At times when life is feeling particularly rough, challenging or even hopeless, invoking feelings of genuine gratitude and moving our bodies in ways that change our current state is perhaps the most proactive thing we can do.
Genuine feelings of gratitude increase blood flow to the hypothalamus, and increases both dopamine and serotonin production. This counters low self-esteem, loneliness and depression, and results in better sleep, higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, optimism and determination, an increased willingness to share and to help others.
A regular gratitude practice creates what Alex Korb PhD refers to as a ‘virtuous cycle’ – once we begin to train ourselves to more regularly practise gratitude, our practice becomes self-expanding. Based on my observation in my own practice, and in working with clients, I have found that adding experiential movement with the element of appreciation for our bodies is a profound addition to the common practices of daily talking and writing about gratitude.
Here are ten practices that can be enjoyed individually as a single pearl or strung beautifully together as a lengthy luxury.
This is where we begin our practice.
Seated Toe Tuck
Focus on your feet, your foundation. Do yours get the appreciation and the attention they deserve? Wiggle your toes. Circle through your ankles, point and flex your feet. There are so many intricate actions, so many movement possibilities. Training and toning the muscles across the top of your feet supports your ankle, knee, and hip joints; which in turn supports your whole spine. Strong flexible feet mean a healthy spine and good balance. Sense into feelings of thankfulness for the gift of your very hard working feet.
Practice: Seated Toe Tuck
Come to Table-top. Place your hands under (or slightly in front of) your shoulders, and your knees under your hips. With your hands pressed firmly on the floor, tuck your toes so that the soles of your feet face directly behind you and toes flexed facing toward knees. Lower your weight slowly and gently back onto the length, not the tips, of your toes. This will stretch your toes and the soles of your feet. Avoid over stretching by releasing too much weight. Enjoy this stretch for one to two minutes.
Dedicate this stretch to someone who has stood by you and supported you.
Certainly, we have all felt the downside of being out of balance. Stressors of daily living can have us caught up feeling off-centre and ungrounded. Standing balances, such as tree pose, not only increase our physical strength, stability and coordination, but also improve our focus while calming a restless mind. To coordinate a gratitude practice with this pose, sense into feelings of thankfulness and appreciation for the ability to stand strong in life.
You are still growing, of course, but you have made it to here now, with no doubt some significant challenges along your path. Celebrate the fact that you are still standing.
Practice: Tree Pose
Begin standing with your arms at your sides. Distribute your weight evenly on both feet. Shift your weight to your left foot. Bend your right knee, then reach down and clasp your right inner ankle. Use your hand to draw your right foot alongside your inner left thigh. Do not rest your foot against your knee, only above or below it.
Rest your hands on your hips and lengthen your tailbone toward the floor. Then, press your palms together in prayer position at your chest. Steady your gaze. Draw down through your left foot. Press your right foot into your left thigh, while pressing your thigh equally against your foot. If you are unable to bring your foot to your thigh, rest your foot alongside your calf muscle or the ankle of your standing leg, instead. Rest the toes of your raised foot on the floor if you need extra assistance balancing. If you are very unsteady, try practicing the pose with your back against a wall for extra support. Enjoy for 5-10 breaths. Return to standing. Repeat for the same amount of time on the opposite side.
Dedicate your tree pose to someone who inspires you to stand strong.
Rag Doll Pose
You are here in this moment, because of, rather than in spite of, all that has gone before and until this very moment. Can you fully embrace the past offering thankfulness for every moment, experience and circumstance? Whether choosing to focus on the challenging or the joyful memories, it’s possible to give thanks for all that has happened. By saying thanks to the past, you can say yes to the future. Train and exercise the mindset of gratitude and positivity to create an even brighter today and tomorrow. For what has been, thanks; for what will be, yes.
Practice: Rag Doll Pose
Begin standing with your feet hip distance apart. Take a deep inhale and on your exhale fold forward from your hips, letting your hands fall towards the floor. Bend your knees as deeply as needed. Take opposite elbows with your hands. Relax your head and neck so that they heavily hang toward the floor. Feel free to gently sway from the side to side. Enjoy this pose for up to one minute.
Dedicate your pose to an event or person from your past for which you can be grateful.
4. Focus on sitting, listening and learning
How often are we so busy with daily doing that we forget take breaks to enjoy the simple pleasure of observing the world around us? Give thanks for the time and luxury of sitting down to take a rest. With a bit of stillness and quiet observation we can begin to take in new awareness and learning. Reflect on the amazing gift and privilege that it is to be educated, literate and skilled. Think about the many schools and trainings, classes and workshops attended. Give thanks for all of the lessons and all of the teachers.
Practice: Boat Pose
Begin in a seated position with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on the floor behind you, fingers pointing forward. Lean back onto your hands and lift your feet off the floor. Keep you knees bent at first. Bring your shins parallel to the floor. This is Half Boat Pose. Your torso will naturally fall back, but do not let the spine round. Extend your arms roughly parallel to the floor and parallel to each other with palms facing inward. Extend your legs straight for Boat Pose if you can do so without losing the integrity of your upper body. Keep your torso as upright as possible so that it makes a V shape with the legs. Enjoy for 3-5 breaths. Return to sitting.
Dedicate your pose today to a favourite teacher.
5. Focus on hip mobility and freedom
Rather than enjoying sitting down to rest as a luxury, many people in today’s world are stuck sitting for long hours each day due to their work. This inevitably creates tight hips and impairs mobility. If your daily work requires long hours of sitting, taking time to stretch out your hips can help to counter the negative effects, including muscle imbalances, back pain, and poor balance and posture. Incorporate a gratitude practice, by thinking about what it means to have full mobility of healthy hips. Free-flowing hips open up all kinds of movement possibilities. Give thanks for all of the wonderful freedom you have experienced due to healthy hips.
Practice: Low Lunge
Begin in standing pose. Step your right foot forward between your hands. Keep your knee directly over the ankle you feel a comfortable stretch along the left front thigh and groin. For a deeper sensation, bring one hand over the other to your front thigh. Push down into your hands and engage your abdominal muscles. Rather, lift your belly off your thigh. Tilt your tailbone forward and up and then lower both hips toward your front heel. Take your fingertips to the ground on either side of your hips and relax your shoulders away from your ears. Experiment with extending one or both arms up alongside your ears and moving into a backbend. Enjoy 5-10 breaths. Return to Tabletop. Repeat on the other side.
Dedicate your pose to someone who inspires freedom.
6. Focus on twisting, detox, digestion
Half Prayer Twist
Feeling abundant, that our cup is overflowing, puts us in the mood to release, lighten up and detox, and share our wealth. Give thanks for every delicious meal shared with family, friends and lovers. Offer thanks for being able to share our overflowing wealth from a garden harvest, or a farmer’s market, or the fruits of our labours. Give thanks for every moment of nourishment. Recall an experience of feeling truly nourished, and be grateful.
Practice: Half Prayer Twist
From Tabletop, step the right foot between the hands, bringing the right knee directly over the right ankle into a low lunge. Bring your left elbow to the outside of your right knee. Place palms together. Press down into your elbow/knee connection. Draw both shoulders back. Widen your collar bones and broaden across your chest, with your heart rising to meet your hands. Optional, lift your back knee off the floor and extend with enthusiasm through your back leg and into the ball of your back foot. Enjoy 5-10 breaths. Release. Transition to a resting pose such as downward dog or child’s pose. Repeat on other side.
Dedicate your twist today to someone living, historical or fictional with whom you would like to share a meal.
7. Focus on heart opening, love and emotions
The human experience is made all the richer by a colourful array of emotion – when we are fully expressed, we get to paint with all the colours. In this practice, we have the opportunity to be grateful for the entirety of the human experience; to ‘feel all of the feels’. Think of an emotional experience, one where your heart has broken wide open, and be grateful for feeling truly alive
Practice: Half Camel Pose
Come up onto both knees, placing them hip width apart. Place the palms of your hands on your sacrum with fingers pointing down. Lengthen up through the spine. Press your hips forward, squeezing the buttocks and thighs and supporting your weight with your arms as you bend backwards. Carefully reach your right hand down to your right heel. If you cannot reach the heel, keep your hand on the sacrum. Reach your left hand up and back. If it feels good, release your head all the way back. Enjoy 3-5 breaths. To release: With both hands on the sacrum, slowly inhale up, allowing your head and neck be the last to return to upright. Repeat on the other side.
Dedicate your heart opening pose today to a great love in your life.
8. Focus on hands, creativity and connectivity
Hand Mudra – Lotus Blossom
Contemplate all of the ways in which you create, express, connect and communicate through your hands. Can you generate heartfelt appreciation for your hands? Can you list a few specific things that you have made, hands you have held in your own, or ways in which you can truly see your hands as precious gifts?
Practice Hand Mudras –
Bring your hands to your heart in the shape of a lotus bud, finger tips touching, thumbs together, heels of your hands together. Honor this lotus bud as the purest essence of yourself. Recognize that your life as an unfolding or blossoming. Open this mudra by keeping the heels of your hands, little fingers and thumbs connected and extend index middle and ring fingers up and outward. Enjoy this beautiful heart blossom for 5-10 breaths, reflecting on gratefulness for the beautiful unfolding that is your life.
Dedicate your lotus blossom mudra to someone who has gifted you something hand-made.
Cross your hands in front of your chest with the backs of your hands touching, right hand closest to your heart. Interlink your little, ring and middle fingers and then join the tips of your index finger and thumb with both hands to form two circular rings. With your hands in front of your heart, honor your own courageousness to give and receive love and to share your gifts and talents.
Dedicate your courageous heart mudra to someone you have gifted something made by your own hands.
9. Focus on shoulders, bearing weight and progress
Our lives are built upon the labours of other people. From a literal perspective, we could find thankfulness for the people who laboured to build the home where we live, our streets, stores, schools, infrastructure of the towns in which we live. However there are also the courageous pioneers who carried their weight in other ways creating new possibilities for progress in medicine, technology, art and science advancements. There are countless people to thank
Practice: Shoulder Stretch at the wall
Using the wall for a variation of Downward Dog, stand at arm’s length facing a wall with your feet hip width. Bend forward to place your palms flat on the wall in front of you. The geometry of this pose is going toward a 90-degree angle. Your legs are a vertical line – perpendicular to the floor, hands spread shoulder width, arms parallel to each other, arms and torso in a horizontal plane parallel to the floor. Tilt your tailbone up to be the pointy edge of your 90-degree angle as you press your thighs back and firmly press hands forward into the wall. Now, sink head and ears, chest and heart toward the floor. Enjoy 5-10 breaths. Return to standing.
Dedicate your pose today to a builder, maker, inventor, artist or scientist.
10. Focus on head, sensory perception, awareness and breath
Alternate nostril breathing
You are a multiplicity of miracles. Contemplate the constituents of your head, home base of your brain, awareness, conscious thinking and four of the five senses. How many things can you list (off the top of your head) that give cause to a seemingly unending stream of gratitude? How long do you think you can keep that rush of gratefulness flowing?
Practice: alternate nostril breathing
Also known as “switch breath” it is important to note that you “switch” on the exhale. Take a comfortable and tall seat, making sure your spine is straight and your heart is open. Rest your left hand comfortably into your lap and bring your right hand just in front of your face. Curl your right index finger and middle finger into your palm. The fingers we’ll be actively using are the right thumb and ring finger.
Take a deep breath in and out through your nose. Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily. Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause. Open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale
Inhale through the right side slowly. Hold both nostrils closed (with ring finger and thumb). Open your left nostril and release breath slowly through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom. Enjoy 5-10 cycles, allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.
Dedicate your practice to someone or something that inspires you to believe in magic and miracles.
Embodying gratitude means doing
My invitation to you, right now, is to begin embodying gratitude, to bring gratitude into your body, and experience directly the many benefits of a gratitude practice, by indulging in one, or all of these practices, right now!
“Around us, life bursts with miracles–a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf, a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops. If you live in awareness, it is easy to see miracles everywhere. Each human being is a multiplicity of miracles. Eyes that see thousands of colors, shapes, and forms; ears that hear a bee flying or a thunderclap; a brain that ponders a speck of dust as easily as the entire cosmos; a heart that beats in rhythm with the heartbeat of all beings. When we are tired and feel discouraged by life’s daily struggles, we may not notice these miracles, but they are always there.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
this post originally appeared online and in print in LivingNow Magazine