Written March 2013

Compassion has been calling to me lately.

I’ve grappled for years with what to call my own style of yoga flow and nothing seemed to hit home or bang the gong for me until now.  I stumbled across this Sanskrit word:  Karuṇā: compassion, empathy, kindness.  And with this discovery Karuṇā Flow was born.  It has always been a priority of mine to teach students through the concept of Ahimsa, or non-violence, within our life/practice and toward our self; to demonstrate kindness to our body, to listen to corporal requests.  But with this newfound label on my teaching practice something else has given rise: the exploration into the true nature of Karuṇā, compassion and how integral a piece it is to the entire yogic lifestyle.  It is more than simply non-violence toward the self or another and so in that compassion is not synonymous with a NON action.  It is not the absence of doing, but rather a quite active engagement.  How do we tune in to our ability to nurture a real compassionate relationship with ourselves and others? A focus on options and recognition of differentiation in our practices, our bodies and our life experiences.

Compassion is an intricate puzzle of respect and empathy, putting yourself in another’s shoes and acknowledging our varied gradients in this thing called life experience.  Compassion is stepping away from perfectionism and judgment and stepping toward acceptance and tolerance; a mental switch from “I am nothing LIKE you” into “I am nothing BUT you.”  It is a thing of beauty, grace and unity.  And it is elusive.  And it is fleeting.  And it is hard.

The downfall from the compassionate path starts as children where oftentimes we lose our ability to stick up for the underdog or speak up for the voiceless for fear of standing out in a crowd. Is it more important to fit in? Or is it more important to be kind and just? This is complex for a 10 year old human.  And often those that we approach afterwards with our hurting hushed us into submission.  

Shane Koyczan, a poet and performer, writes about his experience as a child who was bullied:

“surrounded by people who used to say

that rhyme about sticks and stones

as if broken bones

hurt more than the names we got called

and we got called them all

so we grew up believing no one

would ever fall in love with us

that we’d be lonely forever

that we’d never meet someone

to make us feel like the sun”

And in these words lies the worst part of the path for the misunderstood soul: the lack of self-love and the need for acceptance.  What struck me most from his piece, entitled To This Day, was that he seems to highlight that somewhere in that sweet spot between babies and teenage beauties we’ve completed disconnected from compassionate relating.  I witnessed in the classroom when working with teenagers that the tendency toward torture far outweighed those glinting moments of community effort, support and caring.  Why is that?  Where have we gone wrong in a world where it is cooler to push your sister down than to raise her up? And don’t be fooled by the clever disguises and intelligently delivered manipulations; adults are guilty of lacking compassion, too.  The opposite of compassion is indifference; the worst kind of in-action.

But is tenderheartedness something that can be taught or the more important question, can it be taught through yoga?  Is it just the disillusioned dreamer that believes a genuinely caring public is possible?  Maybe so, but it’s worth a shot.  I say bring on the empathy!  My plan of action is pretty simple:  steps A through Z all consist of the same movement….YOGA.  Teach it to the children, share it with your friends and your loved ones, live it.  Start this routine: less judging, more hugging, stop thinking, start thanking.

But why yoga?  I tell you why:  because compassion is everything we strive to create when we come into these crazy shapes we call asana:  understanding, connection, unity, a feeling of purpose and a sense of who we are.  As with most goals, it always starts from within and this is where we need the assistance of The Practice.  Most people recognize that yoga isn’t about touching your toes or standing on your head, it’s about what you learn on your way there; understanding and loving yourself, patience, acceptance, being present.  Only when you deepen that relationship can you offer something pure to those around you.  This is the part where we learn to be softhearted–first for the sake of the self…only after as an offering to the world.

Koyczan’s piece ends with a plea

“if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself

get a better mirror

look a little closer

stare a little longer”

Let yoga be your mirror.  Begin to see yourself in the face of the Other. Karuṇā is one of the four Brahma Vihara’s or the Four Divine Virtues of Buddhism. Compassion along with Loving Kindness, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity are said to be the great immeasurables or perfect values that lead to a divine state of dwelling.

Let’s flip the script on our previous definitions here, make it cool to collaborate, sweet to seek connection and noble to negotiate.  Let’s take our Warriors off the mat and out into the world and in this battle not as oppressors but as Uplifters.  Warriors of Compassion.  Yeah.  I like that.  Get involved.  Stand up for the little guy and therefore yourself.  Take a long jog in someone else’s sneakers.  Get down to the nitty gritty on the battlefield of Understanding.  Prepare your artillery and bring it to the mat.  And then allow for more awareness as the war begins to unfolds, the real Practice, the stepping off of the mat that inevitably follows.  Hold a hand, wipe away a tear, give a hug.  Just because.  And you deserve it, too.  Look a little closer, stare a little longer, get a better mirror.  The shape of your Warrior is beautiful and more importantly, the Warrior heart is strong.