Early last year, in the heart of a stormy winter during which the country was hurtling toward war and my own life felt like it was falling apart, I decided to use yoga to dive into an extended investigation of the Buddha’s teachings on the four brahmaviharas—literally, the “divine abodes” of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, which are also extolled in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
At the time, I was worried and brokenhearted. A funky left knee, an inflamed wrist, and chronic exhaustion as a toddler’s mother kept me from taking refuge in a sweaty, endorphin-inducing yoga flow. The brahmaviharas seemed to be exactly what I needed to focus on in my spiritual practice.
They also seemed, quite frankly, as remote as Jupiter. But the teachings of both yoga and Buddhism assured me that these luminous qualities were my true nature, a heavenly inner realm into which I could be reborn at any moment, and that my job in my spiritual practice was simply to find my way back to them.
Hatha yoga has always been one of my primary tools for conjuring up the qualities I want more of in my life. So I asked the students at a class I co-lead (along with several other yoga teachers and vipassana teacher Anna Douglas) at the Buddhist meditation center Spirit Rock to join me in an exploration: Could we infuse our asana practice with the spirit of the brahmaviharas? Could yoga’s physical techniques, in turn, induce an embodied experience of these spiritual qualities, which we could then express in the world? Could the brahmaviharas be touched through bones and muscle, blood and prana, in the midst of our ordinary lives of e-mails and diapers and credit-card bills and listening to NPR in freeway traffic?
In the oldest forms of Buddhism, the first brahmavihara that practitioners work to cultivate—the cornerstone of all the rest—is metta, a Pali word translated as “love” or, more often, “lovingkindness.” Metta is not the emotional train-wreck version of love celebrated in Danielle Steel novels or television shows like Married By America. It’s not passion or sentimentality; it’s not laced with desire or possessiveness. Rather, metta is a kind of unconditional well-wishing, an openhearted nurturing of ourselves and others just as we all are. And—most crucially—it’s a quality that can be methodically cultivated through formal practice.
In traditional metta meditation, we systematically offer lovingkindness to ourselves and others through the silent repetition of classic phrases. We begin by offering metta to ourselves: May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be joyful. May I be free. We then extend the same wishes to others: first a dear friend or benefactor; then a neutral person, such as a checkout clerk at our local supermarket; then someone we find extremely difficult. (According to Patanjali, difficult people are especially suitable recipients of lovingkindness.) Ultimately, we extend metta to all beings everywhere, in an expansive blessing that takes in everyone and everything from the mosquito buzzing around our head to space aliens in distant galaxies.
Metta on the Mat
To invite more metta into our hatha yoga practice, my students and I began taking five or 10 minutes, when we first came to our mats, to hold ourselves in the embrace of loving awareness. We’d set ourselves up in a receptive, nurturing posture; my personal favorite was Supta Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), a reclining supported backbend that gently opened my heart and belly. Then we would take some time to notice—without judgment—the emotional weather in our hearts and the precise physical sensations that accompanied it. Did our hearts feel like clenched fists, budding orchids, buzzing bees, ice cubes? Did we have a hard time finding them at all?
Next we’d set an intention to move through our yoga with lovingkindness. Sometimes we’d focus this intention with metta phrases: May I be peaceful and joyful. May my body be well. One student said it helped her to synchronize these phrases with her breath—she’d visualize flooding her body with metta as each breath poured in. Sometimes I found it helpful to use an image instead, such as rocking myself in my own arms the way I rock my son Skye when he wakes up crying. Some days, we’d direct our metta to body parts that particularly needed attention. We’d wrap our attention around our aching hip joints, our throbbing knees, our exhausted eyes. Then we’d direct our good wishes there: May you find ease and well-being.
As we began to move through our asana practice together, I’d invite my students to modify my suggested poses to cherish their own unique bodies, taking special care to support, not aggravate, any weaknesses or injuries. In my own practice, I tried to choose the postures and techniques that would nurture me most. This didn’t mean that I spent an hour just lolling around on the floor. If I came to my mat after a morning of answering e-mail, what felt kindest was a vigorous sequence of standing poses that wrung out the tension from my muscles and sent prana pulsing and coursing through my body. When Skye had kept me up all night with nightmares about dogs in his crib, it was kinder to drape myself over some bolsters and just breathe deeply.
To generate and intensify feelings of metta, my students and I found it particularly useful to explore poses that opened our heart chakras, such as backbends, side stretches, and twists. It was easier to send and receive love, we found, when our physical hearts were less constricted. Kindness came easier when our breaths were full and deep. We could come to our mats seething with resentment and yet leave after a vigorous vinyasa flow with our hearts singing.
As I focused on practicing with metta, I began to notice how much of my inner dialogue on the mat was subtly oriented toward critiquing what was wrong with my body and my practice: a subliminal commentary on my pooching belly, my wandering mind, the place where my hip froze during Revolved Triangle. I saw ways that my yoga practice had been reinforcing and refining my ability to criticize myself, rather than training my capacity to wish myself well.
Metta practice gave me a systematic way to shift this inner narrative.When I was struggling in a pose, I experimented with sending metta to the shoulder or hip or muscle that was squawking the loudest: May you be happy. Then I’d let the correct response arrive intuitively: whether to stay in the pose and continue to send metta, adjust it, or exit. One of the things I found useful about my metta exploration was that it was so nonprescriptive—it wasn’t dogma but an infinitely creative response to each situation.
Cultivating lovingkindness in asanas felt like a good start, but I knew it was only scratching the surface of true metta practice, which aims to transform our relationship not just with ourselves but with the world. To build on the insights from our asana practice, my students and I would follow it with a period of seated metta meditation in which we practiced extending to others the lovingkindness we had been cultivating on the mat.
To link our meditation practice to our asana practice—and truly embody our insights—we tracked the effects of the metta meditation on our bodies. As we sent metta to ourselves and others, we observed the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our hearts contracted and released, the tightening or softening of our pelvic floors, the deepening or constriction of our breaths. As we explored sending metta to friends, acquaintances, and difficult people, we brought to mind how we responded to the pleasant, neutral, and difficult sensations in our asana practice. For instance, was there any similarity between the way I responded to my intransigent hip joint and the way I responded to the neighbor who was threatening to sue me for floodwater runoff into her yard?
Like many of my students, I quickly discovered that it was infinitely easier to generate a rush of warmth and tenderness toward a good friend than toward myself. One of the blessings of regular metta practice is that it puts me in touch with how many people I truly love—and feeling this love, I discovered, could be an immediate, somatic source of nourishment and joy, no matter how much stress I was under. Metta could connect me, in an instant, to people I cared about near and far—from my son, asleep in the next room, to his former baby-sitter, now volunteering on an organic mulberry farm in Laos. It could also connect me to people I’d never even met, like a child in Iraq whose face stared out at me from the front page of the Times. And this sense of connection flooded not just my heart but my whole body with positive sensations.
Certain days, my students and I discovered, our hearts felt full of lovingkindness; other days, we were anxious and agitated and angry, and doing metta seemed only to make us more upset. We tried not to use our metta practice as an excuse for beating ourselves up about not being more loving. As our vipassana teacher, Anna Douglas, noted, “Metta is a purification practice, so it often brings up its opposite.” Just as our attempts to focus on the breath illuminate, first of all, how unsteady our minds are, our attempts to contact our innate lovingkindness may immediately illuminate the ways in which we have been conditioned to be less than loving and kind. This does not mean that the practice is not working. On the contrary, it means it’s working perfectly.
One of the delights of metta practice is that it’s so portable. I am finding it tailor-made to my current life as a mom, in which I spend more time reading Winnie-the-Pooh books and walking at a toddler’s pace to the park than I spend on the meditation cushion.
One of my students, a stay-at-home mom, told me she likes to send metta to her family while folding their laundry: May you be joyful, she says as she holds her daughter’s sock in one hand and vainly looks for its match. May you be safe.
Another friend tells me she pretends that her stationary bike at the gym is a Tibetan prayer wheel; instead of watching CNN, she pumps out metta to the recipient of her choice with every cycle of her legs. Someone else I know uses every stoplight or traffic jam as a signal to send metta to the person in the car in front of him.
One student reports she has been regularly practicing metta while watching various political leaders on the news. Instead of raging and arguing with the television set, she silently sends them metta: May you be happy. May you be well. “I figure that happy people rarely start wars,” she tells me.
And me? As I’m falling asleep, instead of retraveling the day’s peaks and swamps in my mind, I send metta to myself and the people I love. (I’ve found metta particularly helpful when struggling with insomnia at 2 in the morning.) Sending metta to strangers I read about in the paper has transformed the way I experience the headlines. And in the midst of an argument, I try to remember to take a few breaths and sense what’s going on in my heart and belly, just as I do on my yoga mat. I silently send metta to myself and the other person. Then I go on with the conversation and see if it proceeds differently.
Like most of the students in my class, I’ve found that consciously infusing my yoga practice with lovingkindness has given me greater access to it throughout my life—even when my life is not going precisely the way I’d like. Metta practice helps us not just understand but feel that we are woven into a great web of relationships, which we can light up through the power of our attention. And it helps us shift our focus from getting love to creating it, from improving our bodies to cherishing them, and from fixing life to embracing it.