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The Most Difficult Form of Compassion

The Most Difficult Form of Compassion

Joy breeds compassion, and compassion breeds joy. You’ve felt so, to be sure – beginning a session of yoga with the weight of frustration and irritation, only to breathe out your pain and anger with every exhalation, feeling the softening in your chest as you move into the familiar lines of muscle and bone. For some this kindness comes easily, while for others it takes important work to free yourself of past pain. Yet there is one form of compassion which proves a hurdle for us all, one which far too often remains invisible and unremarked upon – self-compassion, kindness towards yourself. We live in a world which seldom encourages us towards self-compassion, and in fact often rewards its opposite; yet to cultivate compassion for your mind, your heart, and your body is a crucial step towards freedom and joy.

Releasing Bonds of Fear and Pain

Being unhappy is a taboo in our society. Anxiety, depression, fear, pain – all of these are topics which so many of us avoid, as if by even speaking of them we are making unkind demands on our conversational partner. It is a shameful thing that even those who practice Yoga are guilty of this, yet Yoga is a powerful teacher in the process of unlearning the ways in which we punish ourselves for pain. After all, we sometimes feel discomfort in the work we do to learn: the warmth of an overextended limb, the ache of muscles asked to try something new, the languid rush of endorphin after a challenging session. With experience we learn to embrace those feelings, to value their whispers in teaching us the right ways to move, their generosity in never failing to show the edges of our current abilities. Mental pain is no different – it is our loyal minds doing their best to keep us safe, and to show us where our boundaries are currently placed. To say that we are unhappy, or in pain, is to say that we are stretching ourselves, that we are learning – and there is never any shame in learning.

Arrogance and Pride

Arrogance says “love me for what I have accomplished”; pride says “I love myself for what I am”. One of the paradoxes of Yoga is that as we discover the surprisingly slippery and porous boundary between us and the whole, we also gain a far more solid understanding of who we are as people, beneath the layers of consumerism and archetypes which we acquire by living in the modern world. Too many people fail to see the difference between arrogance and pride, which ensures that they dismiss both. Yet pride is critical, lovely, and a source of self-compassion we can turn to when we feel bereft. Pride in others can also help instill kindness in us – we recognize their pain and their victories alike, and see how they have embraced both. In watching, we can learn from them, and others in turn can learn from us. Arrogance is cold and closed, while pride is warm and open. Which do you cultivate?

Growing In Understanding

Yoga is capable of helping us renew our minds and bodies, from mental illness to heart disease. Yet it cannot do the work alone; we must offer our understanding of the lessons it teaches us. Self compassion is what will help us listen to our doctor’s suggestions, while remaining understanding if we occasionally slip up and have that extra slice of cake. Kindness towards ourselves will soften the blows of the world, and – like all forms of kindness – will spread to others, bringing us joy in the process. The next time you judge yourself more harshly than you would another, remember what Yoga teaches us, and take your first steps towards a warmer, kinder understanding of yourself.

Further Reading
– It’s no stretch — Yoga may benefit heart disease (Harvard Health Publications)
– Yoga, a Brief History of An Idea (Princeton University)
– Yoga for anxiety and depression (Harvard University)
– Yoga for anxiety: a systematic review of the research evidence (British Journal of Sports Medicine)
– Yoga History (University of Florida)
– Yoga (University of Maryland Medical Center)