Practicing Yoga in a Way That Cultivates Self-Compassion

03/05/2020 Yoga Yoga Spirituality Personal Growth

The practice of yoga can bestow many gifts—better health, a greater sense of awareness, easier sleep, and so much more. But if you practice yoga with a clear intention, you can also enjoy self-compassion.

man practicing yoga at home

Consider what you might say to yourself after spilling coffee all over your new outfit on the way to work. Consider what you might say to yourself after missing your latest deadline—again. Consider the wild ideas you might formulate about yourself after being let down by your latest crush. If your inner dialogue is anything like most people’s, you are likely being nasty, cruel, and unforgiving to yourself.

Now imagine what a dear friend might say to you after a challenging day. Perhaps you have called to vent or confess a misstep. Isn’t it wonderful when your friend reminds you of your goodness? It might sound something like this:

You’re being too hard on yourself!

Aww, let yourself off the hook, friend.

You did the best you could.

When you know better, you do better.

We all make mistakes!

Now imagine how much lighter you would feel if your own words to yourself were this kind and caring. Is it possible to be your own best friend?

Friend Yourself

Being your own best friend is what self-compassion looks like. Throughout the days, you have man opportunities to practice self-compassion. You have opportunities to be a little (a lot!) kinder and friendlier to yourself. You can stop chastising yourself for the “imperfections” you find about your body. You can change the negative things you say about the way you handled conflict or the way you are sometimes forgetful. Or the way you do anything! You can apologize to others (and yourself) as needed and be on your way. How liberating!

Embrace Compassion

Compassion means “to suffer with.” According to Dr. Kristen Neff, author and compassion educator, compassion involves noticing suffering, “feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain,” feeling warmth, care, and a desire to help, offering understanding rather than judgment, and realizing “that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”

Compassion-It, a nonprofit organization and global movement whose mission is to inspire daily compassionate actions and attitudes, explains, “Here’s another way of looking at compassion. It’s empathy plus action. Throughout your daily interactions, try putting yourself in another's shoes. Then think, ‘What can I do to help this person?’ Often, a simple smile can make a big impact! . . . Countless scientific studies indicate that compassion doesn’t merely help those who receive compassion. Practicing compassion makes us happier and healthier. It strengthens relationships, creates communities and fosters world peace.” As luck would have it, being kind to yourself and others has many benefits!

Then Embrace Self-Compassion

Self-compassion, then, is acting this same friendly way toward yourself, even in times of difficulty and failure. Dr. Neff explains that “having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness” and “entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”

In modern society and culture, this approach to life, loving, and accepting yourself as you are is revolutionary! Sharon Salzberg, author and meditation teacher, quoting the Buddha in her book LovingKindness, The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, shares, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

And it turns out that the practice of yoga is a great place to practice self-compassion. The practice of yoga includes physical postures and sequences, mindful meditations, intentional breathwork, and a variety of personal devotional practices. Practiced mindfully and intentionally, yoga can be a space to cultivate self-compassion. Because of its nature as a holistic approach to well-being, designed to raise the energetic vibration of the practitioner, yoga is well-suited as a laboratory for both practicing and experiencing self-compassion.

Try the following ideas to practice yoga in a way that helps to cultivate self-compassion, both on and off the yoga mat.

1. Set Self-Compassion as Your Intention

setting intention during yogaAt the beginning of your asana, pranayama, or meditation practice, set a clear intention of self-compassion. An intention is a guide for your practice and can help you find focus when your mind drifts. Setting the purpose of your practice as self-compassion sets you up to be kind to yourself throughout your time on the yoga mat. Each posture is an opportunity to practice compassion toward yourself.

  • Do you need to take a moment to rest?
  • Do you feel strong and want to hold a pose longer than the teacher instructs?
  • Do you need to modify for an injury or take a variation for pregnancy?
  • Do you need to catch your ANTs automatic negative thoughts!) and replace them with sweet nothings?

As you model being compassionate to yourself during your yoga practice, you will have a touchstone for your life off of the mat because you will already know what it feels like to be kind to yourself. Allow your intention of compassion for yourself on the yoga mat carry over into your life off the mat.

2. Practice Yoga with Your Eyes Closed

cobra poseWhether practicing solo or in a group class setting, after you get set up and situated, try allowing your eyes to close for some or all of your practice. If closing your eyes does not feel safe for you for any reason, allow your eyelids to be heavy and your gaze soft. Instead of focusing on what a pose should look like or how your variation of a pose compares to other practitioners, with your eyes closed your awareness can turn inward to your experience of the pose.

Consider what it feels like to be maneuvering your body through the (often hilarious!) yoga postures. Consider what kind of miracles occur in your muscles and joints and bones for you to be able to stretch and balance as you do. With your eyes closed, you have more of an opportunity to take notice of your emotional experience in a pose as you unlock the energetic pathways that may have been blocked for years. Not every pose will be a revelation, but tuning into the space of the dark behind your eyelids can be the beginning of truly getting to know yourself and your body in a new way.

woman meditating

3. Take a Look Around

smiling woman meditation classOn the other hand, it can be extremely beneficial to open your eyes as you practice. As you look at other variations of poses in a group yoga class setting you may notice the diversity of options and bodies. You may see someone using a yoga block in a creative way to support themselves. You may see someone taking Child’s Pose to rest. You may see someone challenging themselves to try a pose they have never done. Allow this all to be inspiration for your own practice. What a plethora of beauty and bravery to be found in one yoga class!

It is important to remember that comparison can rob you of your joy; if you notice you are looking around and translating awareness into negative speak toward yourself or others, focus your eyes back on your mat. As you look at your own body, with all of its strengths and struggles, you may find something to be grateful for. Look lovingly at your skin, hands, and feet. Allow your face to soften into a smile as you remember how truly lucky you are to be able to practice yoga in any of the ways that you do.

4. Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation

namaste hands When you try to see yourself in others, you are moving toward an enlightened state. Practicing metta meditation, or loving-kindness meditation, toward yourself and others is one way to cultivate compassion. During any and all interactions with others, remember this:

Just like me:

This person is seeking some happiness in their life.

This person is trying to avoid suffering in their life.

This person has known sadness and loneliness, hard times and struggle.

This person is learning about life.

And offer up intentional loving kindness to each person. This can be practiced silently while you walk down the street, during your time on the yoga mat, or as a formal seated meditation.                  

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you feel safe.

May you feel free.

May you live life with ease.

And offer up these same wishes for happiness and freedom to yourself. Let it become your daily mantra.

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I feel safe.

May I feel free.

May I live life with ease.

Remember, when you show up for yourself compassionately, you take time to nourish yourself completely. When your body, mind, heart, and spirit are attended to, you have more capacity to let yourself off the hook when you “mess up” or fall into old patterns. It can be helpful to remember that everyone is doing the best that they can do.

When you show up for yourself, then you are better able to show up as the best version of yourself for your family, friends, coworkers, communities, and the world. It serves us all when you serve yourself a huge helping of compassion. In her book, Radical Compassion, author and meditation teacher Tara Brach, defines radical compassion as including the vulnerability of this life—all life—in your heart. It means having the courage to love yourself, each other, and the world. Radical compassion is rooted in mindful, embodied presence, and it is expressed actively through caring that includes all beings.” Make sure to include yourself in this understanding of “all beings” and practice self-compassion daily.


Looking for more ways to squeeze some nourishment into your busy day? Learn how to use one of the best tools you have—your breath—to feel less stressed anytime, anywhere with Breathwork, our self-paced online course. Learn More.

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About the Author
woman smiling in yoga pose

Lena Schmidt

Certified Yoga Instructor
Whether it’s exploring the local trails, playing pretzel on the yoga mat, or diving into a book on inner peace, Lena loves an adventure. You can find her teaching yoga in San Diego, leading retreats near and far, and empowering others to be the change they wish to see in the world. Learn more about Lena at www.yoginilena.com . The spiritual aspects of yoga have aided Lena in the never-ending search for peace, calm, and positivity within, and she’s passionate about sharing these tools with others. She is intentional about taking yoga off the mat and loves finding the bridges between the heart and mind, the individual and community, and...Read more