Does Yoga Teach Kindness?

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I lost it the other day. My elder daughter was being horribly mean to her younger sister. When I came downstairs to see what the commotion was, she was taunting and teasing her. The trauma of the interaction was written all over her four year-old sister’s face. I realize that this is relatively common among kids but I had been watching the news just prior, and was feeling overwhelmed by the inhumanity and intolerance that seems to be bubbling over everywhere, so to see my offspring taking pleasure in another person's pain was simply too much to bear.

Fighting back tears, I screamed: “Stop it! Stop treating your sister this way! Can’t you see how you are making her feel? Why would you want to do that to her?”

At this point, I actually started to cry…

“I won’t have it in this house. There are too many mean people in the world filling others with shame and making them feel small. It's not going to happen here. Do you understand? We will be kind in this house. I demand it! We have to be kind to each other. Please! We have to.”

They were both visibly confused. I have disciplined them to stop fighting many times before just not usually with such emotion and fervor. But, as much as I may have overreacted, I stand by the statement I made and have every intention of enforcing it. The world needs kindness. And I like to think that through my work as a yoga teacher, I am helping to contribute.

The question is… does yoga actually teach kindness? Or am I just projecting that onto it because it’s what I want and need?

When I try to trace back where I got the idea that yoga was about cultivating kindness, I am not able to cite any particular textual source. Surely, you can make a case that the yamas of ahimsa and satya could be a call for kindness. But that takes a bit of a leap. The absence of violence does not necessarily mean kindness. Nor does truth, depending on how it gets doled out. There is no specific yama or niyama that asserts kindness directly.

So, if I didn’t get the notion of kindness from a text then it would be a logical conclusion that I must have gotten it from a teacher’s interpretation, right? Not necessarily. Of course, I have come to know teachers who are kind. And they provided me with a model that I have wished to emulate and learn from. However, I do not recall anyone specifically teaching that yoga is about kindness. I have heard it said that yoga is about realization, liberation, enlightenment, samadhi, direction, intimacy of relationship, and more, but never specifically about kindness.

So is it OK if it just comes from me? Can I still say that this is what yoga teaches?

WIth current debates raging about the legitimacy and origins of what we have come to know as yoga, and new research and discourse on what we actually know of yoga’s history and philosophical underpinnings, many of us are re-assessing what we teach and questioning whether it stands to scrutiny. The guru authorities that have always been cited as the sources have failed to live up to their own teachings and, in profound disappointment, we have no other place to turn but inward. Vast is the gap that exists between the knowledge we might get from an outside reference and the ineffable fact of our own experience.

If in the practice of yoga I come to insights or receive benefit and want to share that with others then it is fair to say that I am sharing what my practice has taught me. I can cite where I learned the techniques and ideas that I am employing. I can respect the historical context and other cultures that carried what I know of yoga forth, and I can give due credit to the teachers who have come before and influenced me. But I cannot say that this is what yoga teaches. I can only say that this is what my yoga practice has taught me,

Regardless of what you think yoga is or for, it’s hard to argue against kindness.

Perhaps my younger daughter will benefit from the torment she receives from her older sister. The toughening of her emotional skin might make it easier for her to overcome challenges and be resilient in the face of the world’s horror. At the same time, this kind of conditioning is likely the reason so many of us end up confronting chasms of self-loathing and doubt that can easily manifest into hatred and mistreatment of others. I can only hope that there is enough beauty and love also shared to counter the entrenched dehumanization and dysfunction.

There are few things I have discovered in life that provide me a vehicle to experience myself as feeling whole and complete. Whether my idea and practice of yoga can be properly sourced through ancient texts is ultimately irrelevant if it is truly helping me in this regard. And, having experienced many different approaches and ideas about what yoga is, I assert kindness as an imperative. Whatever eloquent explications we might espouse or contrive, only with genuine kindness might we address the obscuring traumas we all have embodied. If your yoga can encompass that, say what you will.

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J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.