If I had to choose one central message I try to convey through my yoga teaching, it would be the importance of developing self-compassion. Self-compassion as I understand it means being kind and loving toward yourself when you are faced with feelings of inadequacy, difficulties, or pain.
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has done research on self-compassion, there are three main elements of self-compassion. The first is self-kindness, which means being gentle and understanding with yourself when you experience difficulty or failure or when you notice personal imperfections.
The second element of self-compassion is common humanity. This involves recognizing that suffering, vulnerability, and personal inadequacies are part of our shared human experience. Rather than feeling isolated and like we are the only person suffering or making mistakes, we realize that all humans suffer in this way at times.
The third element of self-compassion is mindfulness. With mindfulness, which means paying attention on purpose in a nonjudgmental way, we can observe our negative thoughts and feelings with openness and acceptance. We can learn to welcome our thoughts and feelings without trying to push them away and without becoming overly identified with them. This helps bring a larger perspective to our personal situations, lessening the likelihood that we will blow things out of proportion or get drawn into negative reactive patterns.
Practicing yoga mindfully can be a wonderful opportunity to develop self-compassion. As we practice, we observe our body sensations, thoughts, and feelings, and we can bring kindness and acceptance to any negative thoughts and feelings that arise.
For example, if we are attempting a pose that is difficult for us, we can back off and think “this pose is hard for me; I’m doing the best I can right now, and I’m taking care that I don’t hurt myself.” The opposite approach, such as saying to yourself, “why am I so stiff/weak? I should be able to do this by now,” may cause you to overdo and injure yourself, or at the very least, cause you to lose the equanimity and sense of peace you probably are seeking in your practice.
We can practice self-compassion, then, by not pushing too hard in our practice, and by accepting any limitations we may experience in performing various poses. We also practice self-compassion by taking the time to care for ourselves by practicing yoga. In addition, we can practice self-compassion by taking rest in savasana (corpse pose or final relaxation) or in other restorative poses, and by spending time training our minds and getting in touch with our true nature in the practice of meditation.
If you would like to explore this topic further, Dr. Neff has an informative web site with several guided self-compassion meditations. Her site also has a quiz you can take to assess your current level for various aspects of self-compassion.
Increasing your capacity for self-compassion is a wonderful gift for yourself and others. By being more self-compassionate, you provide a good role model, encouraging others to treat themselves more kindly as well. Having more self-compassion also naturally leads you to have greater compassion for others. And developing greater self-compassion helps you grow your capacity to witness suffering and to take action, where possible, to reduce it.
Photo by Linda Arcuri, Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, Maui