Yoga: Softening Into Our Goddess Side, by Jenny Foster
At the first class of a new restorative yoga session, one of my clients said, “I am so glad yoga is back on. I’ve been driving like a maniac!”
Laughter, and the sound of snapping mats ensued as people got settled in for practice. “I don’t know what it is, but when I’m practicing yoga, other drivers don’t seem so bad. We are all just trying to get somewhere, you know?”
Her comment is hilarious and profound to me. We all know that we get lighter and calmer through practice, but this astute observation about off-the-mat behavior perfectly captures the magic of compassion in yoga. The cultivation of compassion is a mysteriously simple endeavor undertaken by every yogi who steps on the mat, sits on the meditation cushion, or opens an ancient text.
Like most people, the clients of this particular class didn’t consciously take yoga for the purpose of practicing compassion. They wanted to relax, stretch a little, and recharge. But that’s what makes compassion’s emergence so magical – it’s done effortlessly, and often unbeknownst to the practitioner.
I’ve had this magical experience myself over the years as I’ve become more devoted and consistent in my practice and my teaching. I’ve become more aware, forgiving, and considerably more compassionate, even to my own suffering. I’m shying away less from my wounds and challenges that would have formerly made me recoil or shut down. I find it easier to sit with my emotions, even the messy ones, and just give them some space to be. I’ve become more easeful.
In yoga terminology, practice allows us to soften into our goddess side. To call upon the power of the divine feminine that is the encapsulation of Daya (compassion) in traditional Hindu yoga literature. “I salute you, Goddess, who dispels great fear, averts great difficulties, and is of the essence of great compassion.” The Devi Upanishad (25).
Surprisingly, compassion is not always addressed immediately in the major and ancient yoga texts. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali for example doesn’t include Daya (compassion) outright as a limb of the path, but mentions compassion along with friendliness, gladness, and equanimity as supporting the path to transcendence. Compassion is listed as an additional Yama (self-restraint) in the much later texts colloquially referred to as the Yoga Upanishads; but these are lesser used texts with much less influence than the Sutra.
Patanjali must have known that compassion and yoga came hand in hand. Once one started to practice any of the other limbs – ahimsa, asana, and meditation in particular – the cultivation of compassion would be forthcoming.
Compassion is truly the territory of Buddhism, and Buddhist yoga. The Mahayana Buddhists in particular took pains to recognize social ideals as major parts of the path to enlightenment, and embody this feminine side to the spiritual path with compassion at its heart. The goddess rightly is the divine embodiment of compassion in many ways.
It’s no surprise that in the West we have lives somewhat bereft of compassion. We zoom around, living in our Yang, Pingala (sun energy) booming while Ida (moon energy) languishes. We have squeezed the goddess and her powers out of our lives with all of our appointments and to-do lists.
Compassion needs space to breathe, like the goddess who needs room to create, to move, and to feel. That is how the magic compassion of yoga works. As we move through the poses, opening the body, calming our hectic minds, we stop. We slow down. We calm. And we allow compassion to emerge, without any express intent or purpose. It’s the softening part of the yogic path, more than any others, which calls forth the magic of compassion, and creates truly profound change in our lives, not to mention our driving habits.
Jenny Foster is the owner and head teacher of Prema Yoga, a mobile yoga company in Scarborough, Ontario. She is a registered yoga teacher having completed the EWRYT-350 with Susie Dias, and the TYS-800 with Georg and Brenda Feuerstein. She spends her days on the mat with kids, adults, and seniors. In addition to her practice, teaching, and business, Jenny reads, writes, cooks, and explores.