“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
For the Dalai Lama, compassion is the key to finding happiness. Fellow Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, also emphasises the importance of compassion: “In order to have compassion for others we have to have compassion for ourselves. In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, selfish, mean — you name it — to have compassion and care for these people means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves.” In other words, to feel true compassion for yourself and your own suffering, however big or small, helps you find the ability to show compassion for others who suffer.
In a yoga practice, finding compassion for yourself isn’t always easy. We’re often frustrated by the tension in our hamstrings or hips, or by our inability to master a strong pose like sirsasana (headstand).
Yogic philosophy calls for compassion too. The Vedic chant lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu translates roughly as ‘may all beings everywhere be happy and free; and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom’. The chant doesn’t say ‘may everyone except me find happiness’ — ‘all beings’ includes you too. And you can practise encouraging compassion for yourself in a yoga class.
Yoga, in many ways, is a process of getting to know yourself. Unfortunately, for most of us, that means becoming acquainted with our limitations, physical or otherwise. As unpleasant as that can be, it’s the perfect opportunity to practise fostering feelings of compassion for ourselves.
At the beginning of my yoga classes, I often ask my students to come into balasana (child’s pose) and take a moment to notice any areas of tiredness, tightness or strain, and any feelings that might be associated with those unpleasant physical experiences. The next step is to try and direct a feeling of compassion towards that area. For me, the easiest way to do that is to personify whatever it is that’s feeling the strain — “Poor hips,” for example. “You’re really feeling it today, aren’t you?” It can feel slightly silly, but that’s half the reason it works — in laughing at yourself for talking to your hips you gain some distance from the discomfort itself.
Hopefully the distance will help you muster up some compassion for those parts of you that feel uncomfortable in a yoga pose. And this should help you slightly modify your yoga practice to avoid further irritation to that area, or maybe even to bring some relief to it.
The same basic principle works when we extend feelings of compassion to others — either during our yoga practice or beyond the mat. Feeling compassion for others who are suffering, and wishing happiness for them can radically modify our thoughts and behaviour, and ultimately help us feel happier ourselves.
In his commencement speech to Kenyon College students in 2005, writer David Foster Wallace suggests that the way we think about other people in everyday situations can have a profound effect on how we live our lives. “I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do,” he says. “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is… then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention… it will actually be in your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
It takes practise, of course, just like any other form of yoga. But if compassion can help make a supermarket a more pleasant place to spend time, then the effort is well worth it in my books.