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Compassion in Action

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Two old friends of mine recently met for lunch at an outdoor café–both of them teachers who had been practicing yoga and meditation for almost two decades. Both were going through difficult times. One could barely limp up the stairs; she’d been in acute physical pain for months and was facing the prospect of hip replacement surgery. The other’s marriage was coming unglued; she was struggling with anger, grief, and chronic insomnia.

“It’s humbling,” the first woman said, pushing her salad around on her plate with her fork. “Here I am a yoga teacher, and I’m hobbling into classes. I can’t even demonstrate the simplest poses.”

“I know what you mean,” the other admitted. “I’m leading meditations on peace and lovingkindness, and then going home to cry and smash dishes.”

It’s an insidious force in spiritual practice–the myth that if we just practice hard enough, our lives will be perfect. Yoga is sometimes sold as a surefire path to a body that never breaks down, a temper that never snaps, a heart that never shatters. Compounding the pain of spiritual perfectionism, an internal voice often scolds us that it’s selfish to attend to our relatively tiny pains, given the vastness of suffering in the world.

But from the point of view of yogic philosophy, it’s more useful to view our personal breakdowns, addictions, losses, and errors not as failures of, or distractions from, our spiritual journey but as potent invitations to crack our hearts open. In both yoga and Buddhism, the ocean of suffering we encounter in life–both our own and that which surrounds us–is seen as a tremendous opportunity to awaken our compassion, or karuna, a Pali word that literally means “a quivering of the heart in response to a being’s pain.” In Buddhist philosophy, karuna is the second of the four brahmaviharas–the “divine abodes” of friendliness, compassion, gladness, and equanimity that are every human being’s true nature. Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra also enjoins aspiring yogis to cultivate karuna.

The practice of karuna asks us to open to pain without drawing away or guarding our hearts. It asks us to dare to touch our deepest wounds–and to touch the wounds of others as if they were our own. When we stop pushing away our own humanity–in all of its darkness and glory–we become more able to embrace other people with compassion as well. As Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes, “In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves. In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean–you name it–to have compassion and to care for these people means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves.” But why would we seek to take the counterintuitive step of embracing darkness and pain? The answer is simple: Doing so gives us access to our deep, innate wellspring of compassion. And from this compassion will naturally flow wise actions in service of others–actions undertaken not from guilt, anger, or self-righteousness but as the spontaneous outpouring of our hearts.

An Inner Oasis

asana practice can be a powerful tool for helping us study and transform the way we habitually relate to pain and suffering. Practicing asana refines and enhances our ability to feel, peeling away the layers of insulation in the body and mind that prevent us from sensing what is actually going on, right here, right now.

Through conscious breath and movement, we gradually dissolve our inner armor, melting through the unconscious contractions–born of fear and self-protection–that deaden our sensitivity. Our yoga then becomes a laboratory in which we can study in exquisite detail our habitual responses to pain and discomfort–and dissolve unconscious patterns that block our innate compassion.

In our asana practice, while being careful to avoid creating or aggravating injuries, we can deliberately explore long holds that evoke intense sensations and emotions. Then we can investigate: Do we respond to our weaknesses and limitations–a back that goes out, a torn hamstring–with tenderness or with judgment and impatience? Do we pull away from painful sensations? Are we drawn irresistibly to pick at them like a scab? Or can we learn to soften our jaws and bellies even when our leg muscles feel like they are on fire?

When unpleasant emotions–jealousy, anger, fear, grief, restlessness–flood us during practice, we can train ourselves to swim straight into them. We can study the way these emotions manifest themselves as physical sensations: a clenched jaw, buzzing nerves, hunched shoulders,
a collapsed chest. And we can welcome any part of our body and mind that particularly needs compassionate attention–whether it’s a throat tight with sorrow, a stomach queasy with fear, or anxieties that rob us of energy and zest.

If this focus on the uncomfortable becomes agitating, we can center our attention on the steady metronome of the breath, asking the discomfort to take a backseat in our awareness until we are steady again. And if we continue to feel overwhelmed, we can move into a more soothing practice, using our yoga to help us cultivate and take refuge in an inner oasis of peace and joy. As Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “It is important for us to stay in touch with the suffering of the world…in order to keep compassion alive in us. But we must be careful not to take in too much. Any remedy must be taken in the proper dose. We need to stay in touch with suffering only to the extent that we will not forget, so that compassion will flow within us and be a source of energy for our actions.”

Kinship with All Beings

Working with yoga in this way, we take the first steps toward becoming intimate with our own inner worlds in all of their light and shadow–an intimacy that is one of the foundations of true karuna. As Chödrön writes, “If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them. True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.”

One formal way of cultivating that sense of kinship is through the practice of tonglen meditation. Tonglen–literally, “breathing in and breathing out”–is a powerful Tibetan Buddhist practice designed to awaken karuna by reversing our instinctive tendency to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Tonglen is based on the potent assumption that within each of us is not only a vast river of sorrow but a truly limitless capacity for compassion.

Tonglen instructions are deceptively simple. While sitting in meditation, we invite into our awareness someone we know is suffering: a parent with Alzheimer’s; a dear friend dying of breast cancer; a terrified child whose face we’ve glimpsed on the evening news, hiding in the rubble of a bombed-out street. As we inhale, we breathe in that person’s pain as if it were a dark cloud, letting ourselves touch it in all of its immensity. As we exhale, we send the person the bright light of joy, peace, and healing.

While doing tonglen meditation, we can use the sensitivity we develop in our asana practice to imagine the other person’s pain vibrating in our own body and heart. With the same nonjudgmental precision with which we track our responses to our own struggles, we notice the responses that arise within us as we contemplate another’s hurt and despair. Do we flinch and go numb? Do we instantly seek to ascribe blame for the pain? Do our minds leap to the rescue, spinning schemes to fix the situation? Or can we simply hold the situation in our hearts with compassion?

Tonglen can be a powerful method for helping us use our own pain not to isolate ourselves in a prison of self-pity but to open our hearts to connect with others. Even our small pains can be a way of connecting with the collective realities of loss and impermanence. A knee that throbs when we sit cross-legged can remind us that all people are fragile. An aching hip joint can remind us that this body, like everyone’s, is bound for the grave. And our deeper pains can lead us straight into the heart of compassion. We can call up our physical and emotional suffering, holding it tenderly in our hearts in all of its painful specificity, and then visualize all the millions of people in the world who, right at that moment, are suffering the same way we are. A woman facing a mastectomy can open to the pain and fear of cancer patients all over the world. A man whose child has died can touch the grief of hundreds of thousands of other bereaved parents.

However, as Chödrön points out, “we often cannot do this [tonglen] practice, because we come face-to-face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.” At this point, she suggests, “you can change the focus and begin to do tonglen for what you are feeling and for millions of others just like you who at that very moment of time are feeling exactly the same stuckness and misery.” If we’re so stressed-out and preoccupied with our own concerns that we can’t summon an ounce of genuine compassion for starving people on the evening news, we can practice tonglen for our own stressed-outness–and then for all the millions of people who, like us, are too numb to connect easily with their innate compassion.

By practicing in this way, absolutely everything that arises in our hearts–even rage or indifference–becomes a doorway to connection and compassion. And this compassion is the essential platform for taking action in the world. Ultimately, of course, meditation alone is not enough to effect change; to make a difference, our compassion must be manifested in action.

But by awakening the heart of compassion, we increase the likelihood that our actions will be skillful. Hanh writes, “If we use anger at injustice as the source for our energy, we may do something harmful, something that we will later regret. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that is useful and safe.”

The Gifts of Sorrow

We may sometimes wish that our lives were free of pain–that our dreams would not lose their luster, that our bodies would not undergo injuries, aging, and disease. But when we look closely, we probably wouldn’t want to be the person we might be if we were spared these sorrows–a person that perhaps is more careless of the hearts of others or more oblivious to the gifts that life offers in every moment.

In Buddhist cosmology, the realm of the gods–a mythical world free of death, pain, and loss–is not the best place to become incarnate. It is our human realm, with all of its suffering, that is the ideal place for awakening our hearts.

And when our hearts awaken, even small gestures can have an immense effect. As Hanh explains, “One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.”

Anne Cushman is a contributing editor at Yoga Journal and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and the author of From Here to Nirvana: A Guide to Spiritual India.