice gratitude daily for greater mental health.
Superpower 1: Gratitude is your Automatic Reframer
Reframing is a term used to describe the process of actively changing your viewpoint on a given situation. Used in modern psychology, it is also part of the philosophy and practice of yoga and Ayurveda. While Patanjali didn’t necessarily call it reframing, this is the practice of pradipakshabhavana described in Sutra 2.33, which says that when we have negative thoughts, the antidote is to reflect and encourage another point of view. In short, reframe.
Gratitude is one of the easiest reframing tools we have, and sometimes, we don’t even realize just how powerful it is. For example, when I was in a car accident (a hit and run), after a few seconds of cursing and some waves of shock and anger, I was able to say, “At least everyone is okay. Thank goodness the kids and I are just fine, and it’s just damage to the car.”
Gratitude is what allowed me to reframe the situation into one in which I no longer felt angry or frazzled. This is huge because my cells then benefit from not experiencing the biophysiological effects of anger and stress. Gratitude moves us away from emotions that have unhealthy effects. We’ve all done this in some way, because reframing with gratitude is naturally how we console our loved ones:
“It’s hard to lose your job, but at least you’re not stuck doing something you don’t love anymore.” (Gratitude for no longer feeling stuck or trapped.)
“I know you it’s hard to hear he’s with another woman, but at least you have clarity on the fact you need to move on.” (Gratitude for clear direction instead of the back-and-forth.)
“It’s always hard to lose a loved one, but at least he’s not suffering anymore.” (Gratitude for the release of pain.)
Superpower 2: Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for healing.
Each emotional state has an associated biophysiological profile. When I feel dissatisfied, for example, my neurons pump out a specific array of neurotransmitters, and that array produces its own domino effect on the body’s hormonal systems and thus the tissues. Contentment has its own specific effect on the body—and it is an effect that is healing. The impact of the emotions on the body is a burgeoning area of modern research. However, all ancient cultures have acknowledged this phenomenon in their healing sciences.
Ayurveda describes how emotions are connected with physiologic states in our tissues and organs. Emotions related to the fiery pitta dosha (including anger, irritability, dissatisfaction, judgment, impatience, and intolerance) have effects on the body that then increase pitta (inflammation, acidity, infection, ulceration). Imbalances in the mind and emotional body can manifest in the physical body; this process usually begins with the digestive system. This underscores the importance of not spending too much time in emotional states that reflect doshic imbalance; for example, according to Ayurveda, rigidity in the mind can affect the tendons and arteries over time, leading to greater physical rigidity. In this way, mental flexibility can be a practice that actually protects against rotator cuff tears and hypertension. Amazing, isn’t it?
By reframing our experiences with gratitude, we can experience an emotional state with healing effects. Indeed, gratitude practices have been shown to be effective in helping to heal everything from trauma to coronary artery disease.
Superpower 3: Gratitude can lift you out of the victim container.
Most of us know we have so much to be grateful for every day. If you are reading this, you likely live in a non-survival setting, practice yoga, and have great access to whatever you desire. Yet, many of us do not live in a state of unwavering gratitude. Why?
I notice that many of us have a strong activation in our victim archetype, an archetype I first learned of from Carolyn Myss. Simply stated, the victim archetype is one in which our perspectives on a situation are ones in which we play the victim. In the example of my car accident, I could have easily gotten stuck in the victim archetype:
“I can’t believe that someone would do that, and drive off. What a [insert expletive]!”
“We were in the car when it happened; it was just feet from my daughter’s door, and that could have been really bad.”
“Oh, now I have to pay the full deductible, there goes a few hundred dollars. Plus my insurance premium may increase.”
“Dealing with insurance companies and being carless is the last thing I needed right now.”
Any of these statements put me in the role of being injusticed or victimized. The Law of Attraction says that if I put that perspective out into the world, then I attract more of the same. Each time we espouse the victim perspectives in our minds, or express them to others, we attract more situations in which we feel victimized. Yikes! Don’t fret: Gratitude is here to save the day.
Because I have been practicing for a long time, when the accident happened, I immediately shifted to a state of gratitude. I took all of the above possible thought patterns and replaced them with ones based in gratitude. Gratitude that we were safe, that I have great insurance coverage, that we had a car with such a solid frame, that the extent of the damage was not too serious, and that I had someone to call to offer me love after the accident. In fact, I was deeply grateful I didn’t have to interact with the driver of the other car. Anyone that would do something like that was likely in a state, or with a persona, that I would not have enjoyed interacting with — or maybe not felt safe interacting with — at night with my children.
I refused to even speak of the accident with any tone other than deep gratitude, because my state of internal harmony is not worth disrupting for that incident. In other words, I refuse to go in the victim container. With the help of gratitude, we can stay in a state of empowerment, or divine grace:
“Can you believe how lucky I am that we were safe and that I’m covered and that I didn’t have to deal with that person? I’m so blessed.”
Superpower 4: Gratitude helps us attract feel-good experiences.
There were a number of surprising small benefits from the car accident, including: receiving brand-new booster seats for my kids because of the car seat law, the auto body shop fixing a dent on the other side of the car for no additional charge, and the car rental covered by the insurance happened to be the ideal money-saving transportation to and from the airport for three trips. In addition and perhaps most important, I had the opportunity to teach my kids by example how to handle potentially victimizing situations without going in the victim container. A few weeks later, when my young daughter scraped her knee, she compared her experience to when the car “got a booboo” and how it was later okay.
Superpower 5: Gratitude encourages spiritual growth.
The teachings of Ayurveda and Yoga remind us that in the big picture, nothing is forever and nothing is for certain. We forget this. We take people and things for granted: our loved ones, our life situations, possessions, our health, and even our stage of life. There’s something about gratitude that acknowledges the impermanence of all of it; gratitude and the recognition of this impermanence are inseparable. “Enjoy it while you can.”
The awareness of impermanence helps us to stay present in the ephemeral “now.” Meditation is the practice of being fully present. And this is why an “attitude of gratitude” is an inherent part of our journey to greater presence, conscious living, and spiritual growth.
Superpower 6: Gratitude helps calm the airy energy of the vata dosha.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, gratitude balances vata. Some of the signs of an imbalance of the energy of vata are a state of depletion of the mind, emotions, and energy; degeneration of the body and energetic state; and feelings of scarcity on all levels. When we are truly experiencing a state of gratitude, we feel naturally full, abundant, and blessed, which are all the exact opposites of the experience of vata imbalance.
It’s no coincidence that our ritual of Thanksgiving, along with celebrations from around the world, all occur during the fall season, a time characterized by an abundance of the energy of vata. These celebrations encourage calm, ease, and expansion during the season of depletion and scarcity, since to find balance we cultivate the opposite qualities in the Ayurvedic healing approach.
In any practice, consistency is key, and then we start to notice the results of our actions. Whether or not you feel inspired to wear a superhero cape to your Thanksgiving dinner, you may experience the full effect of the superpowers endowed by gratitude.
Gratitude in Practice
You don’t have to fake this. Everyone has 10 things they can be genuinely thankful for on any given day. These 10 things may change from day to day, season to season, but we’ve all got at least 10. Write them down, share them with your loved ones. Post on Facebook, Tweet, photograph them, discuss at the dinner table, or add them to your prayers or meditations.
Make it a 40-Day Habit
With my clients, I often suggest a 40 day practice of gratitude. Bring in the time and space to recognize and honor that which we are grateful for on a regular basis, as part of our daily rhythm. After 40 days, you may make it a lifetime habit.
Take five minutes in the morning or event and journal that list of 10 for 40 days. Set aside a few minutes to list the 10 things you are most grateful for on that day, and do this for a consecutive 40 days. If you miss a day, keep at it, and just add a day on the back end. Just on or after the New Moon is a great time to begin any 40 day practice.
Dr. Siva Mohan integrates Ayurveda with modern medicine in her Ayurvedic wellness practice and educational programs to define and achieve whole-being wellness. Dr. Mohan specializes in addressing the psychospiritual basis of healing. svasthahealth.com.