12/20/2012 06:26 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

The Art of Self-Compassion: Karate of the Head and the Heart

Recently, I assisted a yoga workshop at Kripalu for folks working with anxiety, chronic stress, insomnia and chronic pain. A group of 70 gathered from far and wide to learn about the healing aspect of self-care when we address our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual needs on a personal level. Self-care has become a challenging exercise for many people in Western society; rationalizing the time needed for self-care in a place where velocity, busy-ness, and technological inter-connectedness are praised while self-care is viewed as indulgent, lazy, and even selfish is perhaps the most trying of challenges.

Like the students at Kripalu, I began my weekend overtired and anxious. Those emotions were the natural byproduct of a hectic week's end, but it was somewhat tempered by the excitement of receiving this last-minute invitation. The arrangements were made over my smartphone in a flurry of emails sent in between the serving and clearing dishes of orange-glazed chicken at a luncheon to discuss the history and future of in-vitro fertilization. As I looked around the room, I saw a group of women gathered around in the spirit of nurturers and caregivers, and those focused on the "gift" of life.

The catering work flowed as I stepped out of my black pants and white tuxedo shirt uniform and into a weekend of spandex and cotton, green kale, dormitory living, and grey yoga mats. The ride to Kripalu, a former monastic suburban sanctuary, felt both familiar and entirely new, with its leafless November landscape split by a highway that flowed into the distance for miles. The late fall afternoon itself continued on, seemingly forever forward, as I chased the sun to the horizon.

As I drove out of the city, I practiced guiding my awareness back to the present moment to gently remind myself that I have the resources to manage my own internal experience this weekend. This self-awareness is necessary in order to allow others around me to do the same. As a woman, it is easy to fall into the role of caretaker in various aspects of my life. As a woman working in a healing profession, I must be even more conscientious of how important it is to secure my own oxygen mask before doing the same for the person next to me. That's usually not an instinctive action for us empaths, but, as karmic law would have it, that action is one that continually offers itself up to be practiced over and over again. This practice is part of a greater good for ourselves as well as others. By continuing to repeat the action of caring for self and then other, we create and furrow new physical and neural pathways, and begin to understand and appreciate what it feels like to live from a space of nurtured fullness.

In some ways, not having much time to anticipate what assisting would feel like came as both part of what felt familiar and foreign, for life tends to exist in this way for us all -- one experience rolling somewhat unexpectedly into the next without time to anticipate or plan. In these moments, the continuous deepening of understanding ourselves, and the implementation of our self-care tools, become our anchor that centers us along the way.

I was eager to step into a weekend devoted to assisting others in developing the tools that have become an invaluable part of my own softened existence. Up until a couple of years ago, the idea of self-care felt nebulous and foreign to me. It manifested as a manicure when I wanted to feel desirable (both to myself and others), or as a new pair of heels with the same hoped-for effect. Sometimes it worked, other times not quite so well. And even when it did, the half-life of that feel-good effect was always too fleeting. Don't get me wrong, I still value those things as worthy acts of self-care and self-love, but the reasoning behind them begins to shift out of the realm of indulgence and insecurity when we have a more comprehensive approach to self-care. Caring for ourselves also means taking care of deeper parts of the self that need and deserve acts more genuine and lasting than purple nails or a new pair of shiny black stilettos.

My concept of self-care started to morph with my introduction to yoga. In particular, restorative yoga, and the way it creates green-blanketed comfort and stillness for our physical body which then allows one's mind the space to create softness. This softness creates less attachment to samskaras -- the mental imprints of our past experiences, and vrittis -- the mind's worries about the future, and it allows more space to stay connected to our center. A deepened level of self-compassion and self-understanding is often (somewhat mysteriously) born of this practice of slowing down enough to notice our thoughts, feelings, and physical bodies, and our needs for self-care around them.

Personally, self-care maintenance has begun to move its way into the place where emergency care used to live. And the effect on what this has done for self-acceptance, self-awareness, self-comfort, self-compassion and even self-love is truly a space worthy of an extended savasana.

As I have come to learn through my own yoga practice and teaching, the essence of the feel-good vibes we create are contagious when we are part of assisting others to develop their own connection to self-understanding and self-care.

In light of recent tragic events, what could this self-care practice mean for those of us who struggle with self-regard, self-esteem, and self-love, and then act out in destructive ways? What would it feel like to know we could truly listen to what our own inner parts were asking for, and know that we could safely express these things and have our voices be heard? What could it mean for us as a human race if we were more involved in helping others develop self-care skills?

As Natalie Glasson says: "The energy of compassion brings to the receiver hope, contentment, inspiration and a connection with their soul. You are simply providing a helping hand, not by solving or dissolving the suffering but by supporting the growth and realization that needs to occur."

By providing a helping hand, I watched the magic of restorative yoga unfold for another man that weekend. New to yoga, he had no idea what to expect. He started the workshop having trouble sitting still (a man after my own energetic heart!), but by the end of our weekend, I saw his practice permeate his existence on a deeper level as his body lay peacefully still in a restorative yoga pose. It was a visceral expression I recognized because I, too, had been there before; I knew that he was experiencing a level of comfort he hadn't ever known. Though he likely felt "comfortable enough" as he lay in a supported reclining twist with a purple bolster under his torso, eyes closed, focused on his breath, his body was still holding tension. With a plaid blanket added between his shins, and two more under each forearm, I watched him soften even further, and allow his body, mind, and spirit to release more deeply. The golden silence of sattva -- a word in the Vedic tradition meaning "pure" and "peaceful" -- fell around us, making his "thank you" unnecessary. Nonetheless, at the end of that session, he came up to me, tears in his eyes, and thanked me for taking the time to help him.

I knew that place well. And felt honored to be a part of helping him find his way to it.

As with everything, self-care, self-love, and self-knowing forever exist on a moving continuum. What we need one day may not be what we need the next. Like Mr. Miyagi told Daniel in The Karate Kid as he prepared for his final fight against Johnny Lawrence, one doesn't always use the same tactics in every situation.

Daniel: Hey, what kind of belt do you have?
Miyagi: Canvas. JC Penney, $3.98. You like?
Daniel: [laughs] No, I meant...
Miyagi: In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants.
[laughs; then, seriously]
Miyagi: Daniel-san...
[taps his head]
Miyagi: Karate here.
[taps his heart]
Miyagi: Karate here.
[points to his belt]
Miyagi: Karate never here. Understand?

It takes wisdom to know which self-care tools to use when, courage to trust ourselves enough to know that we innately have these tools, patience on our path to slow down enough in order to make the time to cultivate them, and tremendous acts of self-compassion and self-love in allowing ourselves to use them.

For more by Lindsey O'Neill, click here.

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