Over the last few weeks, during the initial centering in class, I’ve been instructing my students to scan their bodies and notice what is happening. It’s a way to begin connecting mind and body in a way that we seldom do throughout the day. From that budding connection I encourage them to accept the body that they came to class with so that they can move through their practice with compassion and kindness.
It’s my hope that they’ll take the time to consider what is best for their body in this present moment. Should it be plank or knee down plank? Should it be upward facing dog or baby cobra? Should it be yet another downward dog or maybe child’s pose? The answer changes day to day but the willingness to ask the question and wait for the answer is a willingness to treat one’s self with compassion no matter what the postures in the practice end up being.
This past week I found myself needing to be taught this lesson again in my own practice. I was in a one-on-one session with my teacher and we were working on donkey kicks into handstand. I was on my fourth attempt when I crashed head first into the wall and rolled towards the side. I wasn’t hurt but my ego was badly bruised. I was frustrated and embarrassed and about to start a conversation in my head that could only be described as cruel. Sensing this she very calmly said to me, “Keep a cheerful attitude.” It was simple but disarming.
I thought about that statement for three straight days.
It finally dawned on me that she was telling me exactly what I’ve been telling my own students: to treat myself with compassion and kindness no matter the expression of the pose. Only here it wasn’t just about taking care of my body it was also about taking care of my spirit!
This idea of compassion is intimately tied to ahimsa, one of the central tenants of yoga. Ahimsa is often translated as non-harming or non-violence but my favorite interpretation comes from T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga. He says that ahimsa is more than non-violence. Ahimsa is acting in “kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration” to other people and ourselves.
What became surprisingly clear in the days following that session with my teacher was that I had been applying the idea of compassion for myself to a single dimension of my practice of yoga be it on the mat or off the mat. I routinely apply it to my physical body but I almost always toss it by the wayside when it comes to my mind and spirit. I hear the critical self-talk, let it move towards center stage, and begin to believe that that just might be true. It is easier to allow the negativity and feelings of inadequacy to be present than to acknowledge the tenderness of the pain in that moment, the humanness of my situation.
The importance of paying equal attention to all parts of the self was brought home for me in the commentary of the Yoga Sutras by Nischala Joy Devi in The Secret Power of Yoga.
“When we refuse to take the time to treat our bodies, emotions, and minds with reverence and love, they will often remind us – not so kindly – by failing to respond when we need them.”
So how am I going to find more compassion for all aspects of my being? Practice, of course. When I find myself on the mat having just fallen head first into the wall I will be kind to myself. I will acknowledge the thoughts and emotions that well up: frustration, embarrassment, a fear of failing. I will acknowledge that pain but not let it define who I am. I will remember that I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, who will fall into a wall. I will revel in this shared connection with fellow yogis. I will remember that it is just a pose and that what I’m really learning is how to be kind to myself off the mat.