Embodying Compassion: How Yoga Can Help Us Cultivate Compassionate Responses

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) evolved to keep us safe. It scans for signals of danger or cues of safety without involving our conscious control, all the time. If the inner alarm of danger sounds often we may find ourselves in a chronic stress response, our system gets accustomed to distress.

The good news is that although our nervous system may have gotten used to being distressed, we can draw on yoga practice and philosophy as ways to help regulate the nervous system’s response.

Developing compassion is an example of a lifestyle practice rooted in our yoga tradition, that can help us on our journey of learning how to self-regulate.

Where to Start?

The journey starts with self-awareness.

As a “yoga” person, a benefit of our yoga practice is becoming increasingly self-aware of how our body feels in asana, while practicing breath awareness, in meditation. We are often able to be present for the body’s messages. We get a sense of where we’re starting from. Then we can learn how to reshape our nervous system.

Tuning into the body isn’t going to be easily accessible to everyone. Perhaps at times in our earlier lives, we were taught to value intellectual pursuits over physical awareness. As a result, dropping into a body experience might seem foreign, unknown or unfamiliar.

For others of us, difficulty in connecting with our body experience may be associated with trauma. As a response to trauma—an experience where we felt isolated yet needed the safety of connection—our body began to shut down. This can manifest as a numbing, not feeling body sensations in certain areas.

We might feel very critical or self-conscious about our body.

To support healing we need to respect our own and our students’ experiences. It’s good practice to get curious about our participants’ experience rather than have assumptions about their moment-to-moment body experiences.

Training the Innate Response

The ventral vagal state of our autonomic nervous system is online when we experience compassion. We need enough anchoring in this ventral vagal state to creatively solve problems, see bigger perspectives and engage in meaningful interactions with others.

Yoga practices like movement, breathing, self-study, meditation, and sound, can help us gradually reshape our nervous system toward greater compassion.

These kinds of practice are often most effective when we have some understanding of the particular practitioner. 

Daniel Goleman, in his article published in The Washington Post, “Wired for kindness: Science shows we prefer compassion, and our capacity grows with practice” confirms that simple practices such as remembering moments of compassion and warm feelings we’ve shared with others have been shown to train the muscle of compassion. It engages the innate response that mammals have to care for their young and to increase the possibility that we’ll care for someone in need.

Go Compassionately

Yoga Sutra (Patanjali), I.33: Maitri-karuna-muditopekshanam sukha-dukha-punyapunya-vishayan bhavanatash-chitta-prasadanam

Baba Hari Das, spiritual founder of Mt. Madonna, translated this sutra, saying that by increasing our compassionate response we develop ekagrata, one-pointedness of mind. Practices involving ekagrata can be a method to reduce unnecessary suffering of the mind through skillfully bringing its attention to qualities that are a true refuge, such as karuna (compassion).

Gary Kraftsow adapted the writings of T. Krishnamacharya: “Control the breath. Focus your mind. And direct it into the heart. That is the meaning of Spirituality.”

Yoga Sutras teach that compassion is a natural remedy to thoughts or feelings of hatred or harm. Compassion removes impurity of thoughts that can lead to such actions that unsettle the mind.

Commenting on this sutra Bouanchaud, author of The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, writes, “It is illusion to wish to impose them (these qualities) on oneself. What is proposed is analysis, which allows us to improve our reactions and responses.”

We can’t force ourselves to become compassionate. We can hold an intention to cultivate compassion as support in training our mind’s focus, bhavanam. We can get curious about how to be authentic in cultivating compassion in our circumstances.

Turning to our nervous system is a great place to begin.

Making Meditation Relevant to Real Life

I spent many years feeling challenged in seated classical mindfulness practice. I just kept hitting up against inner critical voices.

If your nervous system has become sensitized to protective responses, to keep you safe from danger, you might find that mindfulness doesn’t come easily. This is common among those who’ve experienced trauma.

From the perspective of neuroscience, we don’t want to strengthen habits of self-doubt or non-compassionate responses, in our practices.

Linking Breath to Asana

Consider linking with breath in a natural way throughout asana practice. Create moments of pause when the system can come back into balance.

A Gesture to Embody Compassion

A gesture from the Viniyoga tradition is to lightly touch your heart/center with your right hand. Feel your own safe touch. Then as you’re ready to breathe in, open your right hand and arm out to the right and follow the movement with your gaze. This feels like a gesture of opening, of receptivity.

When you’re ready to breathe out, gently touch your heart, again following the movement with your gaze. Repeat several breaths, linking gesture with breath and attention.

Honor the rhythm of life, opening and closing. Being out in the world, and turning inward.

Expanding out to take in something nourishing, then bringing it home.

Wisdom Within

Compassion is how we were designed to nurture our young and be stirred to action when someone is in need.

Some micro-practices can tie into real life:

  • When you felt the compassion of a grocery cashier arranging help for carrying groceries out to the car.

  • When you read about generous outpouring toward those who experienced a crisis.

  • When you pause because you recognize that you are reacting to someone you care about, that’s in need, instead of being with them compassionately.

Take it a few breaths at a time. Let compassion wash over and soothe over your body, wherever it’s safe to let it in. Notice how your nervous system responds.

Compassionate responses are part of our human nervous system, part of our yogic heritage and can be embodied in simple yoga awareness practices throughout the day. Increasing compassion benefits us to live more aligned with the best of our humanity and we can learn to direct it back to our own selves.

Study lymphatic health with Tias Little and YogaUOnline – Yoga for Lymphatic Health: Building Physical and Psychic Immunity.   

Charlotte Nuessle, BSc., C-IAYT, YACEP, E-RYT 500  Charlotte is an internationally certified yoga therapist with 26 years experience adapting body-based and self-awareness practices for mature adults. She specializes in gerontology, understanding the nervous system, and positive neuroplasticity. She teaches online, offers retreats, workshops, and works privately. She also offers in-person trainings for yoga professionals. Charlotte’s happy to answer any questions. Reach out! www.charlottenuessle.com

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