Teaching Forgiveness: 4 lesson plans for yoga teachers

We need to build a society that is strong enough to fight intolerance ~ Pope Francis

pope francis

This morning I woke to the inspiring words of Pope Francis speaking on the White House lawn. He asked us to step up to this “critical moment of history” to ”build a truly tolerant and inclusive society”. Love and forgiveness, he said, can and should be our guide. The 11,000 plus went crazy with applause. I, too, was inspired and approached my day guided by his message. I found that when I was kinder and more tolerant, things worked out better than expected.

The next day, the charismatic Pope was at it again. This time, in front of a joint session of Congress. This will be a harder sell I thought; but a moment later I watched cranky congressmen from both sides of the aisle applaud together. At least momentarily, the Pope’s message melted the tension and opened hearts. Maybe an altruistic attribute like forgiveness could be applied not just in our individual lives, making us kinder and more tolerant to those we encounter. Perhaps it can also be the guidepost that brings politicians together to solve problems rather than huddling in partisan corners crouched for attack.

India’s History of Forgiveness

gandhiIndia’s mother language, Sanskrit, has a beautiful word for forgiveness, Kshama. Kshama is defined as “facing diverse problems squarely with strength, patience and tolerance.” (Vedic Knowledge Online). The  “forgiver” isn’t a victim, but rather one who has the strength to discern (viveka) and not be subject to ignorance (avidya) and weaknesses of spirit (kleshas). The Yamas and the Niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a ten point guide to developing this kind of moral strength. India’s great spiritual leader, swami vivekanandaMahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Another great Indian had a similar affect to America as the Pope last week. Around 120 years ago, the great Swami Vivekananda spoke before the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, compelling thousands to cheer his words, “Forgiveness is the ornament of a hero.” 

Forgiveness Strengthening Curriculum for Yoga Teachers

As teachers of yoga, India’s great contribution to the world, we have the perfect opportunity to help our students develop the strength needed for kshama. Not only is it incumbent upon us to weave Indian Philosophy, History and Ethics into our curriculum, we can also serve as forgiveness “strength training” coaches. Like any coach, we do this by offering them a progression of experiences that help them develop forgiveness strength. Below you’ll find an outline of what I call a “Forgiveness Strengthening Curriculum”. It is based on the Transtheoretical Model I used for my doctoral research in behavior change and includes four stages. I have included a few short scripts for meditations within this curriculum, but encourage you to explore resources such as Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh and Erich Schiffmann.

First stage, contemplation

Objective: raise awareness of the value of “forgiveness”.

Technique: students consider the pros & cons of forgiving by choosing a current or past forgiveness situation. Examples:

Pros:

  • reduction of stress, anxiety & depression
  • lowering of blood pressure & heart rate
  • better sleep
  • increased energy (holding grudges takes effort, to let go, frees energy)
  • stronger immune system
  • better ability to communicate and solve relationship issues

Cons:

  • work and discomfort will be involved (research shows it’s easier to hold on to grudges)
  • loss of control. Holding on can give a sense of control since it’s a known and thus a form of protection. To forgive takes the strong conviction that you will be okay even to let go of anger. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
  • fear they’ll be seen as weak and can be victimized

Assess: To ascertain if they’re ready to move on, ask them to visualize themselves as a forgiver in that situation and to look at how it feels it in their body (a sense of relief or a tightening? more energetic or more fear? a sense of control or the opposite?). If they still feel reluctant to leave their grudge, tell them they can practice this exercise throughout the week to see if things change.

Conclude with the Loving-Kindness Metta*, for someone in their life who is struggling or a child from a war torn country.

(*There are many versions. I use, “May you be healthy, may you be happy, may you have a life of joy and ease, may you be free”.)

Second stage, Action

Objective: specific tools. Once convinced forgiving is a good idea, students need to learn and practice how it’s done.

Techniques: There are many approaches, here are just a few.

  • awareness – review the pros and cons, be ready to notice when the cons start showing up so you can counter-attack with the pros,
  • learn techniques to express anger constructively,
  • practice expressing anger in a safe environment (the person to be forgiven is not actually present. e.g. students write their anger on paper and conclude with a burning ceremony),
  • reverse the situation, walk in their shoes. As Thích Nhất Hạnh says, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
  • role play how the “forgivee” might react to prepare for their response,
  • meditate on ways the hurting experience has increased resiliency and strength, and how they can take this into future situations so they can see that they have not lost control but rather gained it. One of my favorite ways to bring this in to a class is to say while they’re in the anjali mudra “bring your hands to your heart honoring all the great teachers in your life, bring the mudra above your head honoring the teachers who’ve been difficult for you, knowing that they might have taught you the most, and finally, bring your mudra back to your heart to honor the guru within.
  • start practicing forgiving little things, slowly progress to the bigger issues. For example, ask them to bring to mind something that happened in the past week that brought up anger, driving usually provides lots of these kinds of examples.
  • practice the loving kindness metta towards yourself,
  • practice the loving kindness metta to that person or event you want to forgive. Again, you might take this in stages so that it’s not the most egregious person but rather just someone who might have given a little reason to be annoying. This step might take many repeats.
  • in the asana portion of class, ask students to look at their self-talk as they practice. Are they being harsh, judgmental, competitive? Ask them to forgive themselves for being judgmental, if so, and to look for ways to experience asana with compassion (ahimsa) towards themselves.

Third stage, Maintenance

Objective: Integration, trusting resources. Depending on the situation, it’s likely that the difficult person or event doesn’t just disappear because it’s been forgiven. At this stage, students need support from others as well as their own inner resources.

Techniques:

  • consider what are your resources; family? friends? organizations?
  • practice activities from Stage Two that were helpful to reinforce self-reliance,
  • notice the changes in you, your relationships and work, it might take awhile, but soon the rewards of forgiving are self-reinforcing,
  • practice loving-kindness metta for yourself and the forgivee,
  • practice the Rose Meditation,*
  • in the asana portion of class, work on postures that involve balance and taking risks (depending on the level, this could mean anything from triangle to handstand), teach students to trust their core resources when they find themselves off-balance,
  • volunteer to help others to help develop your own moral strength.

(* Rose Meditation: Relax your body and mind: then bring your breath into your heart. Visualize a rose bud slowly opening as you see yourself gradually releasing barriers that have kept you from forgiving yourself and others. Recognizing the pain of keeping our heart closed makes it possible to gently begin the process of opening it. Forgive yourself for any harm you have caused others, forgive yourself for all the ways in which you have hurt yourself, forgive those who’ve hurt you).

Fourth stage, Relapse

Objective: learn to forgive yourself.

  • Be aware that there will be moments, those situations which do overpower you. Know that relapse is part of the cycle and that each time you “break down” you actually become more resilient.

Incorporating this type of forgiveness strength training in our classes, we can help our students have better days as I did when I followed the Pope’s words. We might also find that there is a ripple effect and we focus on strengthening our forgiveness muscle on an individual basis, we might encourage our leaders to be more forgiving. We might help inspire the next Gandhi, Pope Francis or Swami Vivekananda.

Debbi Murphy

Debbi Murphy

Yoga Teacher at Shanti Yoga
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 andMexico. 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.
Debbi Murphy

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Debbi Murphy

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.