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{Blog Post} Loving-Kindness and Yoga

Yogis around the world regard Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras as a foundational text. Patañjali offers helpful advice on a wide variety of topics, but this article will focus on just one: loving-kindness.

Growing up, nearly all of us learned about the importance of kindness from our parents, the Golden Rule, religious teachings, or other people. In Chapter 1, Sutra 33 of the Yoga Sūtras, Patañjali writes (in Sanskrit) Maitrī karuṇā muditā upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam, which can be translated, "By cultivating attitudes of loving-kindness for the happy, compassion for the unhappy, sympathetic joy for the virtuous, and equanimity for the evil, the mind remains undisturbed." To live a happy life he highlights the importance of four qualities:

  1. Maitrī (loving-kindness)

  2. Karuṇā (compassion)

  3. Muditā (sympathetic joy)

  4. Upekṣā (equanimity)

All of us benefit from cultivating these skills. Each of these words point to different forms of loving-kindness. In the first sense, we express loving-kindness toward happy people. Compassion can be understood as loving-kindness directed toward people who are suffering. Sympathetic joy is loving-kindness directed toward people who have achieved success. Equanimity (or non-attachment) means that we act kindly toward people who do not act in accordance with our values, and we avoid becoming entangled in hate. Because loving-kindness is not a limited resource, all of these practices can benefit others and lead to increased peace and happiness in our own lives. Cultivating these states of mind changes how we interact with the world.

These four characteristics happen to match exactly with the early Buddhist idea of the brahmavihārās, or the "four divine abodes." Like Patañjali, the Buddha taught people to work toward a life in which the mind constantly dwells ("abides") only in these four "divine" states — a life free from greed, hatred, and delusion. A mind that abides in these states offers boundless, unconditional loving-kindness to all beings, without discrimination or judgment.

Although purists may object to bringing Buddhists teachings into a discussion of the Yoga Sutras, plenty of evidence implies that Hatha yoga has Buddhist roots. At least one Indologist believes that the Yoga Sutras were "written by a Buddhist and later overwritten and adopted by Hindu traditions." Whether or not these claims have validity, understanding the connections between these two traditions can help to strengthen our efforts to cultivate loving-kindness.

The practice of "metta meditation" is the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness. One of the most well-known and effective forms of meditation in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, monks, nuns, and dedicated lay people around the world practice metta meditation daily. Pāli is the language used in the earliest Buddhist texts (the "Pāli Canon"), and metta in Pāli is synonymous with maitrī in Sanskrit. So whatever phrase we use to describe the practice — "metta meditation," "developing maitri," "loving-friendliness meditation," or simply practicing "yoga" — developing loving-kindness toward all beings leads to great benefit both for individuals and for the world.

The Buddha taught metta meditation in the Metta Sutta ("sutta" is the Pāli word for "sutra"). The practice can assume multiple forms, but we often begin by offering loving-kindness to ourselves, bringing to mind a series of phrases such as, "May I be well. May I be healthy. May I be skillful and peaceful. May no harm come to me. May no difficulties come to me. May I live at ease." Then we offer those same words to close friends and family. Then expand our offering of metta to neighbors, neutral people, enemies (often the most difficult aspect), and eventually to all beings. We extend unconditional, boundless goodwill to all, from the smallest of insects to the cruelest of world leaders, without exception.

Much like we can practice metta on our meditation cushions, we can practice "metta in motion" on the yoga mat. So in addition to bringing metta to a yoga practice that begins with seated meditations and ends in savasana, we can incorporate metta throughout the yoga practice. For instance, we offer loving-kindness to ourselves when we notice feelings of joy while performing a difficult pose. If we happen to notice people around us struggling with a pose, we silently bring to mind karuṇā (compassion), thinking, "may this person be freed from all discomfort." When our fellow yogis find success, we send them muditā (sympathetic joy) — whether we like the person or not, we bring to mind thoughts such as, "may your joy not decrease." With practice we can experience upekṣā (equanimity or evenness), even when faced with the most difficult situations. This does not mean we are indifferent or switched off in the face of cruel or violent acts, but that we approach them with a balanced mind, free of anger.

In reality, seated metta meditation and "metta in motion" are the same practice — being in the moment, bringing kindness to any thought or feeling no matter what arises. Or even far beyond the cushion or mat, we can cultivate metta throughout each day as part of practice that some yogis call "living yoga."

If you feel inspired to cultivate loving-kindness in this moment, try one of these guided meditations from recent classes at Spirit of the Lake: https://www.spiritofthelakeyoga.com/free-meditations. Or join us online on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10am. Please register via our online schedule.

Matthew Tift is a meditation teacher at Spirit of the Lake. He has trained primarily with meditation teachers in the Thai Forest Tradition and Sri Lankan lineages of Theravada Buddhism. He is currently a student in the RYT 200 yoga teacher training program at Spirit of the Lake.

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