Introducing Compassionate Yoga

One of the first questions people ask me before attending a class is ‘what style of yoga is it?’ Interestingly I will get this question from people who tell me they have never practised yoga before and have no idea what to expect. I find myself fascinated by the wider public perception of yoga and the general consensus around what it is. To my mind this seems largely informed by Instagram photos and fads which hit the news, sometimes including beer and goats, though not necessarily in that order. Curiously though people who don’t know anything about yoga other than an intrinsic feeling that the practise might be helpful are aware of a vast spectrum which might be a little overwhelming in scope.

The question of what it is I share in my classes – the kind of experience a newcomer to the room might expect, whether a novice or an experienced yogi – is something I have been musing on for some time due to the somewhat unique nature of my training. It is something I have felt a little unsettled with, both with the knowledge that naming things isn’t strictly necessary or important; and also with the feeling having a succinct expression of an idea is helpful to communicate that idea. What do I teach?

My teacher training began after studying and practising for more than two years with my teacher Clare. I was offered an opportunity I simply couldn’t refuse, while at the time I hadn’t even thought of becoming a yoga teacher. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn more and deepen the perspectives I had discovered so far. So while many people go to schools or ashrams to learn to teach, my journey took a form more akin to an apprenticeship. Clare would teach from a perspective of Classical yoga having been trained that way herself; with the addition of insight from other disciplines including Shiatsu and Mindfulness meditation among others. So this is why I will respond to inquiries by saying the style is inspired by or heavily influenced by Classical yoga though I do not feel it’s appropriate for me to say it is Classical yoga.

Recently while discussing this dilemma with a friend I found myself drawn to the term ‘compassionate yoga.’ Much of what I am passionate to share comes from a compassionate perspective. In my meditation classes we will practise mindful self-compassion. It wasn’t much of a leap in nomenclature. How we relate to ourselves during practise to me and beyond is a crucial aspect of this practise.

I also feel when the word ‘yoga’ is placed after ‘compassionate’ it renders the adjective utterly redundant. To me yoga is compassion; a bit like describing a wheel as ‘round.’ But perhaps it isn’t all that obvious. Perhaps it takes a little practise to remember to live compassionately. I see small and not so small acts of violence all the time. The way we interact, the way we talk to ourselves. I have had more students than I would like be concerned about being ‘corrected’ in a pose or who have attended a practise which caused them injury. In the words of B.K.S. Iyengar ‘If the practice of today damages the practice of tomorrow, it is not the correct practice.’

Perhaps consciously prefixing yoga with the word ‘compassionate’ might serve as a mental anchor to help support the attitude that this practise is one which promotes healing and connection. This is a practise that supports on many levels.

So after all the preamble what is compassionate yoga?

Fundamentally compassionate yoga is based on classical yoga methodology. We begin with rest, to arrive, to fully appreciate the practise in the present of what is possible today, right now. We seek ease in all things. When we hold poses – even strenuous ones - we ask is it possible to relax the eyes, the jaw, to breath smoothly, to learn the least amount of effort required without adding layers of strain?

Intention setting. We set an intention at the beginning of the practise, this may be something larger like a big-picture life aim or perhaps a more immediate ‘to be fully aware of my breath as much as possible, now.

We bring awareness into the body with an attitude of affectionate curiosity. Relating to feelings of easefulness and challenge in the body or life in general just like we would relate to a close friend. Sometimes all that needs to be done is to listen.

Breathing awareness or pranayama. We work with consciously modifying the breath exploring ways the breath touches the whole body and discovering the optimal flow for ease and clarity.

Asana practise. We move the body with awareness and kindness. Exploring yoga poses and discovering easefulness even in the positions that challenge us. Always expanding the ‘soft limit’ were we feel progress but not pushing so far we reach the ‘hard limit’ where we will encounter strain or injury. We hold poses for a time developing focus and concentration. Working with elements of alignment, twisting, forward and backward bending, and balancing. Each challenge is unique to each yogi so we adapt to find the appropriate challenge; as tempting as it is to compare ourselves with others the most meaningful place to look is within.

Rest between asana. Possibly one of the more difficult aspects of the practise as we refrain from doing for a while, letting go of what has been and expectation of what is next. We allow each part of the practise be new and fresh in the moment.

Learning how much to work and how much to rest is a delicate balance which seems to be unique to each individual and to the moment itself. Sometimes we wish to work hard with more physical challenge, other times we are already at the limit of emotional and physical challenge in our lives and our yoga practise needs to support us in restoration. This for me is one of the subtle gifts of yoga, the place where we act in concert with our own personal integrity; the difference in strain and ease, effort and grace. In this practise we work gently, but that doesn’t mean it is easy.

Finally we will conclude with a period of still relaxation. Drawing attention inward and away for a time from the more ‘dense’ sensations of the body towards the more subtle. We give permission for the body to rest deeply while maintaining gentle focused awareness.

In closing the practise we chant Om, for a number of reasons,  including paying respect to the heritage of the practise and to each other in support of our own and each other’s well-being. We then chant shanti as an invocation of peace.

Central to the above is the attitude of compassion. We forgive ourselves for the things we are not able to do, however many times we lose concentration or even the practise itself. We accept where we are right now, freeing ourselves from expectations or unfair comparisons. Ultimately releasing any resistance for the natural, organic change in our lives to flow which will be of most benefit – often in surprising ways. I’m convinced that a practise of self-compassion spreads out in all directions, it is not at all self-indulgent, rather one of the kindest gifts we can give to the people in our lives and maybe even further than that.

So, for now, when someone asks me what I teach I shall say compassionate yoga.