According to the Yoga Sutras (1.33), one way to purify the mind and increase serenity is to practice compassion (karuna) in the face of suffering. Compassion means “shared feeling,” a level of sympathy so deep that it inspires action to alleviate another’s pain or sorrow. Forgiveness, according to some, is the ultimate expression of compassion. But the true test of compassion may be whether or not you can extend it to yourself.
Practicing yoga presents us with many opportunities for exploring self-compassion. The very first of the yamas or ethical guidelines that Patanjali gives in the Yoga Sutras (2.30) is ahimsa or non-harming, encompassing words, thoughts, and actions. Most of us learned this golden rule while still on the playground, and yet even in a yoga class, we create struggle and inner conflict, striving for our idea of the perfect pose or competing with other students and ourselves, trying to top our “personal best,” as though asana was a contest or performance. Even if failure doesn’t result in physical harm we can injure ourselves with feelings of envy or lack or self-dissatisfaction.
News flash: Being unforgiving toward yourself is not a sign of admirable self-discipline but of ego. In the yogic sense, ego consciousness (ahamkara) is not so much about pride or self-puffery as it is about separation. The ego mind identifies with personality, not presence. True humility is recognizing that each of us is a drop in the ocean of humanity, sharing the same fears and yearnings as well as the same potential for greatness. When you practice self-compassion, you accept the ego’s failings and move on, guided by the light of presence within.
In the third chapter of the yoga sutras, Patanjali discusses samyama or integration, which combines concentration, meditation, and Samadhi—the sixth, seventh, and eighth limbs of yoga. Samyama is often understood to be the source of yoga’s “superpowers,” but it can also be simply defined as recognizing the macrocosm within the microcosm: As above so below. How you do asana reflects how you do life. And how you treat yourself ripples outward. As Marianne Williamson has said, “Your playing small does not serve the world.”
Self-compassion is not merely a state of being or quality; it’s a practice, and we learn it through experience. During asana, pranayama, meditation, and other yoga practices, we learn to observe and befriend the body and mind—developing self-awareness and discernment. Over time, we discover when we need to be firm, and when we need to surrender. We begin to realize how our experiences in the microcosm—shoulder tightness in Parsvottanasana, for example—relate to the macrocosm. Does forcing the shoulders back truly open the heart? Or is it more effective to soften the restrictions with a spirit of self-compassion?
One of the simplest ways to develop self-compassion is through breath awareness. The ego often lies to protect itself, but the breath honestly mirrors the mind and emotions. Practical and accessible, this lesson is one we can take from the yoga studio into the world beyond.
What are some ways yoga has helped you develop self-compassion?