Because of what I do for a living, I spend a lot of time educating people about what exactly yoga is. So often in our western world, when you ask someone the question, “What is yoga?” you will receive a response that includes: stretching, poses, exercise, and calming techniques. They may talk about images they have seen on Instagram of extremely fit and flexible people striking a yoga pose on the top of a mountain or some other magical landscape.
Well, yoga is those things, that is true. It is actually so much more than any of those things.
Today we will get started with self-compassion! This is a biggie. It sounds simple. Treat yourself with the same kindness and care you would give to a friend when you find them struggling. Yet self-compassion is a very challenging practice for most of us. For some reason, the voice of our inner critic can drown out that soft, loving voice of compassion.
Would you like to learn how to be more compassionate towards yourself? I am guessing your answer is yes. So, let’s start at the beginning and dive into what self-compassion is and explore how we can cultivate it.
What is compassion?
The Yoga Sutras say that compassion is a shared feeling, a level of sympathy so deep that it inspires action to alleviate another’s pain or sorrow. It also states that practicing compassion is a way to purify our minds and increase our experience of serenity.
Lotus Mudra: To do the Lotus Mudra, you bring your pinky fingers together and your thumbs together, making a lotus flower shape with your hands. Bending your elbows, bring your hands to your chest and rest your thumbs on your chest. Perhaps you close your eyes. We hold this hand mudra at our heart to encourage love and understanding. It represents the possibility and movement from darkness to light. For the breath, you are just going to take long, slow breaths in and out through your nose. As you inhale, you should feel your belly and chest rise and expand. Be easy with your breath and extend your exhale longer than your inhale to keep a peaceful and calm body and mind. You may like to envision a soft green light filling up your chest and massaging your heart, and focusing on the affirmation: I love myself. I am enough. Stay here, breathing for as many breaths as you wish. Perhaps start with five to 10 rounds of inhales and exhales.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research, says that the following four things happen when we show compassion for others:
We notice when someone is suffering;
We feel so moved by others experience that our heart responds to their pain;
We offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly; and
We realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.
I am sure you can recall having experienced compassion for another person, and perhaps a time when compassion was extended to us from another person. Spend a few moments thinking about those experiences. Times when you have moved through those four steps to show compassion to someone, and times when someone else did it for you. We can use this as the basis for cultivating self-compassion because these experiences show us that it feels good to be shown compassion. It helps a person move through the pain and suffering in the moment.
When it comes to our own experiences, many of us find it easier to fall into patterns of negative self-talk, or we develop a “stiff upper lip” mentality, where we judge ourselves harshly and don’t leave room for failure or imperfections. These patterns are not healthy or productive and can contribute to stress, frustration, and a poor sense of self. It is necessary, as humans, that we understand things won’t always go the way we planned, that we have room to make mistakes, and that we may fail, mess up, or not measure up. It is OK to be less than perfect. Having these experiences is OK. When we take a compassionate stance, we give ourselves room to be human.
Making changes in our thought and behaviour patterns are not as easy as just reading an article that tells you to shift your mindset! It involves practice. Today, I am offering your three short practices (a breathing exercise, a series of four yoga poses, and a meditation practice), that you can use to cultivate self-compassion. The next time you notice you are suffering, being hard on yourself, or not meeting expectations, try one or a combination of all of these.