Self-Compassion: An Essential Component of Yoga

In a modern yoga-scape littered with self-development lit and enlightenment-centric teachings, some of yoga’s finer—and more beautiful—teachings may be overlooked. Self-compassion is one such teaching that’s particularly emphasized in the Kripalu Yoga tradition (Kripalu means “compassionate, merciful” in Sanskrit), referring to a deep and affective acceptance of present moment experience as it arises, as well as recognition that one’s suffering is common to all of humanity.

Swami Kripalu once said, “My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Every time you judge yourself you break your own heart.  You stop feeding on the love, which is the wellspring of your vitality. The time has come. Your time. To live, to celebrate, and to see the goodness that you are.  You, my child, are divine. You are pure. You are sublimely free…”

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Self-compassion is, fundamentally, a tantric approach. To a western population accustomed to self-criticism, loving oneself wholly—appreciating all facets equally, both dark and light—just doesn’t feel quite right. Aren’t we supposed to be on the “fast track to enlightenment,” staying positive and shunning those aspects of ourselves that don’t align with our ideal selves? How could we possibly be perfect when we have so many flaws that need “fixed”? How can we reconcile our sense of “not enoughness” with the tantric maxim that we’re infinitely more than enough?

Ten million self-help books and strengthened inner critics later, suffering—and our haphazard attempts to thwart it—persists. As Jung poignantly noted, the more we deny or resist our experience of suffering the stronger it becomes. Self-compassion and tantra teach that only by loving all of ourselves can we truly walk in the light of our hearts, embracing suffering as much as joy.

On the yoga mat, self-compassion can buffer self-judgment that may arise during a challenging pose; injury or fatigue; self-other comparisons; or beating yourself up for not being quite “yogi” enough, whatever that means. Note this as a moment of suffering (however great or small). Then give yourself permission to self-soothe or care for yourself as a loved one might. Can you back out of the pose any amount? Take a child’s pose or nap on your mat?

In Kripalu yoga, asana (postures) are only practice for the yoga of life. Here, whenever challenges arise, you may place both palms on top of your heart and internally note, “this is an experience of suffering.” Then say phrases to self-soothe and comfort (may I be safe, may I be healthy, etc). If it is hard to send yourself compassion, then imagine that you are expressing compassion to the part of you shared by all beings, or towards a beloved pet or loved one as an extension of yourself.

As poet Mary Oliver beautifully elocutes in her poem “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

What effective ways have you found of cultivating self-compassion on the mat or in your daily life?

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