I have been thinking a lot about the distinction and dichotomy of Pleasure versus Joy. I was partially inspired to explore this by an interaction between my children. They were having an argument last week (I know it is shocking that siblings argue) and my son who is younger said something very harsh to his older sister. Usually, she can rip him apart with her words so I saw the moment of satisfaction on his face when he came up with an especially harsh response. It was a quick burst of pleasure at “getting her really good”. However, as I continued to watch his face, his expression very quickly changed from satisfaction to sadness. It made me think the times I have done something or said something that felt really pleasurable or satisfying in the moment but led to experiencing deep regret later on.
As humans we are programmed to seek pleasure. We believe that we are going through life “correctly” as long as we are experiencing pleasure. Pleasure is that chemical reaction, that “hit” or momentary positive feeling we get from an external situation…. a great meal, an exhilarating experience or a great come back line. Pleasure really has to do with the positive experiences of our senses, and with good things happening but it usually does not last long because it is dependent upon those external events and experiences. We have to keep on having the good experiences in order to feel pleasure. As a result, many people become addicted to these external experiences, needing more and more to feel a short-lived feeling of pleasure.
Joy on the other hand is quite different. While pleasure is a fleeting but often intense rush of emotion, joy is deeper and slower… a smoldering, slower building awareness. Joy comes from the practice of being present in each moment with love and kindness towards ourselves and others. When we surrender the attachment to the outcome of things; the desire to dictate that which is outside of our control, and instead let our spiritual values of caring, compassion and kindness be our guide we experience joy. Joy is what we feel when we are part of something bigger than just ourselves.
On further reflection I realized that there are times when Pleasure and Joy can align with each other and when that’s the case, powerful things can happen. However, when Pleasure and Joy do NOT align, Pleasure actually can erode away our joy. (which is what happened with my Son)
Pleasure and Joy can work together and co-exist in our Yoga practice as well. We experience pleasure is those moments when we find ourselves doing something new… perhaps getting into an arm balance or feeling a second of fly-time in handstand. The Joy however is all of it– it is the consistent present practice over time, the positive habits we create in our bodies and minds when we commit to our practice on our mats. It is the deeper intrinsic smoldering that aligns with our Spiritual Values.
Last week in my classes I asked my students to focus on their Joy; the slow smoldering that builds a warm soft glow in the heart. As we warmed up we did some gentle back bending and then popped up to Navasana (boat pose) alternating between regular Navasana and Ardha Navasana (half boat). Obviously there is not much pleasure in the intense hip flexor and abdominal strengthening but there is Joy. The Joy is in the building inner core strength that supports the spine.
As we moved through several sequences I often reminded my students to look for the Joy not just the Pleasure and to make sure they were working together and not at odds with each other. Sure we could force ourselves into an advanced pose and perhaps feel a moment of pleasure and satisfaction but would our body be in pain later? If so, that immediate pleasure could actually take away some of our intrinsic joy.
As we neared the end of practice, we moved into a seated forward fold, Pachimonttonsasana (pictured above). We spent several breathes in this forward bend. This pose truly offers a great example of Pleasure versus Joy. It is usually depicted with hands grabbing feet. Therefore, it is pleasurable to grab our feet with our hands in this pose because that is what we think it is supposed to look like; that we are “doing it right”. However the joy in this pose comes from maintaining a long straight spine…one line from head to tail. This is the true intention of the pose, to lengthen the spine. Some people can achieve both at the same time; a straight spine and holding their feet with their hands. This is when pleasure and joy are aligned. However for other people they may need bent knees or to grab knees or ankles instead of feet in order to maintain a straight spine. This is when the choice between pleasure and joy may need to come.
Both on and off the mat we are offered these choices every day. With mindfulness and practice we can begin create a synergy between our pleasure and our joy. From there, we can have the power to align our spiritual values with our everyday positive experiences to create true Joy on our journey. Namaste.