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Be Kind: Cultivating Self-Compassion

Updated: Apr 21

woman practicing alternate nostril breathing with her hand up to her face, index and middle fingers placed at the third eye between the brows

From time to time we probably all remind ourselves to be kind to other people. The family member who forgets to hang the bath mat up after a shower, or the friend who's constantly running late. We might try to take a different perspective and cut them some slack because they don't prioritise things the same way that we do or because they have a lot going on right now.

These small decisions to be kind might be easier or harder than bigger decisions involving kindness. Forgiving a friend or partner for a heat-of-the-moment comment, or keeping ourselves in check when dealing with a colleague whose performance is lapsing around ongoing personal circumstances.

Being kind to other people is undoubtedly something all of us are working on in one way or another. But how easy we find it to be kind and fair to other people may have something to do with how kind and fair we can be with ourselves.

Cultivating self-compassion is about how we relate to ourselves, and even those who find it straightforward to be kind to others may be pretty unreasonable in some way when it comes to themselves.

Maybe you have a tendency to beat yourself up because you feel you're underachieving in some area of life. Perhaps you too often compare yourself to others. Perhaps you use negative phrases towards yourself in your stream of consciousness- "not again!", "don't be so stupid!" or "what an idiot!". Forgiving a friend or a partner for an argument might be OK, but forgiving yourself for your own part in it can be surprisingly difficult.

Approaching self-compassion through yoga practice is a handy lens to have. By observing ourselves in yoga we can begin to see where we may not be self-compassionate.

For example, turning up to practice yoga may sometimes be difficult; noticing how we react to this situation shows how we relate to ourselves- either "oh god I'm so useless that I haven't made it to yoga recently" or "it's been tricky to find the time but I'm looking forward to getting back into it", or somewhere in between.

Practicing the poses, we might tend strive for 'perfection' or try every option the teacher offers and feel annoyed if we can't manage it in every class. We notice the internal reaction when we fall out of tree pose more often on one side than the other. We notice our level of resistance to certain movements or periods of stillness.

In meditation, self-compassion (or lack of it) may be especially visible. Trying to observe the mind without getting too involved is a major task, and some days are a whole lot more difficult than others. Frustration, irritation, impatience and maybe even anger are all valid emotions which can shine a light onto our attitude to self.

Once we have an idea where we may be more or less compassionate towards ourselves, yoga can give us space to slow down and examine why we might be less kind to ourselves than we could be.

From a personal perspective, I can feel annoyed when I've spent most of a meditation session being distracted by my thoughts. On closer inspection, it's usually because I feel I've wasted the opportunity to do something important to my personal development journey.

I feel I've not met my own standards- standards which come from my idea of myself and what I'm trying to achieve through meditation. This is where we meet the ego.

Ego is the sense of self, which is naturally useful for navigating the social world. The unfortunate thing is that ego is mainly formed of negative associations and experiences, rather than positive ones.

Therefore ego usually says "I am not..." (good enough, strong enough, smart enough, tall enough, thin enough, etc) or "I must not..." (show vulnerability, appear inferior, let others hurt me, etc). Ego mainly comes from a place of fear.

In my example above, I'm afraid that if I waste a good meditation opportunity I might be a poorer yoga teacher, or even fail to get enough insight under my belt to live my best life before I'm too old to appreciate it.

I'm not kind to myself because, ultimately, it's my fear that's driving me forward. In understanding this, I can begin to cultivate more compassion towards myself. Everyone is afraid of something and that's OK because it's a function of existence. Cut some slack, just like you might for another person in a challenging situation.

The additional benefit of cultivating self-compassion in this way is that it can be reflected back onto interactions with other people. We realise that if we can can be going through this ourselves, others will be too, so we find it easier to be kind externally as well as internally. We may also find that the way we act towards others is driven by the negative associations and experiences that make up the ego, and choose to deliberately alter our behaviour externally just as we can internally when we choose to be kinder to ourselves.

As Baba Ram Dass said

"I can do nothing for you but work on myself. You can do nothing for me but work on yourself!" - Be Here Now.

Over the next few weeks in yoga class I will be offering techniques and practices that invite you to develop your self-compassion. If you're in North Leeds, book onto a class now in Roundhay or Alwoodley using the link below. If you're further afield, you can also use the link to book an online private class for yourself or a small group.

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