My yoga teacher has said this phrase dozens of times, but one morning it went in differently and landed in the places where breath meets bone, where sinew aches with loss and the water in the pelvic bowl of my hips shimmered like a moonlit lake. The words traveled along ancient blood-lines to the place where ancestral memory digs a spade into foreign soil, where the grandmothers and great-grandmothers hummed the melodies of their lineage while baking the day’s bread and folded their pain in the flour.
Compassion rather than comparison. Connect to what’s needed in this moment instead of to what everyone else is doing or what you think you “should” be doing.
She cued a pose and I did something else. She cued another pose and I remained where I was, following my breath into the places that needed attention. The beginning of a poem filtered into consciousness, landing on the windowsill of soul. I opened the window and let it in.
Yoga, like life, is a practice of self-trust. A good teacher will say quite often, sometimes every class, “Follow your own body’s needs rather than my cues. I will cue the poses, but if you’re feeling the need to be challenged, challenge yourself. If you’re feeling exhaustion, honor the exhaustion. And most importantly, follow your breath.” To think that twenty or thirty bodies would have the same needs and breath rhythm every minute of the class doesn’t make sense. If everyone were to follow their own body’s rhythm, the beautiful synchrony of moving together would shift into a beautiful cacophony of various poses held for different lengths of time.
Yet I rarely see that. What I see is most people being good boys and good girls and following the teacher’s cues. I see perfect students striving for greater levels of perfection, despite the teacher repeatedly saying, “Yoga isn’t about being perfect. It’s not about strength or flexibility or the physical postures at all. It’s about connecting to your breath, to yourself, and to your spirit.” She can say over and over again, yet until someone learns to make a different choice regarding how they approach the class, her truthful words will fall on deaf ears.
What I see in yoga, so I see in life. I see a culture comprised primarily of good girls and boys trying to keep up with the expectations at each stage: Adolescents trying to be cool; 20-somethings trying to keep up with their peers; 30-somethings believing they should be having babies. I see people panting to get to the finish line, yet once they arrive they realize that the finish line has moved ten feet. At some point, the illusion of “there” starts to break down, and we realize that life is here, in this body, with this breath, with this temperament and personality type and unique set of needs. That’s when we start to learn how to live from compassion instead of comparison.
Compassion, as I understand it, means meeting yourself exactly where you are. It means turning inward long enough to know what you’re feeling or experiencing, then meeting yourself there. What does it mean to “meet yourself”? It means that you bring kindness to whatever is churning and brewing, that you bring the attention of your breath directly into the heart of the pain, joy, or anything in between. It means acceptance. It means learning to be your own kind friend. It means a willingness to let it be.
Most people don’t come from a bloodline of self-compassion. We learn to consider others from an early age (“Be nice and share your toys”) and watch our mothers and fathers putting their own needs aside in order to care for others or meet others’ expectations. We learn from what is role-modeled as much, if not more than, what we’re explicitly taught. If we don’t see self-compassion, we don’t usually learn self-compassion even if we had a parent or parents who were compassionate toward us.
Yet self-compassion is the first step toward healing and change. If we’re judging ourselves and listening to the incessant running commentary that says, “You’re not enough. You’re broken. There’s something terribly wrong with you. You’ll never feel better. You’ll never change. Everyone else knows what they’re doing; you’re the only one who’s lost,” we will, indeed, remain stuck and lost and find ourselves trying to keep up with the colloquial neighbors. But when we learn to bring compassion to ourselves, even and especially to that bully-voice who is convinced that we’re doomed to a life of misery, inner and outer worlds begin to open up.
Let me be clear: The final fruit of healing ourselves is to bring that healing out into the world. The world needs our actions that can work toward repair of the brokenness that cracks through our earth like a ragged fissure. Whatever we can do to repair the fissure must be done. But we offer best when it comes from the overflowing waters that fill our own well of Self. And we fill this well of Self by learning to take loving actions that result in knowing ourselves, liking and loving ourselves, and, then, trusting ourselves. And the fundamental piece that informs this work is compassion. This is what I teach in Trust Yourself: A 30-day program to overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt. The next round will begin on June 11th, 2016. I’ll see you there.