A scoff brought the first pain to my heart. I was checking in a student for a yoga class, trying to type her name into the system. Her unusually spelled first name was giving me troubles, and her scoff made it clear she thought I was a complete idiot. The interaction only became more difficult from there. With practically every word I spoke, her response became more critical. Old feelings arose–self-doubt, shame, sadness. They manifested in my body as tightness around the heart, scrunching at my brow, a jangling feeling in my stomach. I rounded my back reflexively, pulling in my belly as if protecting my guts.
I saw all of these things happening from one place within myself. At the same time, I was doing my job–squaring her memory of the classes she had taken with our system, offering to email management to get things figured out, generally trying to be calm and positive.
As a yoga teacher, I recognize that energy is sticky. If I walk into a studio feeling distracted, my students will only multiply that lack of focus. If I take a few minutes to breathe deeply before walking into the room, my students will reflect that groundedness back to me. (I have written on this effect for MoveYoga.com.) As neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor has said, we are energy beings, absorbing the energy of others. After years of practice, I have seen how one person’s energy can shift a whole room. An honest laugh can lift up a whole group of people. So I try to be very aware of what energy I am putting into the world.
Clearly this student didn’t understand a correlation of this law of energy–that we get back whatever energy we contribute to the universe. Looking at that sentence, I can hear some of my high school classmates marvel, thinking, “Wow, when did she become such a woo-woo hippie?” So let me ground this in neuroscience (a passion of mine). Our brains contain mirror neurons. These are specialized cells that replicate the emotions of others within our brains. Scientists discovered them when studying the brains of monkeys. They were watching to see which areas responsible for movement lit up in monkeys’ brains, when they noticed that the same areas lit up in the brains of monkeys who were simply watching another monkey move.
It turns out that we have these same cells in our frontal lobes–the most evolved portion of the brain, behind the forehead. And while scientists continue to study how mirror neurons work, it is clear that they can immediately convey our emotions to people around us. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It is helpful to be able to quickly read the emotions of your tribe. In our day-to-day lives, our mirror neurons reflect back the emotions of people around us. So we are wired to understand and replicate the emotions of others. In other words, when I smile at you, you feel better. When I scowl at you, you feel worse. We have such power to affect the experiences of people around us!
This student’s negativity threatened to pull me down in the minute or two before class started. I definitely didn’t want to bring that energy into the teaching space. So I reviewed how I felt, took a few breaths to become grounded, and decided to let that energy go. I walked into the room and taught (what I thought was) a good class. I made sure to give the negative student some positive shout-outs during class, pointing out what she was doing well.
In years past, I would have avoided this student. I would have steered clear from her throughout class. This time was different. At the end of class, during savasana, I felt drawn to her. I recognized how difficult it would be to be in her shoes–to have her own negativity reflected back at her all day long. To be simmering in that anger. Also, if she was that critical toward me, she’s probably extremely critical of herself as well. As I rubbed my palms together and walked toward her, I thought, “I wish you happiness. I wish you peace. I wish you a life of ease.” I kept up the mantra and visualized white light coming from my palms into her shoulders, as I gently pressed her shoulders down to open her scalenes. I felt her body relax down into the mat, softening under my hands.
After class, she b-lined for the door. I didn’t have a chance to check in with her. But that’s fine. I was able to recognize my own growth as an instructor and as a human being. My Vipassana meditation practice, my ongoing Svadyaya (self-study) and my yoga practice have helped me cultivate compassion.
It is my dream to bring this same process to my students, to adults and to kids alike. I envision a world where we can feel our own internal response first, before we automatically fire back the anger and sadness of others. It’s a practice. Compassion can’t be instantly taught. It must be something we work on every day, an opus that we compose across our lifetimes. To those who are yearning for peace within themselves and on our planet, I say, “Keep up the good work! Keep the faith!” Your compassion practice will be successful over time. Plant daily seeds of compassion, for yourself and for others. Sooner or later those seeds will grow, bloom, and bear fruit.