How to Use Yoga to Build Self-Compassion

Imagine staying out late with friends and waking up late the next day. You rush to get ready for work, are unable to log on properly to Zoom, and scurry into the meeting hoping nobody notices. Except this morning happens to be an early team meeting—the meeting started 30 minutes ago and your boss and their boss are there! You hoped to come in quietly, but in your rush, you forgot to turn off your audio and your dog starts barking-—loudly. Your hair is a mess and you just realized that you put your shirt on inside out and the undergarments you forgot to put away are plainly visible in your background. Not to mention that it’s also right around the time of year when employees are being evaluated for bonuses and raises!

Now imagine all the thoughts that would pop into your head during that meeting.

Fast-forward six hours and notice if those thoughts have become kinder and gentler or more frequent and harsh.

It’s easier to be hard on ourselves than kind. With curated personal brands, social media filters, and the unrealistic expectations of always doing “more” and doing it perfectly, feelings of inadequacy and shame are thriving today. 

Even the bright-eyed notion of relentless positive thinking can be harmful. When we’re feeling tired, angry, embarrassed, or anything else that’s considered negative, we can also experience shame around our own emotions. We shove them down and tuck them away pretending to be happy because, hey—we’re alive. That means we should be happy 100 percent of the time, right? The problem with that way of thinking is that feelings don’t go away. They simply fester or show up in other ways.

Self-compassion can help you navigate life’s challenges as they arise. Research has demonstrated that people who practice self-compassion notice a decrease in depression, anxiety, stress, and shame while experiencing more happiness, life satisfaction, confidence, and physical health. In addition to the personal benefits, people who practice self-compassion are more likely to compromise, forgive, and provide more support to others. By integrating compassion into your life, you are not only more equipped to take care of yourself, but you are also able to be more supportive of your friends, family, and community.

Practicing self-compassion can be challenging. It can be hard to know where to start or how to establish a plan for a sustainable practice. Like exercising the body to build strength, compassion needs training. Yoga can be an excellent tool for practicing compassion toward yourself and others. With the quiet nature of centering that results from yoga, as well as from creating the space and time to notice yourself as you are, you can begin to integrate more kindness and self-care into daily living.

Like exercising the body to build strength, compassion needs training. Yoga can be an excellent tool for practicing compassion toward yourself and others.

Step 1: Become Aware of What’s Present

The first step to call in more compassion and kindness is to become aware of how and what you experience in the present moment. A natural starting point is at the beginning of your yoga practice. 

Before moving into pranayama or asana, notice what you notice as you start to settle down. Observe thoughts, emotions, and sensations. For example, if you are sitting in easy pose (sukhasana), you might explore how your body feels. Do your hips feel tight or relaxed? What’s your natural posture before making adjustments? Is your breath shallow or deep? Do any areas of your body feel sore? 

Additionally, you might observe the thoughts or emotions occupying your mind or heart. Using the “horrible morning” example from earlier, your body might be on the mat but your thoughts may still be in the meeting: Why didn’t I come home earlier last night? You might be anticipating your future firing and making an unemployment plan. You might be experiencing feelings of shame or embarrassment.

You can also be mindful of what shows up throughout your asana practice as you move between postures. When you practice crow (bakasana), are you focused and concentrating or perhaps striving? You might have thoughts like, I’m terrible at this. I’ll never be good at yoga! 

When you become present to what is showing up and when it is showing up, you can start noticing habitual patterns that are harmful.

Step 2: Notice When Judgment Shows Up

By becoming aware of our bodies, thoughts, and emotions, it can be easy to fall into the trap of judging them, of deeming them to be what is sometimes considered negative. You might start to judge thoughts, try to think positively, or fix yourself. Stress or worry might show up as a hunched posture, and there could be a tendency to judge your body or adjust your posture as soon as possible without checking in to see which emotions might be contributing to the sensations or reactions in your body.

It might be challenging to know when you are judging yourself. We have been so conditioned to push through or improve ourselves that we often don’t even realize when we are in judgment mode. One thing to notice is when you say “should” or “need.” Turning back to the previous example, if you’ve been trying for months or years to master crane and catch yourself saying something like, I should be able to do this by now or, I need to do this, that's judgment showing up in your practice. When these thoughts arise, rather than trying to shove them aside, see if you can just sit with them for a moment. See what thoughts, emotions, or sensations accompany those judgments without getting attached to them. You may even label them as “That’s a thought!” or “Frustration is present” to help sit with them while practicing non-attachment.

Judgment is when our expectations are different than what is actually happening in reality. It is a rejection of ourselves or our practice. You may not always be able to stop judgment and it would be counterproductive to pretend it is not there. However, when it arises you can recognize it as passing thoughts versus absolute reality. 

Step 3: Respond With Kindness and Self-Care

By observing what is present, you can tune in to what feels supportive to you and what doesn’t. Once you’re aware of what doesn’t feel good, you can begin to integrate self-care into your practice to help soften any uneasiness with kindness. For instance, if your hips feel tight, sitting on a block might ease tension there. If your breath is shallow and doesn’t feel relaxing, you can spend a little time taking some relaxing deep breaths. If areas of your body feel sore, you might practice self-massage before movement. 

When integrating kindness into thoughts and emotions, you have the option to sit and explore them with acceptance. You might even use them to create a nurturing sankalpa (intention), mantra, or affirmation to thread into your practice. For example, if the “meeting” brought up thoughts of being stupid or inadequate, your mantra may be “This is the best I can do right now” or “Being imperfect is being human.”

Being in a space of compassion and kindness means moving mindfully. Compassion isn’t about trying to fix anything; it’s about offering support and ease when things are tough. It may feel strange at first to care for yourself in this way. However, imagine treating yourself as you would a friend: What words of encouragement would you offer if they had a bad day? What support would you provide without feeling the need to fix them?

Practicing Self-Care Beyond the Mat 

While these principles apply to asana practice, they are meant, like the entirety of yoga, to be taken off your mat as well. The next time you see your boss and notice blood rushing to your face or feelings of inadequacy showing up, try just observing them, allowing them to be there. Without getting caught up in them, notice what’s arising and what you can do to calm down and best take care of yourself. 

And remember that self-compassion can, like the muscles in your body, be trained and strengthened. The more you incorporate kindness and self-care into your yoga practice, the stronger your self-compassion muscle gets. By being authentically compassionate with ourselves, we can begin to authentically show compassion for others, especially for those who may not have the same life circumstances as us or who don’t show up in the way we expect they should. The journey of compassion is one that starts with ourselves and then flows outward to our community and the world as well.

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About the teacher

Melissa Leger is an MBSR and yoga instructor who works with veterans, the medical community, and government... Read more

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