Charlotte Nuessle is an internationally certified yoga therapist, gerontologist, and online educator and coach. She has forty-three years of personal practice and twenty-seven years experience consulting and teaching self-awareness using body-based and meditation practices that bring kindness, clarity and calmness into people’s lives. Interested readers can reach her by email at charlotte[at]charlottenuessle[dot]com and enroll in her free webinar Resilience: We Need It Now More Than Ever. In this contribution to the KineSophy Mindfulness Series, she discusses how a disciplined yoga practice can improve self-awareness and mindfulness to manage stress and increase compassion.
Mindful Self-Awareness is Synonymous with Mindfulness
Yoga practices train attention in self-awareness. Self-awareness is synonymous with mindfulness. With the practice of self-awareness, we become present for the moment-to-moment experiences in our bodies, minds and emotions.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
One classic focus of awareness in yoga is cultivated in asana (poses) practice. For example, how it feels when we lengthen our hamstrings or notice any difference on one side compared to the other in standing balance practice.
Gently exploring a fuller breath is another tool for becoming mindfully self-aware. We can make a relationship to our breath intentional in yoga practice. Doing so refines our attention and begins to internalize it in a subtler way, allowing us to witness changing mental and emotional states.
Consider linking with breath in a natural way throughout asana practice. Create moments of pause when the system can come back into balance.
Savasana, the resting position offered at the end of yoga practice, teaches our bodies and minds about our innate capacity for deep inner peace. Through self-awareness, we recognize the journey that began in yoga asana as movement and ends in stillness.
Compassionate Responses Can Help Regulate Our Nervous Systems
Our autonomic nervous systems evolved to keep us safe. They constantly scan for signals of danger or cues of safety without involving our conscious control. If the inner alarm of danger sounds often, we may find ourselves in a chronic stress response in which our system gets accustomed to distress.
The good news is that, although our nervous systems may have gotten used to being distressed, we can draw on yoga practice and philosophy as ways to help regulate our nervous system response.
Developing compassion is an example of a lifestyle practice rooted in the yoga tradition. It can help us on our journey of learning how to self-regulate.
Where to Start?
The journey starts with self-awareness.
A benefit of yoga practice is becoming increasingly self-aware of how our bodies feel in asana, while practicing breath awareness and while meditating. With increased self-awareness, we can learn to be present for our bodies’ messages. We can make a clearer choice about a direction to take going forward if we know where we’re at to begin with.
Tuning into the body is not easily accessible to everyone. Perhaps at times in our earlier lives, we were taught to value intellectual pursuits over physical awareness. As a result, dropping into a body experience might seem foreign.
For others, difficulty in connecting with bodily experiences may be associated with trauma—an experience where we felt isolated yet needed the safety of connection. As a response to trauma, our bodies begin to shut down. This process can manifest as a numbness that blocks awareness of certain areas of the body.
As a result, we might feel very critical or self-conscious about our bodies.
To support healing we need to respect our own and others’ experiences. It’s good practice to start with a sense of curiosity. As professionals, it’s important to watch assumptions we make about anyone else’s moment-to-moment body experiences.
Training the Innate Response
The ventral vagal state of our autonomic nervous systems comes online when we experience compassion. We need enough anchoring in this ventral vagal state to creatively solve problems, see bigger perspectives and engage in meaningful interactions with others.
Yoga practices like movement, breath, self-study, meditation and sound, can help us gradually reshape our nervous systems toward greater compassion.
These kinds of practice are often most effective when the instructor has some understanding of the needs of the particular practitioners.
In a Washington Post article, psychologist and best selling author of Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman wrote: ”Science shows we prefer compassion, and our capacity grows with practice.” He noted that simple practices like remembering moments of compassion and warm feelings we’ve shared with others have been shown to train the feeling of compassion. These practices engage the innate response that mammals have to care for their young and increase the possibility that we will care for someone in need.
“With increased self-awareness, we can learn to be present for the body’s messages.”
“Maitri-karuna-muditopekshanam sukha-dukha-punyapunya-vishayan bhavanatash-chitta-prasadanam.” – Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, 1.33 (“Infusing the mind with friendliness, compassion, cheerfulness, and uninvolved observation in relation to those living a happy, miserable, virtuous, and non-virtuous life respectively, results in reclaiming a pristine state of mind.” – Translation by Yoga International)
The Yoga Sutras, often considered the definitive text on yoga, teach that compassion is a natural remedy to thoughts or feelings of hatred or harm. Compassion removes impurity of thoughts that can lead to such actions that unsettle the mind.
However, we can’t force ourselves to become compassionate. We can hold an intention to cultivate compassion as a support in training our mind’s focus, or bhavanam. We can get curious about how to be authentic in cultivating compassion in our circumstances.
Turning to our nervous system is a great place to begin.
Making Meditation Relevant to Real Life
I spent many years feeling challenged in classical seated mindfulness practice. I just kept hitting up against inner critical voices.
If your nervous system has become sensitized to protective responses to keep you safe from danger, you might find that mindfulness doesn’t come easily. This is common among those who have experienced trauma.
From the perspective of neuroscience, we don’t want to strengthen habits of self-doubt or non-compassionate responses in our practices.
A Gesture to Embody Compassion
A gesture from the Viniyoga tradition is to lightly touch your heart/center with your right hand. Feel your own safe touch. Then as you’re ready to breathe in, open your right hand and arm out to the right and follow the movement with your gaze. This feels like a gesture of opening, of receptivity.
When you’re ready to breathe out, gently touch your heart, again following the movement with your gaze. Repeat several breaths, linking gesture with breath and attention.
Honor the rhythm of life, opening and closing, being out in the world and turning inward, expanding out to take in something nourishing, then bringing it home.
Compassion is how we were designed to nurture our young and be stirred to action when someone is in need. Tie compassion into real life with micro-practices:
- When you feel the compassion of a grocery cashier arranging help for carrying groceries out to your car.
- When you read about generous outpouring toward those who experienced a crisis.
- When you pause because you recognize that you are reacting to someone you care about who’s in need, instead of being with them compassionately.
Take it a few breaths at a time. Let compassion wash over and soothe over your body, wherever it’s safe to let it in. Notice how your nervous system responds.
Compassionate responses are part of our human nervous system, part of our yogic heritage, and can be embodied in simple awareness practices throughout the day. Increasing compassion allows us to live more aligned with the best of our humanity and bridges our spirituality, and we can learn to direct compassion back to our selves. May it be so.
Social Engagement System
Our social engagement system is our built-in compassion circuitry. Psychology professor and author Barbara Fredrickson points to something she calls “Positivity Resonance.” Her research has shown that when you smile a genuine smile, the person you are smiling at picks up cues that you are safe to reach out to and connect with. They smile a genuine smile back.
Bring Compassion Home
We learn from those we serve. We also need to be self-aware about our own need for compassion. Many of us turned to yoga to alleviate our own suffering. Embracing our own moment-to-moment life experiences trues us up in our teaching. It helps us experientially respect how incredibly unique various nervous systems are.
For example, each year I’m aware of the compassion I’ve wanted to extend myself during the holidays. As I felt changes within my family and the loss of earlier shared rituals from when I lived closer to them, it’s been important to listen deeply and nourish what has meaning now. I’m surprised how little moments with friends and loved ones—a walk, a visit, a phone call, sharing a meal—fill my heart, especially during the holiday season.
A certain practice might be just right for one person. Someone else might feel very challenged just by showing up. Maybe something in the setting was a trigger, such as being asked to close their eyes or perform certain movements.
Training the Innate Response
Sections of this article are reprinted with permission from YogaUOnline.com.
Read the other articles in the KineSophy Mindfulness Series.