Treating everyone with compassion and feeling content with life is pretty easy when we feel happy and at peace with the world. Yoga teacher and life coach Tracy Johnson outlines how we can practice and enrich our capacity for lovingkindness, even in undesirable circumstances.
Santosha or contentment is one of the Niyamas or observances in the Eight Limbs, and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali talk about being happy through actively seeing happiness around us; our thoughts and attitudes create our happiness or destroy it, depending on our choice of perspective.
If we choose to see darkness and futility, well, then it becomes particularly hard to see the good in someone who has wronged us. It is important to remember that we don’t automatically ‘become’ compassionate or grateful by practising yoga — they are attitudes we have to actively cultivate and work at particularly hard; especially, when life seems to be against us.
It felt relatively easy for me to be compassionate and grateful for my place in the universe when I was in a full-time job that came with a regular income. I was happily meditating and practising in the morning, and feeling slightly smug when I went off to work. When I quit that job to become self-employed, my stress levels went through the roof as my income dropped off and I was struggling to make my voice heard in a crowded marketplace full of other yoga teachers and wellness coaches.
When I felt secure, it was easy to see the good in the world; waking up in the morning wondering if I could pay next month’s rent put a whole new spin on things, and suddenly I was prioritising tough workouts rather than yoga to release all my adrenaline. It wasn’t until I slowed down and deliberately made more time for yoga and meditation that I could get some perspective and stop trying so hard. I started being consciously generous with my money and time, even when I had so little, and when I meditated on abundance and gratitude for what I had, I would often wake up the next day to emails offering me work.
Reinstating yoga to its rightful, predominant place in my life helps me stay mentally and physically balanced and it also encourages me to maintain that generosity of spirit that can retreat so easily when life feels tough. Here are three ways in which yoga can help us to be kind, generous and compassionate beings, even when life puts obstacles in our way:
1. Tonglen Meditation
Tonglen is a form of Buddhist meditation that develops the attitude of lovingkindness. It can be challenging because the technique requires you to focus love and compassion towards yourself, which is something many people find difficult, as well as developing feelings of kindness towards someone you dislike or who you feel has hurt you in some way.
I ended up in floods of tears after I had to direct lovingkindness at someone during my meditation who I felt was making me miserable; however, the next day, I woke up inclined to see the situation from their point of view, not just my own, and was able to rescue the relationship from possible disaster. Have a look online for guided meditations that could help you tune back into your compassion and generosity of spirit.
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2. Gratitude Diary
Increasing numbers of studies are proving that maintaining some form of a gratitude diary can actively increase your personal happiness and contentment. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has launched a three year project looking into the effects of being thankful, funded to the tune of $5.6 million, as existing research has already suggested that people who regularly practise gratitude experience benefits including: stronger immune systems, higher levels of positive emotions, acting with greater generosity and compassion, and generally feeling less isolated.
Either set up a file on your laptop or buy yourself a beautiful notebook, whatever you’re most likely to use, and get into the habit of ending each day by capturing all the things you were grateful for or that made you happy. For me, that can be anything from eating three healthy meals, a great session with or a compliment from a client, or a beautiful sunny walk between appointments. On a bad day, flicking back through all the positive stuff you have recorded can really lift your mood and remind you that life is actually pretty good.
Awareness Off the Mat
When we are deep in a practice and listening to the advice of our teachers, all the good intentions are there. You’re definitely going to stay in a great mood for the rest of the day and feel lovingkindness towards everyone, right? Then you leave the studio and a parking ticket is waiting for you, or you get stuck in traffic and end up late for work, and suddenly those good intentions evaporate into the ether. This is why it’s so important to remember that yoga happens off the mat as well as on, and that we must make conscious choices about how to feel in a given situation.
We can choose our behaviours. This is an incredibly powerful realisation that has worked wonders with my coaching clients as well as my yoga students. When the rage or frustration builds, take a mental step back and give thanks for what you still have. Change your thoughts to change your mood, and remember that our yoga practice throughout life is a conscious choice, not a passive side effect of being a yogi.
This post was written by Tracy Johnson, the founder of Brainbox Coaching and Empower Yoga Bristol. She trained under Sally Parkes and is a 200 hour RYT with Yoga Alliance. Tracy blends her yoga teaching with confidence coaching and stress management to create a holistic practice, and runs her classes with warmth and humour. She is the author of a careers guide, Working in Science, co-author of The Coaching Gurus, and writes for publications such as OM Yoga Magazine, Globe of Love, Happiness+Wellbeing, MindBodyGreen and has been featured in the Guardian, Body Fit magazine, the Bristol Post and Cardiff Life. She is also a self-defence instructor, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and is currently studying to become a personal trainer. Follow Tracy on Twitter.