Yoga and Compassion

yoga and compassion

Have you ever wondered about the link between yoga and compassion? In this article, we explore the philosophical roots of compassion in yoga and offer practical ways in which you can take your yoga off the mat and cultivate a more compassionate heart.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.

What is Compassion?

The word compassion comes from the Latin and is made up of two words: com – with and passion -suffering. So compassion literally means suffering with others. So, how is it that compassion, according to the Dalai Lama is a necessity not a luxury and without which “humanity cannot survive”?

Compassion and Empathy

In order to understand this, we need to delve into what compassion is and what empathy is more fully. Compassion and empathy are often used interchangeably but, in fact, each word has a different nuance. Derived from the Greek “em” (in) and “pathos” (feeling), the term empathic means you’re able to ‘feel into’ others’ feelings. Whilst empathy is a powerful emotion, it is also both reflective and selective. It is about feeling and understanding the suffering of others and is the precursor to compassion. Before acting, one must understand and feel. 

The challenge of empathy

The embodiment teacher and psychologist Bo Forbes writes: “For empaths, this sensitivity is magnified to the nth degree. An empath is more tuned in and more sensitive to others than the average empathic person.” Bo Forbes continues: “…Being this tuned in, empathic, and sensitive is an asset, it comes at great cost. Empaths are unusually vulnerable to ’emotional contagion.’ This means empaths catch others’ emotions in much the same way that you’d catch a cold or flu. But it doesn’t stop there: empaths get physically ill and suffer from anxiety, depression, chronic stress, professional burnout, and pain syndromes more often than their less empathic counterparts.” The antidote to a surfeit of empathy is compassion. 

Read more about yoga for stress and anxiety in this complete guide

The Benefits of Compassion

Compassion is the desire to act, to help others and to relieve their suffering. The traditions on which yoga is based centre compassion as an important quality to cultivate. Modern scientific research is revealing that there is a deep evolutionary purpose to compassion. When we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up.  In fact, scientific research is proving that there are a plethora of benefits to cultivating and practicing compassion from lowering the risk of heart disease through the stimulation of the vagus nerve to developing resilience to stress and bolstering our mental health. As well as individual benefits, compassion has societal benefits. 

Yoga and Compassion

In both the yoga sutra of Patanjali and in the Buddhist Sutta, acting with compassion for the suffering is highlighted:

By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous and equanimity toward those who are non-virtuous, lucidity arises in the mind. (Patanjali sutra 1.33 trans. Edwin Bryant). This sutra is key to taking our practice of yoga off the mat and into our daily lives.

Acting compassionately in our daily lives

In the sutra quoted above, Patanjali is outlining how cultivating positive qualities can develop a clear mind, the challenge is of course to feel compassion when our own circumstances are trying. I’m sure there are many examples that you can think of when you’ve been thrown off balance by the behaviour of others or by circumstances. These all offer you an opportunity to put your yoga training on the mat into practice. Who hasn’t been thrown by the behaviour of others for example, when out with friends?

If others are noisy or disruptive, our focus can drift from our pleasant experience to wishing the disrupter ill rather than displaying compassion.  In ‘The Secret Power of Yoga’, Nischala Joy Devi, comments: “Once we decide that a person has a genuine reason for her suffering, our scope of compassion waxes and wanes according to how much we feel she ‘caused her own problem.’”. A friend seeking comfort after an event that you feel they were partially to blame for, might lead you to talk to that friend in a punishing way. Yet, if you soften your heart and show compassion, perhaps you might both benefit. Nischala Joy Devi adds: “Whatever action people take, whether you approve of it or not, always make sure they know that you love them.”

How to cultivate and practice compassion

There are formal and informal practices to cultivate compassion. In our daily lives we can take simple steps to act more compassionately. We may all be familiar with the term ‘compassion fatigue’. This is used broadly and can refer to a numbness we might feel when seeing images of war torn countries or others in need. We can address our feelings by acknowledging that there are individuals involved. When watching the news, perhaps focus on an individual and cultivate feelings of compassion towards them. It is important that when doing this, what starts with empathy turns into compassion.  

The term compassion fatigue is also often applied to those in the caring professions such as nursing. If we take the example of nurses, we can see that they might feel overwhelmed by their caring duties taking on the stress of the extremely sick patients they care for. In addition to this, many nurses might feel that they are not adequately supported or their needs aren’t met by the system they are working within – often feeling overworked and undervalued. In these cases, practicing self-compassion can help a great deal.

Read more in Yoga for Stress and Anxiety: A Complete Guide


Low levels of self-compassion result in self-judgement, being overly immersed in one’s emotions and thoughts and feelings of self-isolation. Kristin Neff, who is an authority on self-compassion defines this as being kind to oneself. This is particularly important in instances of feeling inadequate or when we make mistakes. It is recognising that we are human. This involves getting things in perspective and not allowing negative thoughts or feelings to overwhelm us.

>>Combine yoga and compassion in this class from Mimi Kuo-Deemer<<


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