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As a yoga practitioner or someone who simply dabbles in yoga, it is great to enjoy the benefits of increased flexibility in the body through asanas (postures). But if there is a desire to grow in a spiritual journey, we must learn to be flexible and compassionate with everyone. The first place we must start is with ourselves, and then the people around us.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being ambitious and driven, or to strive for perfection; however, we must question whether it is being done at the cost of our health and relationships.
The practice of self-study, or svadhyaya, is at the heart of yoga. Yoga compels us to turn inward and observe our sensations, thoughts, and emotions. As we reflect on what is present in our body and mind, we begin to notice our patterns and responses to daily life. Through this process, we learn more about ourselves, and discover how to be present with what is--whether what is present is comfortable or uncomfortable. We remember our Divine nature and true Self. Hopefully, over time, we develop self-empathy, self-compassion, and self-love.
When we begin to see our own selves with compassion and as a clear conduit for Divine light, the act of seeing another without judgment or condition grows. But how do we do this? How can we practice empathy? Below are a few simple steps to start the process.
Listen. Meditation and self-reflection teach us to listen to the sound of our breath and heartbeat, or to the inner working of our mind. This same principle can be applied to listening to others. Drop down into your own body, ground your feet, and hear what another person has to say. Let go of your response or thinking about what you want to say next. Instead, stay present in the moment, not only hearing what another is saying, but truly listening. Let them know you're listening by non-verbally responding with a head nod or eye contact.
Observe. While in mindful meditation we practice scanning our awareness by noticing what is present. For instance, "I notice that when my left shoulder feels tight I'm also feeling anxious and overwhelmed." We can also apply this to how we speak and give feedback to others. Try responding to others by speaking from your perspective like, "I noticed that you have a lot going on in your life right now. How are you doing?" Also, observe your own thoughts and judgments about what is being said. Are you filtering and drawing conclusions based on past events you experienced? Can you observe your own thoughts and then let them go without attaching to them so you can be in the moment and present for another?
Acknowledge. An aspect of self-compassion is acceptance. We accept our thoughts, feelings, and emotions because they are part of our experience. This is the practice of giving ourselves the permission to feel our feelings and to acknowledge that it's okay to feel them. To practice this with others, we can provide space for them to express from their point of view. And then respond with statements like, "It's okay to be stressed. I get stressed out when I have too much to do too."
If we want to be truly spiritual and mindful beings, we can apply yogic concepts and be more empathetic toward the people in our lives--regardless of whether they are service professionals, colleagues, friends, or family. We must understand and respect people's time and energy through listening, observing, and acknowledging. One way of fully integrating this way of life is to study the eight-limbed path, perhaps beginning with the yamas and niyamas. For example, beginning with the yama "Ahimsa", we begin to act from a place of love and compassion for all beings. From that starting point, empathy towards others may flow more effortlessly.
This is how yoga is applied off the mat. It is a life-long practice.