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Yoga for Loving-Kindness

Updated: Apr 21

Loving-Kindness originated as a Buddhist practice which aims to actively make the world better by helping us develop radical and unconditional compassion towards ourselves and others. As February is the month of love in the Western calendar, it's a great time to explore how we can develop more loving-kindness through yoga practice 💙

Smiling woman with a backdrop of colourful Tibetan flags
Loving kindness practice is scientifically shown to improve positive emotions and self-compassion over the immediate and long term

What is Loving-Kindness?

It might sound like a trendy modern self-care technique, but loving kindness meditation (also called metta meditation) was one of the methods taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who lived over 2500 years ago. Buddha's methods were built around practical actions that anyone can do, in order to work on themselves and therefore work on the world. Consequently, the loving-kindness practice is at its heart very simple and has been practiced continuously since the age of the Buddha. As a firmly established meditation method, it has also been well studied by modern science.

It's designed to proactively and repeatedly foster good feelings and intentions towards oneself, one's family, friends, acquaintances and even enemies, meaning that we become more and more familiar with a state of kindness every time we practice it. Our own being has the chance to become increasingly more kind with each practice.

How do you practice Loving-Kindness?

In Buddhist traditions, loving-kindness meditation is often practiced after other, more inwardly focused approaches to meditation such as anapana or vipassana. As we come out of the deep inner experiences, we take some time to cultivate a loving and compassionate attitude towards the world we are about to re-enter.

Practically, the loving-kindness method usually involves first imagining oneself and repeating affirmations such as:

May I be loved

May I be safe

May I be happy

May I be at peace

We then proceed to imagining someone we care about (family, partner, friends) and repeating the same affirmations towards them, followed by someone we feel neutral about (e.g. an acquaintance or someone from the journey to work or a queue at the shop, etc), someone with whom we we have difficulties (e.g. that challenging colleague or family member with whom there is often tension), then widening out to our neighbours, communities, and eventually all living beings.

How does Loving-Kindness practice work?

On both an conscious and a subtle level, loving-kindness practice gives us the opportunity to challenge ingrained assumptions and habitual ways of thinking about ourselves and others. How often do you mentally chastise yourself for forgetting something (like putting the bin out 🙄 for example) or call yourself an 'idiot' (or worse!) when something doesn't go to plan? How often do you find yourself complaining about that person you feel is blocking your latest work project, or the ex partner who is still interfering with some aspect of your life?

It's not to say that you couldn't have been a bit smarter about putting the bins out or that your ex isn't making problems for you. But the loving-kindness practice gives you the opportunity to see things from another perspective, one where you work through the inevitable difficulty and hard feelings by knowing that if all beings can thrive a bit more, tomorrow will be better.

Sometimes it's really hard. For example, if you're depressed, anxious or feel that you've just made a big error in life, truly imagining yourself loved and at peace may seem far away. And sometimes it's OK to recognise that as you go through the practice anyway.

I've had multiple discussions with friends about how hard we find the 'challenging' person part of the practice almost every time. Meditation gives us insight and growth as we continue to practice.

What are the benefits of Loving-Kindness practice?

Given the high level of benefits of any kind of meditation, I am blown away by how many benefits loving kindness is (in many cases, scientifically) reported to have. There is a thorough and very well referenced article on pretty much all of the benefits over here if you want to check it out, in the meantime I will give you a condensed version.

Practicing loving kindness not only promotes social connection as we concentrate on all those people in our lives, but also leads us to feel more positive emotions. It is especially beneficial for those of us who tend towards self-criticism and depression (🖐) in terms of improving self-compassion and positive emotions, and the effects can be both immediate and long term. Unsurprisingly given the method, it's been shown to decrease implicit bias and make us more empathetic towards others.

Perhaps more surprisingly, loving kindness practice has been demonstrated to increase brain volume (yes, really), decrease stress, and even demonstrably improve chronic pain. Get me to that meditation cushion!

For the Buddha, the benefit of loving kindness was a quiet, practical form of revolution. We don't often have much power to change things outside of us; we're often fighting against inequality, obstacles, misfortune and unfairness that are baked into the very fabric of our lives. With loving kindness we have the opportunity to change the few things that are in our control- ourselves, our attitudes, our reactions. And because others' reactions are built on our reactions, we should find that slowly, slowly, slowly, the biggest benefit of loving kindness is that we change the whole world into a more loving and kind place.

Is there anyone who shouldn't practice Loving-Kindness?

Emphatically, I would say, no. Everyone can and probably should practice loving kindness in some way on a regular basis. There are no contra-indications to the method and the Buddha designed it as something beneficial that almost any human being will be able to do if they set their mind to it. The same holds up to day, over two and a half millennia later!

Although it originates as a Buddhist technique, you don't need to be a Buddhist to practice loving kindness and it should be compatible with any religion or none.

How do we incorporate Loving-Kindness into our yoga practice?

Loving-Kindness can be a standalone meditation practice, which means it can in itself be our yoga practice if that's what we choose to make it. However, we can also incorporate into a session which uses other techniques in order to give the practice of loving kindness immediacy and consolidation.

As previously noted, loving kindness meditation can come after a set period of anapana (breath focus) and or vipassana (mindfulness) sitting meditation.

As we also approach mindfulness in our asana (posture) practice by noticing sensations arising and passing away in the body throughout the yoga session, we might like to take a loving kindness meditation at the end of posture practice and perhaps spend the relaxation radiating wellbeing to all living creatures (doesn't that sound nice?).

We can also do a less formal loving kindness practice, where we remind ourselves of the feelings of love, safety, happiness, and peace wherever we find ourselves in the yoga session.

For example, wobbling around whilst trying a new balancing pose, we worry about falling over (and making a fool of ourselves in front of the class!) but through the guidance of the teacher we might be reminded about what it's like to feel safe. When we do wobble, perhaps we laugh, and remember what it's like to feel happy. During the relaxation, when thoughts are agitated and running away with themselves, we might like to silently say "may I be at peace". Whenever we take a moment to reflect on yoga practice, whether during class or in another quiet moment, there is the opportunity to recall "may I be loved" as practicing yoga is a way that you can show up for yourself and demonstrate self-love.

Off the mat, we have the chance to extend an informal loving-kindness practice to things that crop up in life. Maybe you're thinking about your family and take a moment to deliberately send them your inner good wishes.

Perhaps that difficult person is really making things hard for you today. Consider for a moment what it might be like if something better happened in their life and they were more cheerful and accommodating? (or they won the lottery and you never had to see them again!) How many other people would also feel better about that?

We can quickly find the benefits of the loving kindness technique and approach through mindful moments in daily life. Having a formal practice allows us to cement the benefits and gives us the opportunity to really be a change that we want to see in the world. Try a loving kindness meditation today and see for yourself!

I'd love to guide you through the loving kindness technique! You can book an in person class now if you're based in Leeds, if you're further away or would like a session tailored to your specific needs and goals then why not book a 1-1 or small group session?

Click here for a free guided loving-kindness practice.

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