Friday, January 3, 2020

Compassion as a Yoga Practice: The Yama Daya

From "In Northern Mists" by Fridtjof Nansen
by Nina Zolotow

Even when my father was almost 90 and half blind, he continued to be as judgmental as he’d been throughout my life. One memory of this that really stands out for me is the time I took him for his usual lab tests at the hospital and while we were waiting for an up elevator, a middle-aged woman wearing skin-tight leopard pants and stiletto heels breezed past us into the down elevator. My father turned to me and said—sarcastically and loud enough for everyone, including her, to hear—“Why don’t you dress like that?” Even though I loved my dad, I was completely mortified. 

That’s why it pains me to admit that even though I consider myself to be a compassionate person I often find myself making those same types of judgments, though only in my own head. I’m convinced I have inherited this propensity from my parents, both of whom were notoriously judgmental, but perhaps that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that I’d like to stop doing this. And because I’ve learned that compassion (daya) is one of the traditional yamas (rules of conduct), I’ve recently committed to practicing compassion on a daily basis. 

Although daya is not one of the yamas listed in the Yoga Sutras, it is one of the ten yamas in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yoga Yajnavalkya, and the Sandilya and Varaha Upanishads, among other yoga texts. So within the yoga tradition, daya is well established as one of the practices that enable you to cultivate equanimity. Here’s how it works: 
  1. Compassionate thoughts are positive thoughts that replace negative ones.
  2. Being compassionate makes your relationships with others more harmonious, as you can understand the point of view of those you are interacting with.
  3. Thinking of strangers with compassion helps cultivate understanding and peace within your community. 
Fortunately, like asanas, pranayama, and meditation, compassion is a skill that you can improve through regular practice. Here are two different ways you can cultivate compassion.


The first way to cultivate compassion, which is surprisingly powerful, is through your meditation practice. Scientific studies, such as Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise, have shown that regularly meditating on compassionate thoughts actually strengthens the brain circuits involved in empathy. For this type of meditation, you can use a traditional compassion meditation, such as Sanskrit mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu ("May all beings everywhere be happy and free, may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all”) or the Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditation, or you can make up your own compassion practice, such as simply wishing all beings freedom from suffering and well-being. 

Cultivating the Opposite 

The second way is to use the technique Pratipaksha Bhavana (cultivating the opposite). This practice is described in the Yoga Sutras: 

II.33 Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts. —translated by Edwin Bryant

To use this technique for cultivating compassion, every time you notice yourself thinking an unkind or un-compassionate thought about someone, you intentionally think something kind and compassionate about the same person. I don’t know of any research on this technique so I can’t say how powerful it is or whether it will change your propensities. But from my experience, practicing compassion in this way will at the very least increase the amount of time you spend thinking compassionate thoughts (which hopefully will have a similar effect to meditating on compassion) and will improve your interactions with others. 

According to Edwin Bryant, this technique can do even more. In his comments on sutra II.33 in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Bryant says: 

“As in a garden, the more one makes an effort to uproot weeds, the more the bed will eventually become a receptacle for fragrant flowers, which will then grow and reseed of their own accord until there is hardly any room for the weeds to surface.” 

This post was written by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog.

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1 comment:

  1. So helpful Nina, i believe that our parents were themselves strongly (and wrongly) influenced to be so harsh, supposedly so that they would choose wisely, so it is not entirely on them, but i have worked for it to have stop with me. i tried my best so that my children did not hear that constant criticism but it continues in my mind and what a joy it would be to reverse it permanently!!! I too am following the practice found in the yoga texts and i wish you much success. I find it a happy healthy practice to turn it around :) Thank you for this writing