I am Learning to be Happy (Extracts)

María Carolina Nieto Angel, Ph.D. Education, University of Canterbury

To my Guru: Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati with love and deep gratitude.

This story is about how learning to stay happy helped me to conclude the four-year journey of my Ph.D. between 2014 and 2018. In this journey, I learnt that a Ph.D. is first and foremost an endeavour into the emotional and spiritual dimensions of the self, rather than a purely academic project. The Ph.D. candidate requires appropriate tools to reach the expected destinations – thesis submission, oral defence and graduation – in a balanced state of mind and good health.

I aim to illustrate with instances of my own experience the possibilities of using yoga of ‘head, heart and hands’ to support the research journeys of present and future Ph.D..


Over-thinking and mental tension are common experiences in the Ph.D. journey. The candidate is constantly required to engage in intellectual enquiry, find explanations, provide a rationale for her analysis, and write using high standards of academic style. Therefore, over-thinking creates mental tension, confusion and mental dissipation. All these experiences usually result in emotional tension. However, I will leave the aspects of feelings and emotions for the next section.

There are two main tools to overcome mental tension that proved useful to me. The first is mantra and the second is pranayama.

Mantras are sounds or vibrations that when repeated might create observable change in the behaviour of the mind. Mantras are not religious or esoteric songs they are ‘vehicles for the expansion of mind and liberation of energy. The sounds which you receive and the sounds you make, create resonant waves in the depths and surface of the mind’ (Satyananda, 1979). In the West, the power of sound to influence energy and matter has been researched extensively. How have the mantras supported me?

Many times in the course of my writing, I found myself correcting and editing my work too many times. I became aware of a negative mental pattern evolving in a way that eroded my creativity. Furthermore, such mental patterns created a negative mood of self-blame, lack of confidence and mental tension. Progressively, I learned to deal with that by going for walks and mentally repeating the Gayatri mantra, which is connected to developing mental clarity and creativity. Even in winter season whenever I observed the need to re-focus the mind and relax, I would put on my winter jacket and go for a walk and chant the mantra. After 15 minutes or so, I was able to return to my desk and continue working.

Pranayama are techniques that increase vital energy by developing awareness of the breath and ability to control the breath. While mental, physical and/or emotional tension weakens our capacity to face challenging situations, controlling the breath helps to release tension and re-charge vital energy. How have the pranayamas supported me?

My efforts to interpret data, to analyse, and to ’make meaning’ of data resulted in mental and physical tension. Furthermore, as my first language is Spanish, writing the thesis in English entailed an unprecedented challenge for me. In the face of that situation, I procrastinated, and many times, attempted to find comfort in higher doses of coffee, tea or food. Unfortunately, those provided only temporary relief while the energy of my body further diminished. A very simple and effective technique was to use a pranayama that consists of observation and awareness of breath in the nostrils until the length of breath in the right nostril equals the length of breath in the left nostril. I was able to practise that at the desk, by just closing my eyes and observing the natural breath for some time.


Yoga nidra: This technique is a powerful tool for physical, mental, and emotional relaxation. Yoga nidra has evolved in the last 50 years as a true gem from the Bihar School of Yoga to assist people from all walks of life to deal with the challenges of modern urban environments.

The yoga nidra helped me to clean the mind after a full day of work. It became particularly useful in the last stages of the Ph.D. to keep me connected with the positivity expressed in the ‘resolve’ that is to be repeated three times at the beginning and at the end of the practice. This ‘resolve’ is known as the sankalpa, and consists of a simple statement expressing the highest aspiration one has in life. Therefore, repeating the sankalpa was an effective way to remain positive in the face of the emotional and mental challenges.

Self-observation and expressing happiness: Two fundamental aspects of yoga as a lifestyle refer to self-observation (swadhaya) and expressing happiness (manaprasad). Because of this approach, the tradition preserved by BSY departs from the common understanding of yoga in the West that is focused mostly on the fitness training and the physical aspects of yoga.

Self-observation was the tool that allowed me to understand how I could use the many challenges in the course of the Ph.D. to deepen a process of internal personal transformation. The practice of swadhaya helped me to be more aware of the fluctuating states of my mind, and the conditionings that affected my emotions.

One instance of such awareness practised with swadhaya concerns managing the regular feedback from supervisors in the course of writing the thesis. How did I receive their feedback? At first I would be very happy if the feedback was positive and disappointed if the feedback was not so good. Over time, the practice of self-awareness helped me to observe – like a witness – my responses to their comments. I would still feel excited or disappointed but the tools of awareness helped me to understand that I was able to move away from the situation of unhappiness triggered by the feedback of my supervisors. Of course this is an effort at which I did not always succeed. Nevertheless, the more I practised the more I realized my emerging abilities to combine self-awareness and willpower more efficiently.

Another example, which I remember vividly, occurred very close to the submission date. Seven chapters of my theses were completed and one chapter almost finished. However, for that one last chapter, one paragraph needed to be improved. I was feeling very tired and, similar to climbers, I was close to the peak of the mountain but lacking the oxygen that allowed me to move further. I looked at the piece of paper in front of my desk where I had written: ‘The Niranjan Challenge’. Then, went to the ladies’ toilet and looked at my face in the mirror. I said to myself, “Okay, I take up your challenge, I can be happy right now and do my best.” I drank a sip of water, put a smile on my face, looked straight in my eyes and began to dance! I told myself, “I can be happy here and now.” I even recorded my funny dance and sent it to my children right there. I wished from the bottom of my heart that they also could learn the tools to remain happy amid difficult situations. Then I went back to my desk and finished the job.

Likewise, in many other situations I used the tools of yoga to keep me connected with what is positive and uplifting.


Asana: At the time of writing the thesis I could spend on average four to six hours of desk-based work daily. Due to the mental tension involved in writing, my body became stiff and tense. Many toxins are accumulated because of this sedentary form of life and because of the anxiety. Therefore, a daily routine of asanas – physical postures aimed at deepening awareness and relaxation – helped me to maintain a healthy body.

I have a personal routine of asanas that I have been practising almost every day for the last 13 years. However, the intensity of the research required me to practise some asanas during the day while I was in the University campus. My desk was located on the east corner of the Laboratory of Māori Research – Te Ru Rangahau. It was the most amazing place to read and write that I could have ever imagined. I was able to see the sunrise in the morning and enjoy the sunset in the evening. On clear mornings in winter I was able to see the Canterbury Alps, all beautifully covered in snow. The desk was right by the porch and many days I walked down the porch listening to the seagulls and other birds singing. In that corner where the desk was located, I had enough space to roll out the yoga mat and practise some forward and backwards bending asanas during my working hours.

Where to from here?

After submission, oral defence and graduation, there was a void. There was too much mental energy, too much mental activity, but no work to be done. I couldn’t resist that void. Instead, I engaged myself in a frantic search for a job and outlined a plan full of ambitious goals to write articles and deliver presentations. It was only in March 2019 that I began to consciously slow down. Another aspect of yoga assisted me in this new phase of transition: karma yoga. Karma yoga is a very important aspect of yoga concerning our capacity to live with full awareness and detachment. Karma yoga is a vast subject and I do not aim to discuss it here, but karma yoga as a science and lifestyle has been very beneficial supporting me to become more human, more connected and happier.

Yoga is a life learning process. I have experienced the benefits of a holistic understanding of yoga applied in daily life. I firmly believe that many of the tools and techniques that come from this ancient tradition could be supportive for Ph.D. students who struggle to keep healthy and happy. Moreover, I am convinced that a different approach to the whole Ph.D. process is necessary. A yogic approach could assist this much-needed revision.

Table 1: Head, heart and hands: yoga techniques and benefits
Technique/Tool Head Heart Hands
Yoga nidra Removes emotional and physical tension
Sankalpa Keeps the person focused on his or her highest aspiration
Mantra Relaxes and focuses the mind    
Yama and Niyama Keeps the person connected to or with the positive and the creative
Asana     Removes physical tension. Balances mental and physical energy
Pranayama Calms and focuses the mind Releases fear and dissipation  
Swadhyaya Holistic self-observation to gain self-knowledge