Lessons from the Yoga Sutras: 3 Ways to Call Upon Compassion

Lessons from the Yoga Sutras: 3 Ways to Call Upon Compassion

Maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam.

“Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent.” ~Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.33

This is my favorite sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This piece of text is known as the yoga bible, and is compiled into four chapters containing 196 sutras, or words of wisdom. Patanjali constructed his work in 400 BC when two styles of teaching collided. Samkhyan philosophy was known as the older style. As Samkhyan was dying out, it’s best teachings were assembled with the new teachings of the Buddha. Little is known about Patanjali himself; to some he is known as a great sage, to some an incarnation of Ananta, the mythical serpent. Although not the creator of yoga, this scholar was a great expositor.

Yoga master, B.K.S Iyengar decodes the sutras beautifully in his book, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In his interpretation of I.33 he states, “This sutra asks us to rejoice with the happy, to be compassionate to the sorrowful, friendly to the virtuous, and indifferent to those who continue to live in vice despite our attempts to change them.” It is this translation that continues to encourage me to trudge along a compassionate path.

I say trudge because it is arduous to continuously be gentle and soft in the way you relate to yourself and others, as Patanjali advises. I don’t know about you, but this is a hard life assignment. We are human; we are going to form opinions and will have judgments. One of the reasons why I’m so attracted to this sutra is because it seems as if my life work is to remain indifferent to the faults and imperfections of others, despite my attempts to change them. It is difficult for me to find empathy for those I can’t relate to. Others might find it difficult to muster up sympathy when someone they love is behaving in ways they don’t agree with. My friend who’s a waitress shared that she can never find warmth for that customer who snaps their fingers to get her attention. I bet that student who walks into class 15 minutes late gets on your nerves! Or maybe it’s that neighbouring car that ignores your flashing blinker and refuses to let you into their lane. Does road rage ring a bell to anyone? On a more serious note, how could you ever feel compassion for someone who’s committed a violent crime? Can you imagine experiencing mercy for all beings, including murderers, rapists, and abusers? Or is this something we leave up to the monks, priests and enlightened ones?

I read about a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned in a Chinese jail. The monk shared with the Dalai Lama that there had been many dangerous moments throughout his 18 years imprisoned. The Dalai Lama thought he was referring to moments when his life was at risk, however amazingly enough he meant, “There were times when there was a danger of losing compassion for my Chinese captors.” Unbelievable; Patanjali would be proud! Even when doctors examined him after he was released from prison, they found no post-traumatic symptoms. His being was “pure and serene”– the results promised if you approach life as Patanjali suggests. Even though at times it may seem like an impossible feat, Patanjali assures that it will lead to an easeful and fulfilled life.

Author and long time yoga teacher, Judith Lasater admits to the frustrations that come along with a life spent practicing sutra 1.33. She shares that, “just as with amity, dispassion, and goodwill that Patanjali encourages, expressing compassion is definitely a learn as you go process. It is also cumulative. We can strengthen our ability to be compassionate by repeatedly expressing compassion…It is always a partner with wisdom, which is gained from experience. And this experience leads directly back to compassion.”

As the pace of our society picks up and as we change into more of a “I, me, mine” society, we’re becoming more desensitized to others’ feelings and also to our own. It’s almost like we don’t have time to stop and feel. When we aren’t properly processing our own trials and tribulations our brains and hearts can become too full to fit in anyone else’s struggles. It’s almost like our baggage is too heavy to help relieve someone else of their load. Yet as Judith expresses, it’s through the experience of our own struggles that can lead us to empathic behaviour towards others suffering.

A kindred spirit of mine has been working with a spiritual guide for some time now. Her mentor expressed how another student of his had lived through a childhood filled with sorrow. Ironically, because of her painful past she is now more relatable and can easily access love. Often it is the distressing lessons that serve to awaken us.

Recently, I was battling an infection that left me defeated and vulnerable. I was forced to limit my movements to walking, lying down and lunging in and out of the bathtub. No yoga, no running–even long walks were a stretch. For someone who moves their body for a living, this was quite the shock to the system and a huge blow to the ego. I pushed myself and taught a few classes from the foot of my mat. Looking back, those were the most loving and authentic classes I had ever taught. Because I was feeling so raw and exposed in that moment I felt sincere unconditional love for the strangers, the regulars and the friends in front of me. My instructions were soft, my words were encouraging and I had nothing to hide. I finally understood that at some point these people, regardless of their religion, race, style, career, and financial state, had been broken down just as I was. My individual suffering had shifted to the awareness of a universal suffering, which made me feel less alone.

Upon doing further research on this topic, I was relieved to find scientific proof that loving one another is in our DNA. Renowned geologist, Charles Darwin declared that, “Sympathy is the strongest instinct in human nature.” In the documentary I am, Neurobiologist Jonathan Height fought hard to prove this point as well. “We are hardwire for a compassionate response to the trouble of others,” he declared. There is even a word in Sanskrit made to spread the news of our innate goodness and that word is Sri. It’s one of my favourites.

As Patanjali promised, a harmonious life and a complete understanding of our basic sameness is the pot of gold at the end of the road of compassion. Nelson Mandela, a man who trudged along this road for many years reminds us not to worry if we have forgotten, for our empathy can be taught. So I’ll leave it up to him to conclude my article:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

3 Ways to Call Upon Compassion

  1. Mudra: The Lotus Mudra (Symbol of Purity)

Bring your hands to prayer pose (palms together with fingertips touching) in front of your chest. Keep the heels of your hands, your pinkie fingers and thumb fingers touching, and then spread the rest of your fingers widely apart. Imagine a flower blooming. This mudra is associated with the heart chakra, as goodwill, love, sympathy and wholeness live in this place. The affirmation associated with The Lotus Mudra is, “ I open myself to nature; I open myself to the good that exists in every human being; I open myself to the Divine so that I will be richly blessed.”

You can do this mudra to relax before bed, before entering a challenging conversation, or event, during your yoga practice or meditation, or any other time you need to cultivate softness.

  1. Gods/Goddesses: Kuan Yin

Kuan Yin is the bodhisattva of compassion and kindness. She is a nurturer, a mother goddess and is know to be pure. Buddhists believe that she came from the bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, who was depicted as a male in India before Buddhism came to China.

To be reminded of this merciful goddess and what she stands for, keep her picture close by, whether it’s on your alter, fridge, beside your bed or in your wallet. Pray or chant to her whenever you need to evoke compassion.

  1. Chants: Om Mani Padme Hum

This chant is associated with Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Mani translates to mean, “jewel” and Padma translates to mean “the lotus flower”. Although it is said that the mantra cannot be transcribed into a simple phrase, many believe it means, “the jewel in the lotus flower”.

Speak or chant this mantra loud and proud or under your breath. I get into chanting before practicing yoga, or often when I’m cleaning the house or in the shower. I find this chant relaxing and calming.

Satya: Truth in Practice

Satya: Truth in Practice

Learning any new language can expand the limits of our experience by giving us different ways to articulate an idea or a feeling. What follows is a new set of pathways for relating to others, ourselves, and the world.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world. ::Ludwig Wittgenstein

Satya Defined

Sanskrit is an intrinsically vibrational language that aims not only to promote understanding and communication, but to awaken consciousness on all levels of being through sound that is inextricably connected to form. As we explore the definition of any Sanskrit term, we must acknowledge the inevitable deficiency that will result as we attempt to derive meaning from a single word, particularly a written word, used thousands of years ago. What we can do is study the language as a raw clay from which we shape a more intimate understanding. We can examine pieces of a whole and make a concerted effort to understand each one individually, building an awareness that is stronger than any definition we might glean from the amalgam alone. For example, an English to Sanskrit dictionary might yield the following for the word satya:

सत्य satya /suht-yaa/ adj. true; n. truth

This definition is sufficient if our interpretation of the English words “true” and “truth” come layered with the due richness of satya. The more likely scenario is, they do not. Instead, let us break it down one step further, satya comprises the root word sat and the activating suffix -ya.

सत् sat — true, pure, virtue, unchangeable, absolute, that which is, supreme consciousness य -ya — coming from, as a result of

What is revealed etymologically is that satya is more than a dualistic examination of something as merely true or false. Satya is the state of being that arises when we operate from our highest (pure) consciousness.

There is a concept in linguistics termed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which posits that the language we speak influences the way we think and in effect, the way we act. At the very least, a deeper study of the Sanskrit word satya will give us a new way of thinking and feeling about the truth, perhaps one that bypasses our tendency to intellectualize and instead resonates with our deepest, instinctual consciousness.

Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt

For a practical example of satya, we can turn to nature. Consider a mountain, for instance. If possible, one that you are exposed to on a regular basis. In fact, any prominent geological feature will do, but let’s stick to the mountain for this example. You know this mountain exists because you have visual evidence. You have seen it from different angles. You know and understand its size and its shape. This evidence is confirmed externally by the fact that others have also seen this mountain and describe it in a similar way. Perhaps this mountain has a name and is used for directional guidance or maybe you have flown over it in an airplane. You may have even climbed this mountain and experienced it through your senses, validating its existence beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Then, one day, you wake up and there is a dense fog in the air. A fog so opaque, you can no longer see the mountain. You ask around for confirmation and find that no one else can see the mountain either. You might venture out to climb mountain again, but with the fog so thick, it is difficult to orient yourself and near impossible to confirm the presence of the mountain. Still, you know it is there. You have a memory of it and you can feel the incline of the earth beneath you. Despite confusion and what might even be considered evidence to the contrary, you have a deep knowing that the mountain still exists. The fog could linger for days or weeks, obscuring the mountain from immediate view. You may even forget about it, but the mountain never goes away. And on the next clear day, you might find yourself elated to see the mountain again. It will likely appear more magnificent than you remembered when the fog has lifted.

Satya works in the same way as the mountain. It is an inner knowing and experience of the truth, something believed beyond a shadow of a doubt. Whether a truth about ourselves or the universe, or simply an intuitive gut check that helps us make decisions, we each have a set of core values and beliefs that inform our thoughts and behaviors.

Be Kind

Satya is offered in the Yoga Sutras as the second of five yamas, which are often misguidedly referred to as restraints or “right living” rules. Nischala Joy Devi however, describes them as “reflections of our true nature” because our true nature is inherently good. The yamas can be thought of as behaviors that reflect our innermost essence.

To understand satya as one of the yamas, it is important to know that it comes after ahimsa by design. The yamas are not mutually exclusive, they are interdependent and there is an element of hierarchical balance between them. In that hierarchy, ahimsa (kindness) always comes first. This is particularly important to remember as we determine when and how to speak the truth.

Let your speech be true and sweet. ::Sri T. Krishnamacharya

The Four Gates of Speech

As a guide, the Four Gates of Speech, which evolved from the third action in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, offer a litmus test for delivering spoken words.

  1. Are they true? Beyond the factual verity of your words, they must be spoken with intention and clarity. A lie, no matter how trivial, disconnects us from higher consciousness and creates an entry point for self-doubt – if we know we are capable of lying, we lose the ability to trust ourselves and our instincts.
  2. Are they necessary? Consider whether your words add value to a given situation or whether it might be prudent to listen instead.
  3. Is it the right time? Take a moment to understand whether the person you are speaking to is ready to receive your words. Be patient if the timing isn’t right, your message will land most gently when it is.
  4. Are they kind? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, be kind. Ahimsa is offered as the first yama to be observed above all others and the last gate of speech as a final checkpoint before we are cleared to speak. Words without kindness are unconstructive, even when engaging in challenging conversations. If your words cannot be delivered from a place of kindness, go back inside and evaluate how you might identify words that better reflect your true nature.

Satya only exists in the present

The past, by its very nature, is a memory, and memories are faulty at best. A memory is formed when a lived experience is subsequently stored in the intricate archives of the mind. During this process, the experience undergoes systematic alteration as a result of our implicit and explicit biases, our mental and emotional states, and how closely we are paying attention. Despite our best efforts to recall the truth, the output is inevitably flawed.

Similarly, the future only exists as a prayer, a plan, or an expectation. When dealing with the future, there is always some degree of uncertainty. It has not yet come to be and therefore cannot be true. Satya only exists in the present and the practice of satya is a gradual calibration of our awareness to the fullness of each passing moment.

Satya on the Mat

Truth in practice begins before we unroll. It is present when the call to practice arises and when we commit to showing up on the mat. Truth perpetually invites us to practice wisely, from invocation to savasana. And when we say yes, we step into satya. So, what exactly does that mean as a yoga practitioner?

Breath is Guru

I say this all the time, but to really believe and practice it, is an expression of satya in Yoga. Breath is the teacher and as the student, you are the one being breathed. This is a sacred relationship and the underpinning of sustainable practice. Develop an internal system of checks and balances for monitoring your breath (like counting, or ujjayi) and adjust accordingly throughout your practice.

Ditch the i-Maker

The i-maker, ahamkara, is the tendency to over-identify with fleeting thoughts and sensations. When left to its own devices, the i-maker, fueled by the ego, will use the mat as its own private playground.

For example, consider this inner dialogue, brought to you by the i-maker, “Wow, my balance is really off today…I can’t hold half-moon…why can’t I hold half-moon?…I always hold this pose…it’s probably because I missed class yesterday…I should have come to class…I was so lazy…everyone else is holding the pose…I am a terrible yogi…I am not even a yogi at all…why can’t we just move to the next pose?…I hate half-moon…I am so over this class…did he just say “inhale”…am I even breathing?…I have to hold this or I won’t get better…seriously why can’t I just stay in the pose!?”

Now, enjoy the same conversation, but with a tone of satya, the ultimate antidote to the i-maker, “Wow, balance is challenging today…that’s interesting…maybe I’ll try breathing into the wobbles…looking at the floor seems to help…I’ll do that…[ breathes ]…how did I know to do that?…[ breathes ]…is that Yoga?…[ breathes ]…[ breathes ]…it was hard to concentrate during the opening meditation too…[ breathes ]…I haven’t really slowed down at all today…[ breathes ]…[ breathes ]… I think I’ll rest instead… [ breathes ].”

Don’t Sacrifice the Person for the Pose

Yoga is a whole-body practice and the purest expression of each pose is designed to recruit all parts of ourselves. When we ignore or even violate any part of the whole for the sake of the pose, we have lost the integration, the union and the Yoga. Satya is absent. If the pose comes first, we might be inclined to ignore the subtle signals from the body and push beyond the intelligent edge. As a result, the body will signal more loudly in the form of pain or injury until we are unable to ignore it. Instead, treat the pose as a lens through which you can see something new inside the person. The shape provides a direction, not a destination.

Satya also means resting before we get tired. When we know we are tired and yet, we still complete another chaturanga in a way that compromises shoulders or spine, it is a physical untruth. When we continually override the body’s natural rhythm in this way, it becomes more difficult hear when it is asking for rest. Listen and surrender as needed.

Look No Further than the Four Corners of Your Mat

Satya arises from the inside out and seeking validation or comparison from any external source will inhibit honest expression in practice. We cannot change our internally experienced reality with externally directed attention. Everything we need to observe is happening within the four corners of the mat, our focus need not be elsewhere.

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