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happinessThis year, I am taking three yoga students through the equivalent of teacher training grad school. In regular teacher training, most of the postures my students learn to practice and teach are familiar to them. Not in this program. For the last three months, these women have been adding brand new postures into their own practices as well as learning how to break them down into safe and accessible modifications for their students. It’s a lot to process both physically and intellectually.

Because I provide a curriculum outlining our studies for the year, it’s been tempting for them to look ahead at the postures to come. It’s fun to listen to their speculations: “I’ll never be able to do that one.” “I can’t wait for that one!” “That one looks like it’s going to be painful.” Sometimes, they’re spot on. Sometimes, not so much.

Last week, to a person, they surprised themselves. We were working in variations of eka pada sirsasana (leg behind the head). To say that they had low expectations for themselves would be a gigantic understatement. The commentary leading up to these postures was filled with “No ways,” “Not gonna happens,” and “Not in this lifetimes.” My reminders that success in this program is not about being able to get fully into every posture was doing nothing to shift their outlooks. So I stopped talking and in we plunged.

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s what happened (and not on just this one mat):

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While we have had many, many successes in this class, none created elation like this. Even successes where they have been able to get into the full expression of a posture did not elicit the joy that came from getting “almost there” in this one. Perhaps Mr. Schwartz is right: with expectations set so very low, exuberant happiness was the result.

I’m not suggesting that you head out into the world deliberately underselling your abilities to yourself and others. After all, “I can’t” can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. What I am suggesting is that you try to set aside your notions of what you can and can’t do. Just try. And allow yourself to be surprised. I am suggesting that you can find a modicum of success even when you don’t quite “get it.” After all, if you don’t take steps (big ones and small ones), you’ll never get all the way there. And, I am suggesting that if we can clear our minds of our expectations of success or failure, we can find great happiness with what happens when we try anything.

The same thing works when we set aside our expectations of others. When someone meets our expectations, feelings of gratitude might be masked by the sense that they’ve only done what was expected. When someone fails to meet our expectations, disappointment or even anger may prevent us from responding kindly. If we can manage to free ourselves of expectations (it is really hard to do), we are freer to be compassionate when someone annoys us or reveals a weakness or simply makes a mistake. While lowered expectations won’t solve every instance of frustration in our lives, doing so can lead to a happier state of mind.

For the next day or so, why not give it a try? Set aside your expectations of others. Allow them to surprise you – and try to respond with gratitude or compassion. Set aside your expectations of yourself. Just do your best and see what happens. You may end up with a shocked smile on your face like the one above. After all, whether you expect it or not, you are capable of amazing things.