Is the gym contributing to the unhappiness epidemic? RX – Yoga

Happiness is relative – it is the natural state that occurs when unhappiness is absent. Therefore the best way to become happy is not to seek to acquire happiness but to develop the skills to remove the causes of unhappiness.


I was reading a news story in the New York Times yesterday about the latest research findings on happiness. It was titled “What happy people don’t do”. In a nutshell the discovery was that happy people spend a lot of time socialising, going to church and reading newspapers — but they don’t spend a lot of time watching television, a new study finds.


That’s what unhappy people do. And data show that people who spend the most time watching television are least happy in the long run.

This got me thinking about Television and the gym – could there be unintended consequences of the usual gym workout routine? Could the gym be making people unhappy?

If you go to the modern gym the chances are you will see television screens everywhere. And if you go into the actual gym area you will see most people staring at these television screens while they are working out. Recent research found that 70% of gym members watch TV when they go to the gym and they watch 40 minutes on average per visit.


Why are people watching TV while they are exercising? Because what they are doing is boring. Watching TV keeps them distracted and detached from what is going on.


Another way to read this is that many people are actually paying money to train themselves to disconnect their minds and their bodies. They are training themselves in mindlessness and distraction. And now the latest research shows that by watching more television they are probably training themselves to be more unhappy too. 


Yoga is the antithesis of the gym/TV gig. Yoga is a training in mindfulness – it is mental, physical and emotional training rolled into one and  interconnected. You learn be present, to live in the present moment and to connect with the flow of life. You learn to become yourself and express yourself. You learn to connect vs. disconnect. You learn to focus and pay attention vs. training for distraction.


Yoga can be a practice that transforms your life. The purely physical aspects of yoga, like the physical aspects of working out at the gym, will slide away if you stop practising. And many forms of yoga don’t really get much past this anyway – especially when they are taught in the gym environment and by people with a minimal training qualification. On the other hand, the promise from yoga schools that weekend, one day, one week or one month courses will transform your consciousness are straight out right lies and fly in the face of yoga. 


The real long term benefits from yoga come from learning a new way to relate to yourself and to life. We are trying to teach you a generic approach and skill that you can apply to the whole of your life. That is what we encourage you to practice. The real practice of yoga has nothing to do with “perfecting” certain physical positions in terms of how they look from an external perspective – that approach teaches “conformit”y and the idea that self value comes from being perfect in the eyes of  standards set by an external authority. In Yoga we are teaching you to connect to, and express yourself from, an “internal reference point” – to be internally directed rather than externally directed.


Our desire is for you to learn to  connect to, and align yourself with, the actual flow of life and the reality of what is happening. 


 Three  key qualities we want you to develop are concentration, clarity (discrimination) and equanimity.


Yoga is ultimately about relationships and, as the happiness study shows, it is relational activities that contribute to happiness. One of my teachers, TKV Desikachar, once said to me: ” from the perspective of yoga it is more important for your students to fix their relationships with their mothers than to be able to do any yoga postures or breathing exercise”


And a few final thoughts about happiness. Happiness is a relative concept. The state of happiness exists relative to the state of unhappiness. If unhappiness were to disappear then happiness would also disappear.  If you doubt this I suggest that you reflect on your own experience. When you are happy do you consciously register the fact? How much of your time do you spend thinking about how happy you are? I imagine very little to none. When we are happy we aren’t usually aware of it. But unhappiness is the opposite – when we are unhappy we are aware of it and think about it – but we don’t generally think  “how do I become happy” – we think “how do I get rid of this unhappiness” . 


If we were constantly happy we would become used to it just like we become used to anything that doesn’t change – it would be the normal state and life would be become flat. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire to be happy.


Maybe we would be happier if we focused on first avoiding doing the things that made us unhappy rather than trying to work out what makes us happy. But then where would the whole happiness industry be? 


I have in front of me right now a brochure for the fourth annual conference on “Happiness and it’s Causes – Tools and Techniques for a happier life”. Somehow I don’t think that “Unhappiness and it’s causes – tools and techniques for removing unhappiness” would sell as well. Happiness is now a consumer item – something to buy, something that is acquired, rather than the natural state that exists when unhappiness has been removed. Feel free to go along and get scalped.


As a caveat I should mention that we do have an aspect to yoga practice where we learn to generate positive internal self talk, positive images and positive emotional states. These practices are done with the intention of training consciousness and development of concentration, clarity and equanimity.

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Filed under Happiness, Yoga

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