Research is revealing that compassion is so much more than just a kind reaction to others’ suffering. It’s also an essential skill, one that can be improved over time to transform your life and increase your happiness.
There are times when we hear about a tragic event and we feel compelled to respond with an act of compassion. It can be intended for those far away from us—say, organizing a donation-based yoga class to help victims of a recent natural disaster—or very close, like making dinner for a friend who is going through a divorce. We’re connected to others’ suffering in these moments, which is difficult, yet we also tend to experience something surprisingly positive: “When we help someone out of our genuine concern for her well-being, our levels of endorphins, which are associated with euphoric feelings, surge in the brain, a phenomenon that can be referred to as the 'helper’s high'.
The warm feeling that we get from our own compassion has been found to help release oxytocin—the same hormone released by lactating mothers—which is associated with bonding with others and even reduced levels of inflammation in the cardiovascular system, an important factor that plays a role in heart disease. Despite the natural healing benefits that compassion can bestow on others and ourselves, it’s not always an automatic response, thanks to the stress and demands of daily life. But research is now showing that we can actually foster our capacity for compassion, so when painful situations arise, we are better at effectively relating to the person in need.
To tap into more compassion, it’s best to start with the type that comes most naturally—for those close to you, such as family and dear friends. Next, focus on compassion for yourself (it can be surprisingly tough). And finally, practice compassion for strangers. Just as beginner yogis don’t go straight into a deep backbend at the beginning of your class, it’s important to build your compassion practice slowly. The following helpful exercises can be incorporated into your day and your yoga practice, so you can strengthen your awareness of suffering (in both others and yourself) and learn how to respond to it deftly. Before you know it, you’ll be connecting with others in a more meaningful way, making the world a better place, and basking in a warm, fulfilling feeling.
Compassion for Loved Ones
When someone you care about is in pain—for example, a friend has lost her job or a family member is sick and in the hospital—compassion tends to be your go-to offer to share and hopefully relieve that pain. But taking on another’s pain is a big task, especially if you have pain of your own, and it’s surprisingly unnecessary. Instead, the true goal of compassion is to be present for what’s happening, without trying to fix things or absorb the pain. So, instead of rushing to make a to-do list, simply offer a hug or the holding of their hand. Part of compassion is learning to be aware and with the person who is suffering, without going after the urge of wanting to solve the problem or take on their pain.
Speaking with hurting loved ones in a thoughtful, constructive way also carries physical benefits that aid you in stressful situations. For instance, when practicing compassion, your heart rate and breathing start to slow, evidence of your calming parasympathetic nervous system at work. It puts you in a physiological state that is centered and grounded, which is a better state to make decisions in. That way, if, say, a family member provokes you during the holidays, your reaction won’t be a hurtful verbal volley, but rather a considered response that will help mend the situation instead of exacerbating it.
Compassion for yourself
In modern society, self-compassion can be a stumbling block. We live in a competitive world where, from a young age, our accomplishments are compared against those of others. It creates an environment where children have a sense of self-worth contingent on external criteria. As we get older, we tend to confuse self-compassion for selfishness. Women tend to suffer more because there’s more societal pressure to put others first—particularly children and significant others—so that a one-hour yoga class with your favorite instructor or tea with a friend is regularly placed on the back-burner. Add in low self-esteem, also epidemic among women, and a person starts believing she doesn’t deserve self-compassion. When individuals allow self-consciousness to usurp self-compassion, life becomes less joyful. It can make us uncomfortable in social situations and cause us to worry that people are judging us.
A great trick for tapping into your self-compassion is through recalling a benefactor moment when we felt seen, heard, and recognized by someone who showed us genuine regard and affection. Benefactor moments like these make us feel valued, not judged, helping us find the space to expand our own self-worth. So each time you question your sense of purpose or usefulness, you can call upon these moments as a reminder that you do have value, and thus are also deserving of self-compassion.
Compassion for Strangers
Compassion researchers contend that people have an inherent desire to be kind. However, as we grow up, society teaches us who deserves our empathy and who doesn’t. This process is slow and probably involves discrimination. So practicing compassion for others isn’t about developing a new skill, but rather about reacquainting ourselves with an instinct we’re taught to quell. Think of a man begging for money on the street. You may have the impulse to turn away because seeing how little he has makes you feel guilty for what you have or for not doing more to help. Alternatively, not turning away is compassion. Spending a minute talking to the man, even if you don’t give him money, gives him the gift of feeling cared for.
The Psychical Embodiment of Compassion: Pigeon Pose
Of all the ways to strengthen self-compassion, yoga is one of the best. Almost no matter what form you’re doing, you’re cultivating courage, presence, and compassion through tolerating discomfort. Staying in uncomfortable (but not painful) poses forces you to be aware of your body and proud of your courage to stick with it; hip openers, such as pigeon is effective because they tend to unearth tightness and resistance. Later, when you’re out in the world and faced with a difficult situation, you can draw on your experiences in the studio and know that you can handle discomfort. Acknowledge something in your own life causing you difficulty and pain. Recognize the stress for a moment and accept it as an opportunity to sense your own strength and courage with the Mantra: “May this practice strengthen my ability to show up in the world with courage and kindness.”