Want to do the advanced version of this (yoga) pose?

— Mary Bruce, yoga teacher extraordinaire
Look at that smile!

Look at that smile!

Each year, Jamie and I gather with one of our tribes for a few days of fellowship, learning, and rejuvenation. We belong to the BK Authors Cooperative, which hosts an annual retreat packed with rich conversation, singing, idea sharing, hugs, and a whole lot of fun. I’m still blissed out after our time with these folks last weekend in Minneapolis.

Each year, we deepen relationships and discover new friends. We fall a little more in love. And this year, among the gifts I came away with was a renewed appreciation for the power of the smile.


For whatever reason, I especially noticed the people who always seem to have, as Thich Nhat Hanh describes it, “a tiny bud of a smile.”  It’s not like they walked around grinning all the time or only lit up when they passed by. As Isaac Barrow says, they looked to be “smiling always with a never fading serenity of countenance.”  Their expressions were pleasant, curious, happy — and I know from conversations that their lives have been as complex as anyone’s, with pain, rejection and feelings of being overwhelmed.

This “natural smile” is something I notice in other people, too, even passing strangers. In particular, I notice how I feel when I see them. Spirit lifted, always lighter.

One of the privileges I have at this retreat is teaching an early morning yoga class. Last year, as people’s thighs were quivering in chair pose, I stole the quote above that my teacher, Mary Bruce, frequently uses.  I’ve probably heard her say it hundreds of times over the years.  It always elicits a smile and just like that, I feel lighter in the pose. At the authors retreat this year, one of the yoga regulars told me that quote had stayed with her all year. She shared it with her yoga teachers at almost every class she had taken.

In his beautiful book Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “If in our daily lives we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit.” That tiny bud of a smile “nourishes awareness and calms us miraculously.”  

Scientific research underscores Thich Nhat Hanh’s premise, revealing the power of the smile on human happiness and well-being. One of the most significant studies, done by Robert Zajonc, centered on the physiological expression of a smile — without attached emotion. He had people repeat vowel sounds that forced their mouths into various expressions. The long “e” sound stretches the corners of the mouth outward and the “u” sound forces a kind of pout. Zajonc’s published study reported that subjects reported feeling good after making the long “e” sound and bad after making a long “u.” The study is among many that reveals the cause-and-effect of stretching your lips into a smile and the power that has to change mood and outlook.


I want to cultivate that constant  “tiny bud” that naturally blooms into contentment. So I’m going to try a science experiment of my own. I am going to try and hold the long “e” vowel sound in my mind.

Maybe you want to try, too. Maybe if we do it together, we can make the world just a little lighter by creating the smile eeeeeeeeternal. 



Practicing  tapas  helps you create healthy habits.

Practicing tapas helps you create healthy habits.

Seven minutes and thirty seconds.

During his talk at the Southwest Institute for Healing Arts in May, master yogi Mark Whitwell asked us to commit. Do a simple, short yoga flow routine every single day for three months, he said. “If you give it seven minutes a day actually, naturally and not obsessively, I promise it will change your life.” As we drove home from the event that Tuesday night, Jamie and I agreed we both would do it.

For years, I’ve wanted to establish a committed, daily physical yoga practice. Don’t get me wrong. I practice frequently and have for many years. But when it came to a daily home practice, the Terrible Triplets — laziness, procrastination, and rationalization — had a powerful pull.  I’d wake up with the kind of intention the devil loves to pave with, and the Triplet’s mellifluous voices would sing out a sweet persuasion. “Look at your calendar! The To-Do list! What a busy woman you are. Practicing right now will take too long. You can do it later. Tonight. Tomorrow!”

Seven minutes and thirty seconds a day seemed manageable, and would be a perfect precursor to my meditation practice. Honoring my commitment to Mark Whitwell would unplug me from the power of the Terrible Triplets and give me a double-dip return — enhancing my asana routine and the opportunity to practice tapas.

In Sanskrit, tapas translates as heat. It is the practice of discipline or zeal. For the things i like and need to do anyway, such as working, writing, and reading, tapas comes easier. In other areas of my life, lack of tapas creates self-imposed barriers to personal growth and developing good habits.


My daily 7.5 minutes is reminding me that “tapas is as tapas does.”  It requires getting past the discomfort caused by friction created by  “going against the grain” of my tendencies to succumb to procrastination and rationalization. This friction generates the heat of tapas, burning off habits that don’t serve you. The heat generates strength and stability, and the Terrible Triplets wither in the face of such fire.

Since Mark’s talk, we have practiced every day for more than two months, except for a couple of days lost to travel and illness. Now when I get on the mat, the seven minutes and 30 seconds often expands. Seduced by the meditative rhythm of breath connected to movement, I find myself adding a few lateral stretches here, a balancing pose or some extra twists there — whatever my body is calling for. I get lost in the ocean sounds of my breath, the delicious dance of muscle and bone. Meditation flows  naturally at the end of my practice. When I open my eyes, 20 or 30 minutes have passed. This makes me smile.

Fueled by tapas, I am eating an elephant — one bite at a time. Take that, Terrible Triplets.