The Yoga Of Kindness

Several years ago, I was preparing to teach a week-long immersion on the Yoga Sūtras. I had spent the better part of 6 months going over a hefty selection of essential sūtras with my teacher, Vyaas Houston, as well having bi-weekly conversations with him to deepen my understanding of the overall philosophical and psychological underpinnings of the text. I was chanting the Yoga Sūtras in Sanskrit from memory as well as cultivating a powerful meditation practice drawn from the third pāda (book/chapter) of the text. Everything seemed to be in place….and yet, something felt like it was missing. Students were preparing to come from all over the country to study with me, investing both time and money, and I wanted to give them my very best. I wanted the Yoga Sūtras to leap off of the page and become a transformative force in their lives.

For myself, I was chewing on the“dehydrated truth” of the Yoga Sūtras, but the full flavor  and nutrition was not being released. So, I started asking myself questions — “Did I need to further hone my understanding of the Sanskrit grammar? Was I missing something in the translation that was keeping the text from truly coming to life? Was there some bridge towards practical application that I was not fully exploring?”

With the immersion less than a week away, I decided to consult my close friend, the inimitable Reverend Heng Sure. Rev. Heng Sure has been a Buddhist monk for the past 35 years and has lectured weekly on sūtras for most of that time. I figured that he would be able to help me see what was missing from my preparation.

As I went to our meeting, I was convinced that Heng Sure would mostly give me sage advice on how to structure the classes. Surely, if I presented the material in an orderly and logical fashion, the classes would make sense and the students would get what they came for. However, this was not his advice at all, and it goes a long way to explaining why he is a venerable, senior monk and I am not. After I explained my dilemma, Heng Sure only told me one thing — in fact, he only said one sentence to me.

“The thing to remember” he said, “is that Patañjali was motivated out of kindness.” With that simple, deep, profound truth, a light turned on inside me and the Yoga Sūtras finally made sense. Beyond grammar and philosophy, the text was an offering — a garland of wisdom by a man who saw suffering. Out of kindness, and through the Yoga Sūtras, he offered a way to freedom.

People come to yoga because, on some level, they are suffering – same for teachers. We are no different. As teachers, it is essential that we recognize and acknowledge the nature of suffering, both in our students and in ourselves. Kindness opens the door. Transformation is never in the information, it is in the mystical alchemy where the heart that beats within the information meets the heart of the seeker.

Philosophy has no power when it is devoid of the kindness that seeks to reduce and eliminate suffering.

With kindness towards self, even on a physical level, āsana can elevate to prayer — an offering of the Self to the self. Otherwise, what is the point? Does the world really need one more person who can do a perfect triangle pose but happens to be shallow, egoic, mean-spirited or lacking in integrity and thus consciously hurting others?

I was reading a thread on Facebook the other day and a teacher that I like very much posed the question which basically asked, “as a student, would you feel comfortable studying with a teacher with questionable integrity?” For me, the answer was clear. If the teacher lacks integrity, then they are not teaching yoga, just something that may look like it on the surface. It’s like any Jewish New Yorker who comes out to Northern California and orders a bagel finds out — it may have the same shape, but it is only a BSO (bagel-shaped object.)

Yoga is not found in the externals, it is only pointed to by them. A true teacher reminds us of what lies within ourselves. Lack of integrity never leads to the reduction of suffering, it only increases it. Suffering is never eliminated by adding more suffering to it.

When students and counseling clients come to me, they are bestowing upon me the precious gift of their vulnerability and willingness to be seen beyond social and personal masks. This is a sacred trust. Remembering to act from a place of kindness polishes the mirror of my own heart and offers a space where others may awaken their own internal kindness. From that place, we each can experience the fruits of transformation, self-acceptance and peace.

As it turned out, the Yoga Sūtra immersion went really well. It was a magical time that gets only sweeter within the folds of memory.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. David
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 10:52:11

    Patanjali taught from kindness. Thank you. I’m going to keep that one. So very easy to get so caught up that we forget the fundamentals. So easy to forget Krisna’s lesson and focus on the outcomes. Integrity is a timely topic just now. The hazards are once again made clear. If we aren’t vigilant we will be overtaken by the very things we set out to overcome. Kindness is such powerful medicine.


  2. Lynda
    Feb 19, 2014 @ 14:02:59

    Hello Joshua, thank you for this beautiful post.

    Heng Sure’s words certainly ring true, in fact, they made me cry. I have been teaching yoga for almost 18 years, but have only been teaching Sutra studies for the last 3. My understanding of practice as a way of creating the conditions for yoga is growing. In my early years of practice there was much ambition and enthusiasm, but not a lot of kindness towards myself. It takes time to really understand that the way we treat ourselves has a huge impact on others, and as yoga teachers, we have a responsibility to model kindness.

    The Yoga Sutras underpin the practice of asana and pranayama, and as you so beautifully describe, it is in teaching them that we are forced to really delve deep into their meaning. When viewed through the lens of kindness, the heart of the sutras is revealed. It certainly touched my heart to read this.

    Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. Om shanti shanti shantih.


  3. Neal
    Feb 20, 2014 @ 16:21:02

    Ahhh – it is LOVELY to read your words of wisdom on kindness. Inspiring … yes yes I say … what use is any spiritual practice if it is devoid of kindness? I love that teaching … Patanjali was motivated out of kindness – it brings the whole text alive.

    I wrote a poem …. I hope you like it …

    Scratch your left ear with your right foot by all means
    But show me how your heart moves
    Stand on your head til the cows come home
    Or show me a thousand different points of view
    Flip flop and drop back
    Another 108 sun salutes just like that,
    But I’d rather know if you can meet every edge in your body with kindness
    If you have the courage to uncover and tolerate the truth about yourself
    And carry this stranger across fields of muddy waters
    Bending over backwards to offer out whatever you have left.

    The absolute gift of breath flowing with consumate ease through every joint
    The moment to moment knowledge of how each beautiful step initiates, transfers and completes
    Gliding softly and smoothly, transition after transition
    The quiet grace of the wild cat
    Each dawn awakening fresh and vibrant
    And the night, not a collapse in a heap, but a presence to the wonderful art of resting
    Liquid pouring onto the earth
    Facing the end with a breathing centre
    And be held with great love
    And turn and wonder, “My beloved, how does kindness move here?”

    Blessings and deep gratitude to you and your teachings … Neal


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