Teaching Compassion for Yoga Teachers: Stage One

Jack Kornfield
Jack Kornfield
Jack Kornfield

The heart is like a garden: it can grow compassion or fear, resentment or love. ~ Jack Kornfield  

One of the first questions I ask of my YTT (Yoga Teacher Training) students is: “Why is ahimsa, compassion, the most encompassing of all the yamas?” Students answer with beautiful replies like this one from Jennifer Fogle: “Ahimsa provides the foundation of every word or action we encounter, whether it is with others or ourselves. All the yamas are important and necessary, but ahimsa is found in all of them. It is the foundation.”

I then open for discussion to the age-old question, “Is compassion inherent in all human beings or must it be taught?” This elicits a lively interchange of neuropsychology, philosophy and religion but we usually come to one conclusion. Whether or not it is inherent, it isn’t always our natural first response. It is a quality that takes training.

Debra Staup, another YTT student, took this process to heart by turning her sixth grade classroom into an “Ahimsa Training Ground”. On the first day of school, her students walked into the classroom to see the mysterious Sanskrit word “Ahimsa” scrawled boldly across the chalkboard. As she’d hoped, this exotic word piqued their curiosity and they begged to know more. She didn’t give up the answer right away. Rather, all year, in every subject, every lesson, she made them search for the meaning and practice the skill. This year, those 6th graders graduated from high school. Unfortunately, there’s not a standardized test to assess “ahimsa”, because I’m sure these students would have scored off the chart.

deb's class IILike Debra, we can turn our yoga classes into “Ahimsa Training Grounds.” Yoga offers us many practical and real tools for accessing the compassionate spirit that lives in our hearts. As yoga teachers, most of us already provide a heavy dose of compassion education in our classes as we emphasize being noncompetitive in asana and when we introduce the loving-kindness metta. But do we introduce these compassion tools in a way that best optimizes their integration?

debra staup picDebra is a very intuitive, gifted teacher, so she wisely used the learning theory to introduce ahimsa in stages, proceeding with more difficult practices as students were ready. Much like our yogic idea of kramas (step by step progression), learning theory models postulate that learning happens in stages. To optimize success, interventions are introduced when the student is ready. The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change is one I like to use for it’s simplicity and proven efficacy. It postulates the stages of contemplation (bringing awareness to the importance of the behavior change), action (providing tools to create the behavior change), maintenance (tools to reinforce the change) and relapse (techniques to handle the inevitable slipping backwards). Like any skill, to learn compassion,  you must begin with the little things such as small kindnesses to ourselves and then gradually take on heavier issues.

Compassion Curriculum Stage One: Contemplation

Contemplation: Developing Awareness of our Relationship with Ourself

pema chodrenMany great philosophers teach “before we can love others, we must first learn to love ourselves.” Pema Chodron says, “Never give up on yourself. Then you will never give up on others.”

To develop a loving, healthy relationship with ourselves isn’t easy. Like any relationship, we can become blind, habituated and disinterested.To make things even harder, Dr. Kristin Neff says, “Our culture teaches us to use self-criticism for motivation and to build self-esteem by constantly measuring ourselves against everyone else.” She goes on to say, “We need to re-learn the essential skill of being genuinely nurturing and supportive toward ourselves.” The tools in Stage One will wake us up to this relationship and we will begin to notice where we might be abandoning, denying or exploiting our own needs.

Asana: Sukha and Dukha Awareness

Begin in sukhasana. Describe the meaning of sukha and ask students to consider things in their lives that bring about this feeling of ease and contentment. Remind them that it could be a place, a person, or a time of day…..just name the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the idea of “easy, blissful, comfortable”.

Then begin the practice with three Oms. Ask them to think of the Om as an empty vessel and to choose something from their sukha list to fill that vessel. Feel into your Oms the feeling of sukha rather than just chanting the words.

Now introduce the converse of sukha to dukha…bad space. Tell the Cherokee story “An old Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil (Dukha). It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good (Sukha). It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’The grandson asked ‘Which wolf wins?’ The old Cherokee replied, ‘The one you feed.’

Progress through a relatively easy practice laced with a few opportunities to challenge balance (depending on the class, this could be anything from anjeneyasana to vrksansana). As they hold the pose, ask them to notice their self-talk. Are they filling/feeding themselves with sukha (positive, kind words) or dukha (competitive, judgmental)?

PranayamaBreath of Fire, Kapalabhati to exorcise Dukha

Bring students to a fairly stable pose (utkatasana, virabhradasana I, virasana) and ask them to consider what was dukha for them in their practice or something that comes to mind in their life. On the exhale, ask them to feel the dukha being released.

Meditation: Loving-Kindness Metta to Self

Spend a few minutes settling into a quiet, safe meditation position and practicing breath awareness. Visualize yourself when you were a young child, full of hope, dreams and a desire to love and be loved. Say to this your younger self “May you be healthy, may you be happy, may you have a life of joy & ease, May you be free.” Notice how you feel and where you feel. When you are ready, begin to deepen the breath again watching where you feel it in your body. Eventually add gentle movements. When it feels right, open your eyes if they are closed.

Written Inquiries: Awareness of Sukha and Dukha in daily activities

Notice how you treat yourself this week by focusing on the concepts of Sukha and Dukha. As Jack Kornfield says, “In deep self-acceptance grows a compassionate understanding.”

  • What is happening (both externally & internally) when you are unkind to yourself or others?
  • How much of your day is spent feeding dukha?
  • What do you find in your day that brings you sukha?
  • What nourishes you?
  • Notice when you use dukha (self-criticism, jealously, competitiveness) for motivation. Does it motivate? or discourage? Experiment with switching motivation to self-love. How does that work?
  • Self-love, how can you create more balance in your life? What simple changes could you make in your life to increase your sukha?

Reading: Research the clinically proven benefits of self-compassion and health.

Here are a couple of articles for personal research or they would also be an excellent opportunity for a group discussion:

Assessment: Are you ready to move on to the next step?

  • Do you notice when you are being unkind to yourself?
  • Can you substitute the dukha with sukha when you do?
  • Do you see changes in your relationships when you pause and make the shift to sukha before heading directly to dukha?
  • Do you see a relationship between your ability to practice compassion towards yourself and your health? Do you experience less stress? More happiness when you do?

When students feel they can answer “yes” to these questions, they are ready to begin Stage Two: Action. In this stage, they no longer need convincing of the benefits of compassion towards ourselves. Now we need concrete tools and techniques to help practice this in real life. Stage Two will be laid out in my next post, Compassion is a Verb

Debbi Murphy
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By Debbi Murphy

Studying the Mind-Body connection is Debbi Murphy’s life work. She earned a masters in psychology and a doctorate in exercise science from the University of Missouri and was known as that community’s fitness expert. Seeking deeper meaning, she pursued the study of yoga. She worked with teachers such as John Friend, Richard Freeman, Shiva Rea, and Seane Corn and found her true home in Erich Schiffmann’s teacher training & philosophical approach to the yogic life. In 2001, Shanti Yoga Studio & School came to life. Shanti hosts weekly classes, monthly workshops & advanced training. The teacher training emerges out of hundreds of hours of study and practice and emphasizes the transformative power of yoga. Through more than 30 years of practice, Debbi embodies the personal empowerment of yoga as well as the evolving dynamic art and science of yoga. Debbi’s passion for teaching and modeling the yogic life has inspired Shanti’s expansion to several locations in Idaho and she leads teacher trainings and retreats throughout the US, Ecuador and Mexico. While she has studied with many master teachers, Debbi knows her greatest lessons are learned from her students. All her classes are grounded in sound biomechanics, mind-body-spirit integration, and her heart lies in the transitory nature of the beautiful flow in the vinyasa tradition. Debbi grounds herself in McCall and Boise Idaho with her husband Mike and she is currently enveloped in the love of her first grandbaby, Lily.