Being Vulnerable

By Sally Kempton | Originally posted here in Yoga Journal

Dan does not like to think of himself as vulnerable. He’s a surgeon, a person who faces life and death every day. He started yoga and meditation as part of a stress-control program, and he loves the practice. But recently he’s been noticing a big shift in his perspective: The people on his operating table have stopped looking like abstractions, or collections of organs. Instead, he’s been feeling tenderness, a recognition of their pain and fear. “These people look so…vulnerable,” he told me. “It makes me feel all soft and raw.” He stopped for a moment, and I saw tears in his eyes. “I have to say it: I feel so open that it almost hurts sometimes.”

handsI knew exactly what he meant. When I began studying with my teacher, the energy generated in meditation sometimes left me feeling weepy and raw in just that way. The sight of a homeless guy on Broadway would turn my heart into a kind of empathic swamp; a co-worker’s irritability would feel like a physical blow. Other times the feeling of inner tenderness would simply melt my sense of separateness. Discarded newspapers in the gutter looked alive, and every stranger on the street met my eyes. No one told me that opening the heart could feel so double-edged—sometimes unbearably sweet, at others like exposing a wound or taking the lid off a Pandora’s box of old, unprocessed grief and fears. Nor did I realize, until years later, that fielding these feelings of vulnerability is not optional, or even personal only to me; rather, it’s an actual part of the yogic process.

Yoga, after all, is not an escape from life but a way of taking yourself into life’s pulsing heart. It will inevitably lead you to your own vulnerability, to your raw places. But vulnerability also opens the door to love, grace, and the deepest forms of healing. Your vulnerability, scary as it can be, is inseparable from your capacity for intimacy and creativity and love.

Here’s the caveat: The practice of opening to vulnerability is not for wimps. It’s an advanced practice, requiring strength, discernment, and boundaries—all qualities your yoga practice will give you, if you give it time.

No Barriers

The most open person I have ever met was my teacher, Swami Muktananda. When you looked into his eyes, you seemed to meet no barriers at all; he would meet you at the deepest place you were willing to go. At the same time, I’ve never met anyone with such strong boundaries and such a take-no-prisoners attitude toward challenging situations. He embodied the lines of the 17th-century poet-saint Tukaram Maharaj: “We servants of God are softer than butter, but we can cut diamond.” His softness, paradoxically, was made possible by his hardness. The energetic strength he had attained through yogic discipline and his skill at containing his energies and turning them inward had created a vessel of absolute protection.

Close up of African woman prayingThe spiritual journey often looks like a dance between the two distinct poles of vulnerability and boundaries. It’s a continuing dialogue between the impulse to soften and open and the impulse to contain and protect. The two apparent opposites turn out to be equal partners in the process of embodying spirit and heart.

So the question for Dan was, how could he keep his professional casing and yet stay in the feeling of openhearted connection? Or, to put it another way, how do you protect yourself from the dangers of vulnerability without sacrificing its gifts? You begin by looking at the origins of vulnerability and understanding the path it typically takes.

Original Vulnerability

The developmental journey of every human being begins in utter vulnerability. If you’re lucky enough to have caring parents, your original vulnerability is met with kindness, and as a result you develop a basic trust in the goodness of the universe. But even when you have great caregivers, infancy and early childhood are filled with inevitable losses—your mother’s temporary absence, weaning, the birth of a rival in the form of a younger sibling. These losses teach you about the world and help you to recognize your unique individuality, but they also accentuate your sense of vulnerability.

A growing child’s natural response to basic vulnerability is to draw boundaries and seek protection. Attempting to protect yourself against vulnerability is a crucial aspect of the human journey. It’s how we survive as individuals. Some protective strategies are necessary, good, and healthy; others, not so much.

A student named Roger, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, told me that from an early age he learned to outrun pursuers from the local gangs and became so tough and fearless that at age six he bit a playground bully who tried to take away his lunch. My friend Coleman, on the other hand, grew up in a well-to-do family in Indiana and learned to survive his parent’s stony emotional detachment by becoming the family jester.

You may hide your vulnerability behind your skill and competence, your work ethic and talent. You might hide behind a mask of coolness or even anger. You might internalize vulnerability, identify with it, and use your sensitivity as a kind of shield, like my friend who could always disarm my anger by claiming that it scared him.

Protection Strategies

When these self-protective strategies harden, they can turn into an impenetrable ego that cuts off your growth or even inadvertently produces the very situations it was originally created to avoid. “You’re scared of being abandoned?” says the voice of such an ego. “No problem. I’ll make sure you’re the one who does the abandoning”—and there goes your marriage. Or it takes the stance of the victim, convincing you that your problems are caused by an ever-changing cast of people who have it out for you.

The ego’s protection racket may involve a spiritual practice or a religious belief, an expectation that it can be saved by some form of orthodoxy or by positive thoughts. The strategic ego may convince you that you’ll be safe if you have a great job or a mate who loves you, if you own your own home, or, in our celebrity-focused culture, if you’re famous. Then, when you fail at the task you’ve given yourself, you will feel as if you’ve lost everything.

One classic protection strategy is the closed community—your own version of Baghdad’s Green Zone, where walls and gates, literal or figurative, keep out intruders so that you don’t have to interact with anyone who isn’t part of your tribe or cultural family. You can convince yourself in myriad ways that vulnerability is for others: the unlucky, the homeless, the undisciplined, the poor, the sick or disabled, the victims of genocide or hunger in distant places. Vulnerability is for the designated “victims,” while we, the lucky ones, keep our distance and—while giving money or support—cling to our belief that somehow things will always turn out OK for us. Until, that is, they don’t.

Little Deaths

At some point, most of us are forced to reclaim our vulnerability—whether we want to our not. In other words, if you don’t choose to consciously reconnect with your vulnerability, it will eventually come around from behind and bite you in the butt.

For most people, this occurs through a collision with a painful external reality—an illness or accident, the loss of a job, a partner’s infidelity, a home-destroying hurricane, or the attacks of September 11. This is the moment of disillusionment—the rending of the illusion that anything can ultimately protect you from the acute vulnerability of human life.

At this moment, you can either freeze in fear or grief or choose to look beyond your Green Zone and use that disillusionment as a stepping stone on your inner path. In fact, the challenge posed by disillusionment is the very challenge that yoga prepares you to meet. Yoga is contained in the moment you meet your essential human vulnerability and choose to learn from it instead of rejecting or denying it.

In the Indian tradition, it’s said that we practice yogic disciplines so that they will be with us at the time of death. I’d say that we practice them for those little deaths that we face in the course of life. When you can meet your own vulnerability without armoring yourself against it, you begin to discover what I call “radical openness.” All the higher emotions—generosity, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and especially, humility—emerge from this place of openness and vulnerability. To recognize your vulnerability is to connect with both the mystery of life and the mystery of how life can be so wondrous and beautiful, yet so absolutely terrible.

I often observe this in people who are going through intense processes of upheaval and change. They start off by trying to “fix” the fear and confusion that the change has created. They’ll call or write me, looking for a quick yogic solution to the pain of a lost lover or a difficult work situation. As we talk, I sense their feelings of “Why me?” or “What did I do wrong?” I also hear their hope that somehow there is a short-term practice that will work magic, or a correct attitude that will bring back the cheating partner or the lost job. Sometimes, of course, a new practice or attitude will do that. But most often, healing comes in that moment when the ego gives up the struggle against circumstances and willingly steps into a vulnerable feeling.

In order to hold and bear the acute experience of vulnerability, you need an appropriate container. The practice of consciously putting up boundaries is part of creating a container. Creating a boundary can mean something as simple as maintaining a physical distance between you and another person, setting personal limits, being able to say “no” appropriately, and understanding whom you’re willing to let into your intimate inner circle. Another form of container is a relationship of trust—certain friendships, your teacher, or a practice community can help you find safe spaces in which to open.

But ultimately, the container I’m talking about is the inner-body vessel created through focused practice and contemplation. All yogic disciplines aim at strengthening not just the physical body but the energy body as well—through concentrating your mind, practicing stillness, and learning how to find and occupy the core of your being, the center from which you can safely ride out internal and external storms. Short-term practice can be helpful, but ultimately, that container is formed through accumulated practice and self-inquiry.

Enlightened Innocence

When you mature in your practice, you reconnect to the openness and innocence of your childhood vulnerability, with its natural capacity to access pure Being. But you inhabit that vulnerability from an adult awareness. This is how the openness and apparent vulnerability of enlightened masters like my teacher or Neem Karoli Baba or Ramana Maharshi differs from the original innocence of the child. Advanced practitioners have matured as individuals, differentiated themselves from their environment, and acquired adaptive skills and protections as well as a functioning ego. From the place of having strengthened the energetic body, they earn openness, true enlightened innocence. That’s what it means to successfully reclaim vulnerability. This process takes time, but it will develop naturally as you become more and more established in your inner practice.

In the early stages of practice, it’s important to focus on holding your energies in your center, to train your mind to seek its source, to connect with the Self, where strength can be found. Eventually, when you are living in that center, you may start to experiment. How open can I be in this situation? What do I do when I feel overwhelmed by others’ energies? A mature practitioner knows when to put up an energetic barrier or shield, and a kind of automatic protective energy system comes into play when needed. He or she also knows when a barrier or shield is just a device that’s blocking intimacy.

One way to connect with this kind of intelligent protective energy is to invoke it. In classical Tantric ritual and meditation practice, you always start your practice by creating an energetic shield, using visualizations and mantras to imagine a container around your Self and the ritual circle. Only when the shield is in place—protecting you from uninvited energies—do you open your body and mind to invoke the divine presence or the open space of expanded awareness.

You can also practice deliberately drawing in your energy—taking moments during the day to notice when energy has leaked. Sometimes overstimulation has made you frazzled. At other times a strong attraction or aversion has claimed your attention to the point where you feel out of your center. Noticing where your energy goes will help you to recognize the feeling of energy dissipation and eventually choose not to give more energy than is appropriate to any situation.

Diving Into the Vulnerable Self

When you want to explore your deep vulnerability, it’s important to do so from a grounded practice like the one in “Meditation for Energy Conservation“. Once you’ve created such a zone of protection, you might begin your exploration of vulnerability like this: Bring to mind a part of your life where you feel vulnerable. Perhaps it’s at work. Maybe you feel vulnerable in a relationship. Perhaps you’re confused about your direction in life. Maybe your physical health is being challenged.

Conjure thoughts of a specific situation to bring yourself in touch with your vulnerability, and then drop the thoughts.

Begin to notice how vulnerability feels to you. It may have a tinge of sadness. It might contain fear. As you explore these feelings, see where you experience them in your body. The feeling of vulnerability may manifest as a wincing sensation in the eyes, a rush of tears, hollowness in the gut or heart. Find the feeling and stay present with it for as long as you can.

Then, ask the feeling what it has to tell you. What is the message of your vulnerability? What lessons is it showing you? Finally, ask this feeling of vulnerability what gift it has for you. Remain open as you do this. The gift might come as an insight or a thought. It might also come as an event in your outer life.

When you are finished, return to the breath, allowing your vulnerability to recede. Re-create your protective shields. Thank yourself for being willing to enter into the vulnerable self.

True Invulnerability

You will find a paradox as your spiritual practice begins to open up in new ways. At first, opening feels scary because it recalls your original vulnerability, the unprotected feeling you may remember from early childhood.

Yet, as you develop the skills through genuine practice, you will begin to see how entering your vulnerability and connecting with the Divine is the key to recognizing your own space of invulnerability.

As you surrender to the radical openness of your divine Self, as you settle into the openness that you might experience through meditation, or through opening to nature, or through an acute recognition of the pain in the world, you start to discover that this open spaciousness is invulnerable. Nothing can touch or take away the spaciousness that is most deeply you, just as nothing can take away the love that comes from those depths. So, by reclaiming and occupying your vulnerability, by letting yourself truly feel it, going down to the depths of it, you come to the place where you are truly invulnerable.

And here’s where you transcend the protections that the ego has been trying to create for you. These are nothing compared to the protection of this enlightened openness.

When you allow yourself to consciously enter the state of vulnerability, you find that at its heart is peace. You find what the Bible calls the peace that passeth understanding. The peace that comes from standing poised in the aching heart of life. The peace that is your true protection, your invulnerable core.

Learning to Love Unconditionally

soft_loveBY FRANK JUDE BOCCIO |  originally published here in Yoga Journal

How would you like to be unconditionally loved, just as you are, without having to be or do anything special? What would it be like to feel truly, completely, radically accepted, without feeling as though you had to hide or deny or apologize for any aspect of yourself?

All of us crave this kind of love and acceptance, but few can honestly say we offer ourselves such unconditional regard. The trouble is, if we cannot love and accept ourselves just as we are, we will find it difficult to truly love anyone else in such a limitless, unconditional way. And, perhaps even more unsettling to contemplate, if we are fortunate enough to find someone who accepts and loves us unconditionally, how can we be open to receiving that love from someone else if we haven’t fully accepted ourselves?

Unconditional love becomes possible when you practice cultivating the four states of mind known as the brahmaviharas. Collectively, these four qualities of friendliness or lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) are the qualities of true, authentic, and unconditional love. Both Patanjali, the Indian sage who compiled the Yoga Sutra in the second century BCE, and the Buddha taught the importance of cultivating these four states of mind.

Quieting the Mind For Full Self Acceptance

Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002), yoga master and founder of Integral Yoga, translates Yoga Sutra I.33, which addresses the brahmaviharas, as saying, “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” Satchidananda says that these qualities are the four keys to establishing the mind in serenity: “If you use the right key with the right person, you will retain your peace.” Cultivating these states of mind is a way of restraining or reversing what Patanjali calls vikshepa, the tendency of the mind to be distracted and outwardly directed. Patanjali tells us that when we react haphazardly or callously to what people do around us, inner disturbance is the result. These four attitudes combat that disturbance and bring us closer to a state of balanced equilibrium.

When we see happy people, cultivating a friendly attitude toward them will help forestall feelings of jealousy and envy. When we encounter those who are suffering, we should compassionately do what we can to help—for our own sake as much as for the person who is suffering. “Our goal is to keep the serenity of our minds. Whether our mercy will help that person or not, by our own feeling of mercy, at least we are helped,” Satchidananda says.

Appreciating and delighting in the qualities of virtuous people will inspire us to cultivate such virtues ourselves. And finally, when we are faced with those we deem nonvirtuous, the classical yoga tradition teaches that we should strive to have an indifferent attitude toward them. Often, we indulge in judging and criticizing those who we feel are misguided. This hardly helps us maintain a serene state of mind! Commentators in the classical yoga tradition point out that the yogi should not divert attention from his or her own practice in order to try to reform those who are unlikely to heed advice. As Satchidananda points out, “If you try to advise them, you will lose your peace.”

Love Unlimited

Many contemporary yogis interpret Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.33 more broadly. Chip Hartranft, an author and teacher of Buddhism and yoga, translates the sutra as saying, “Consciousness settles as one radiates friendliness, compassion, delight, and equanimity toward all things, whether pleasant, unpleasant, good, or bad.” This broader view is the one emphasized in the Buddhist tradition, where the brahmaviharas are also known as “the Four Limitless Ones” and “the Four Immeasurables,” reflecting Buddhist yoga’s emphasis on social relationships and the interdependent nature of all beings. Both of these perspectives are valuable; reflecting on the intention and purpose behind each gives greater depth to our own practice.

Metta or Maitri (loving kindness):
Buddhist yoga, the word metta (the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit maitri used by Patanjali) is most often translated as “loving kindness.” Metta is related to the words for “gentle” (think of a soft, misty rain) and “friend,” and it signifies the good-natured, kind-hearted feeling we have for a close friend. It isn’t gooey and sentimental, nor is it possessive and clingy; it’s a gentle, loyal acceptance with a deep sense of appreciation and regard.

Karuna (compassion):
Karuna is related to the word karma. It is the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering, to lighten sorrow. While the word karuna is generally “translated as “compassion,” which literally means to suffer with,” Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and teacher, has pointed out that we don’t need to suffer ourselves in order to alleviate the suffering of another person. Doctors, for instance, do not have to suffer illness in order to relieve their patients’ pain. The Buddha described karuna as the “quivering of the heart” we experience when we are open and able to truly see suffering and are moved to do something about it.

Mudita (joy):
True love brings joy, and mudita is the joy we take in the simple pleasures of the breath or the eyes that enable us to see a child’s smile or the blueness of a clear sky, and the delight we take in watching a puppy play. When we love, joy seems to surround and pervade us.

Upekkha or Upeksha (equanimity):
Finally, the word upekkha (or upeksha in Sanskrit), translated by those in the classical yoga tradition as “disregard” or “indifference,” is understood in the Buddhist yoga tradition as meaning “equanimity,” or the even-mindedness of nonattachment. True equanimity is neither indifference nor detachment. It is the ability to feel connection fully, without clinging or possessiveness. Upekkha is traditionally the last of the brahmaviharas we work with, and it is the one that allows us to deepen and extend the other three immeasurably, avoiding pitfalls like compassion fatigue, emotional burnout, and stifling codependence.

Begin with Yourself

In this article, the first of three exploring the brahmaviharas in detail, I will begin with an integrated approach to the first two, metta and karuna, which I often encourage students to combine into one seamless practice. When we practice metta and karuna, we start by cultivating a friendly, unconditional regard for ourselves, before attempting to cultivate the same for others.

This kind of radical self-acceptance can be challenging for those of us who have trouble feeling worthy or deserving of love. When we practice lovingkindness toward ourselves, we might come face-to-face with feelings of self-deprecation that we’ve been suppressing or ignoring, feelings that have been affecting our hearts and relationships unconsciously. I practice and teach metta and karuna together because it is often through opening to these suppressed feelings with compassion that a friendly, accepting love for ourselves and others can develop.

In the Buddhist yoga tradition, detailed instruction on the practice of cultivating the brahmaviharas has been maintained through the millennia, and the practice I teach is reflective of this tradition. To begin, seat yourself in a comfortable position. As a preliminary practice for metta bhavana (or cultivating metta), call to mind your own goodness, a time when you did or said something that was kind, generous, caring, or loving. This can be something as simple as offering your seat on the bus, or preparing your family a nourishing meal. If you can’t think of anything, turn your attention to a quality in yourself that you enjoy, a strength or skill that you can recognize and appreciate. If nothing comes to mind, you can simply reflect on the basic rightness of your innate wish to be happy. After settling in with the breath and the reflections of the preliminary practice, bring your attention to your heart center and acknowledge how it feels here—whether open and receptive or closed and defended, whether heavy or light. Open to how it feels, without judging, and simply witness and befriend the heart. Then begin to repeat the following metta phrases:

May I be happy.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe from harm.

May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May I experience ease and well-being in body, mind, and spirit.

If you experience any physical or emotional pain, or if any difficulty arises as you practice saying these, such as having feelings of unworthiness, anger, fear, or sadness, add in these phrases of karuna bhavana (cultivating karuna):

May I be free from suffering.

May I hold myself with softness and care.

May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May I be free from the suffering caused by greed (or anger, fear, confusion, and so on).

May I experience ease of body, mind, and spirit.

May I respond to suffering with compassion.

As you repeat these phrases to yourself, feel your breath and notice your body’s response to each phrase. Settle into the reverberations of each phrase as it echoes in your mind’s ear. You may find that you cannot connect with feelings of friendliness and compassion. It might feel mechanical to repeat the phrases, as if you’re being inauthentic. If it does, remember that sending love to a closed heart is still part of the practice, and that you can, as one of my teachers once said, “Fake it till you make it!” Just as you would in any other meditation practice, notice when the mind strays into story, memory, fantasy, or planning. When it does, simply let it all go and return to the practice.

After you express metta karuna to yourself as the essential foundation for being able to offer genuine love to others, the next step is to direct these phrases to benefactors—those who have been good to you and for whom you feel respect and gratitude, such as parents, friends, teachers, or anyone else who has helped you in any way. After benefactors come beloved friends, a group that includes family members, lovers, friends, and animal companions. These are beings whom you already hold dear in your heart.

Sometimes, when working with these categories, I find it difficult to conjure up the image of just one benefactor or beloved friend. I feel that I have to make my heart bigger to make space for all the beings I love. And indeed, this growing awareness and appreciation of the love we already have is a great source of joy that we can access through this practice at any time. I like to allow the faces of the many loved ones I hold in my heart to arise in my mind’s eye, and then I address each person with a phrase or two, so as to really feel the connection between us.

The next step is to direct the phrases toward a neutral person, someone you have no strong feelings for one way or the other. Perhaps it’s someone you see around your neighborhood but do not know. When I first began to practice metta karuna, I was living in Brooklyn, and there was an older man who walked his dog down my street several times a day. I knew nothing of this man, and realized I had no strong feelings about him, so I chose him as my neutral person. And then a funny thing happened.

After several months, I realized I could no longer send him love as a neutral person. While I still did not know anything about him, I found that I had come to really care for him! When I brought up his image, I felt the familiar warmth of concern and kindness. He had moved into the “beloved friend” category.pinky-love

After the neutral person, this practice challenges us to send metta karuna to a difficult person. This is someone toward whom you feel anger, fear, or a lack of forgiveness, someone you perceive as having hurt you in some way. It is important to be patient with yourself when sending love to a difficult person. Begin with the less challenging difficult people in your life; over time, you can work your way up to the really challenging difficult people. While practicing, if strong emotions arise, you may need to honor the limits of your present capacity and go back to directing love and compassion toward yourself. Go back and forth between yourself and the difficult person, reflecting on how much pain holding on to these feelings is causing you.

I had a student who had been estranged from his abusive father for nearly 30 years. After he directed metta karuna to himself for nine months, I suggested he begin to broaden his circle to include benefactors, loved ones, and neutral beings. After a few months of this, he began to consider the idea of sending metta karuna to his father.

Feelings of anger and resentment arose, so he’d go back to sending love to himself. In growing to accept his own reactivity with love and compassion, he eventually developed the capacity to send love and compassion to his father. Although his father is still a toxic person for him, my student has grown in inner peace, stability, and compassion. He still keeps his distance from his father—while love can be unconditional, relationships require conditions—but he now feels compassion and understanding, not fear and rage.

The final step in the practice is to direct metta karuna toward all beings. If you like, before doing this you can choose to send metta karuna to more specific groups of beings, such as those in prisons or those who are hungry, abused, or homeless. Don’t forget other species, as all beings wish to be happy and free from suffering just as you do. And that’s just where this practice ultimately takes us: to wishing that all beings everywhere, seen and unseen, great and small, are happy and free from suffering.

Metta Karuna on the Mat

As important as it is to practice metta karuna as a formal seated meditation, you also need to take it off the cushion into your life, and your asana practice can serve as a wonderful bridge. To bring metta karuna into your asana practice, recline in a gentle, supported backbend, with a rolled blanket or bolster supporting the lower tips of the shoulder blades, to encourage greater awareness of the heart center. Tune in to how you’re feeling as you start practice, not judging whether the heart is heavy or light, or whether you feel nourished or vulnerable in this position. Simply attend to how you are, and then set your intention for practice by repeating the phrases of metta karuna. As you move through your asana practice, if you’re practicing backbends, shoulder-opening stretches, and twists, you may find that a physically opened heart center allows for easier access to loving feelings. By mindfully moving through the poses, you can feel how the quality of the heart changes.

Your reactions to the sensations of asana practice can serve as a mirror for your deep-seated patterns. As you move into a more challenging posture, fear or anger might arise, and you can use that as an opportunity to send compassion and love to yourself. One student, after holding Vrksasana (Tree Pose) for a long time, noticed that she was irritated by the pins-and-needles feeling in her standing foot. Looking deeper, she saw that her aversion was not because the sensations were painful but simply because they were different. With wonder she noted, “This is how I react whenever I am confronted with difference, whether it’s a new situation or someone’s opinion about politics or religion.” In sending compassion to herself and her aversive reactivity, she was able to soften and, over time, become more accepting of other people’s differences. This is just one example of the freeing potential of boundless love!

Many students notice how critical their inner voices are as they move through their asana practice; without the focused awareness of mindfulness, they believe these voices. But when practicing with mindfulness and the intention to open the heart, they are able to nonjudgmentally note the voices and use them as “bells of mindfulness” to remind themselves of the metta karuna phrases.

yoga-heartMetta Karuna in the World

Off the mat and throughout the day, you can cultivate metta karuna by simply paying attention to all of the opportunities around you to do so. As you wait in line at the grocery store, you can send metta karuna to the others in line, the stock clerks, and the cashier. Walking down the street, you can send karuna to the homeless woman sitting beside her shopping cart. And if you notice that aversion arises when you see that homeless woman, you can send some karuna to yourself, as well.

I’d like to now share a practice that my students and I have found invaluable for transforming our relationships to all of the people and situations that life presents. The first thing every morning, set your intention to cultivate metta karuna throughout the day by reciting the following verse:

Waking this morning, I smile,

A brand-new day is before me.

I aspire to live each moment mindfully,

And to look upon all beings

With the eyes of kindness and compassion.

May you, and all other beings, be happy and free from suffering.

Ayurvedic Tips for Stress Relief

By Jennifer Barrett  | originally posted here in Yoga Journal

Consider this scenario: Anne, Janeen, and Stuart arrive at the office one morning to find their boss waiting, pink slips in hand. Profits are down, she says. Effective immediately, the company needs to downsize. She tells them to gather their belongings, wishes them good luck, and escorts them to the door. The news comes as a terrible surprise to all three, but in the days that follow, each reacts in a markedly different way.balancing act

Anne feels anxious; her worrying distracts her from getting anything done during the day, and insomnia keeps her up at night. Janeen becomes consumed by anger and blames her boss, coworkers, and clients. As her resentment mounts, so does her blood pressure. Stuart resigns himself to the news, feeling powerless to change it. He stays home, snacking in front of the TV. His lethargy leaves him with feelings of depression, and eventually leads to weight gain and aggravated respiratory problems.

In the West, we don’t usually dwell on the distinctions between our reactions to stress—we tend to focus on general coping solutions applicable to all, such as a hot bath, a long walk, or a day at the beach. But in the ancient Indian healing system of Ayurveda, stress reduction hinges on a complex understanding of each person. Since no two people handle setbacks the same way, everyone requires a different stress-relief strategy: What might work for Anne could aggravate Stuart, and what might work for Janeen could prove ineffective for Anne. Ayurveda provides specific lifestyle, dietary, herbal, and yogic solutions for each individual that can not only diffuse tension but also help build a foundation for lasting peace of mind.

Ayurveda Explained

Yoga’s sister science of Ayurveda is a system of healing that integrates basic physiology, emotional disposition, and spiritual outlook, then presents all three in the context of the universe itself. Dating back 5,000 years to the ancient Sanskrit texts the Vedas, Ayurvedic theory takes nearly every conceivable stress influence into consideration—from seasonal and planetary changes that affect our well-being to subtle bodily impurities that can precipitate disease. It also sheds light on the thought patterns and physical tendencies that make stress either a constant stumbling block or a nonissue, depending on how well we understand ourselves. Comprehending such an exhaustive system may seem daunting to those who haven’t made it their life’s study. But when it comes to managing stress, Ayurvedic concepts can be boiled down to a basic idea: Trace stress back to its roots, then find lasting ways to change the patterns that cause it.

We often speak of stress in terms of the situations we find ourselves in—traffic jams, looming deadlines, getting laid off. But Ayurveda holds that stress actually originates in the mind. “Fundamentally speaking,” says Nimai Nitai Das, an Ayurvedic physician in Boston, “stress is a disorder of rajas.” Rajas represents passion or undirected activity; it’s one of three universal qualities, or gunas (the other two are sattva, or purity, and tamas, or inertia). According to Ayurvedic texts, too much rajas shows up in the mind as attachment, craving, and desire—by their nature, these impulses can’t be satisfied and therefore create a negative psychological disposition.

While overly stressed people might have excess rajas in common, how they respond to the condition depends on their individual mind-body constitution. Each Ayurvedic principle—vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth)—exists in all of us to varying degrees as doshas, with usually one, sometimes two, and, in rarer cases, all three predominating to create our constitution.

Our predominant dosha shapes who we are, what we look like, and how we think; it influences everything from our career choices and favorite foods to the style of yoga we prefer. For self-understanding, it’s crucial to identify our inherent constitution and which doshas predominate. (Take our Dosha Quiz here.) But for the purposes of stress management, our doshic imbalance can prove even more revealing. In other words, it’s not so much which dosha most shapes our constitution but rather which one is out of whack.

When we act out our excess rajas, the resulting stress manifests itself in the body as a vata, pitta, or kapha imbalance, depending on the person. For instance, a person may have a strong kapha constitution, being grounded, wise, stable, and compassionate. But at her worst, she may display a classic pitta imbalance, being irritable, judgmental, and quick tempered.

Constitutional Amendments

So how do we know when we have an imbalance? Experts strongly advise visiting an Ayurvedic physician who will make an assessment based on pulse diagnosis, tongue evaluation, and your personal history. As Ayurveda has many subtleties, it’s hard for a layperson to do a self-assessment; trying to reduce stress using an incorrect diagnosis could make matters even worse.

That said, doshic imbalances do have certain general mental and physical symptoms, which we can often recognize in ourselves. Here are some common stress reactions—and solutions—for each doshic imbalance. Consider them a starting point for your own self-inquiry.


Vata Imbalance 

  • At Their Best: Highly creative, quick thinkers
  • Out of Balance: Prone to distraction, anxiety, worry, weight loss, teeth grinding, insomnia, and constipation
  • Friendly Foods: Warming foods like rice, wheat, nuts, and milk products; avoid raw food like salads and dry, airy foods like popcorn
  • Healing Herbs and Scents: Ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom
  • Recommended Yoga: Slow, meditative practice, including Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Vrkasana (Tree Pose), Balasana (Child’s Pose), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), and Halasana (Plow Pose); Focus on Ujjayi breathing to ground the mind
  • Other Tips: Add soft music or a guided meditation tape to your meditation practice; Massage warm oil on your body before showering and on the soles of feet before bed

Pitta Imbalance

  • At Their Best: Focused, driven, and goal-oriented; naturally alert, intelligent, and perseverant
  • Out of Balance: Bouts of anger, outbursts, criticism, migraines, ulcers, inflamed skin, and burning hands and feet
  • Friendly Foods: Cooling foods like cucumbers, melons, and dates; avoid spicy and astringent foods, like chili peppers, radishes, tomatoes, cranberries, and grapefruits
  • Healings Herbs and Scents: Jasmine, lavender, and rose
  • Recommended Yoga: Mild hatha, gentle vinyasa, restorative, or Iyengar Yoga; include twists and seated forward folds like Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Janu Sirasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend); Avoid yoga at peak-heat time of day
  • Other Tips: Cool down with nostril breathing (inhale through the cool/moon/water channel on the left with the right nostril covered and exhale through the hot/sun/fire channel on the right with the left nostril covered)

Kapha Imbalance

  • At Their Best: Loyal, grounded, and patient; inner sense of stability and contentment shows up as compassion and warmth toward others
  • Out of Balance: Stubborn, lethargic, possessive, depressed, prone to overeating, and resistant to change
  • Friendly Foods: Artichokes, eggplant, broccoli, cherries, cranberries, and pears; avoid sweets and nuts; carefully monitor quantity of food
  • Healing Herbs and Scents: Rosemary and frankincense
  • Recommended Yoga: Heat producing, vigorous movement including Sun Salutations, backbends, and inversions; practice chest-opening poses, such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) and Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and heart-opening poses, such as Matsyasana (Fish Pose) to counteract depression.
  • Other Tips: Pranayama techniques can be helpful, such as Kapalabhati (Shining Skull Breath) and right nostril-led breathing (breathing through the right nostril and out through the left); Chanting may help fight lethargy

Whether we have a vata, pitta, or kapha imbalance greatly influences the course we chart to address overall stress. Adjustments that work for one dosha might leave the others more aggravated that before. Whatever steps we take, our efforts toward balance represent an evolving process rather than a static goal—one that changes right along with the doshic fluctuations in ourselves and our environment.