Metta Bhavana or loving kindness practice is an essential aspect of mindfulness
In this last decade, science has been discovering numerous benefits from the practice of mindfulness. Whether it’s reducing stress and anxiety, improving concentration, memory and productivity, and even changing the way our brain works, more and more studies are showing the power of mindfulness to change our lives.
Science has also been researching another practice from the Buddhist tradition that complements mindfulness. Called metta bhavana, it centers us in our hearts – some people call it “heartfulness” – and cultivates the experience of universal loving kindness. It is a practice of wishing happiness to all beings, including ourselves. It’s generates compassion for self and other.
How do we practice loving kindness on the mat?
Loving kindness practice will help us to learn to say YES to the breath and it’s natural rhythm, to soften before transitioning, to being in the body without requesting something from it or judging it.
Loving kindness practice will help us to say NO to going too fast, pushing too hard and risking injury, or to comparing ourselves with others.
Crucially, loving kindness practice will guide us away from being caught up in the harsh voice of our inner critic.
Stepping away from inner criticism
When we notice the voice of the inner critic in our yoga practice (judging how our bodies perform, how certain body parts look like, comparing ourselves with others, we recognize it, accept it as a part of our inner landscape and then let go of it by gently invoking a loving kindness phrase – such as “may I love myself just as I am” – and offering it toward ourselves. This practice allows us to relax and soften into simple presence in the body. Learning how to be loving and kind to ourselves, and to others might take a longer process. But, the journey itself is the goal, and every time we come to accept ourselves just that little bit more, we find greater peace and contentment in life.
Transforming your inner critic into a dear friend
If you want to integrate loving kindness practice into your asana practice, here are some kindly phrases you can use to invoke a sense of metta towards yourself.
Whenever you notice you’re being harsh to yourself in any way, simply silently repeat one of the following. Alternatively, you may wish to create your own kindly phrases – just make sure they are kind and you are not inadvertently adding any expectations, such as “may I become more flexible”!
May the body soak up the attention I’m giving to it. I am grateful to know my way home.
May I befriend the shady and rusty places in the body. They are a part of our story and a departure point of deeper journeys of transformation.
May I enjoy our birthright to move freely!
Coming into your heart space
At essence, loving kindness practice is about cultivating a warm, open heart. Underneath all of our “issues” that’s what’s already there. The practice isn’t about intellectually convincing ourselves to become kinder. Metta, or “heartfulness”, is a felt experience, like the feeling of morning sunlight on your face. There are specific meditation practices to experience this felt quality of metta.
But, on our mats, we can begin to touch our hearts by placing the focus of our awareness in the center of our heart space ( the center of the chest). We can choose particular chest opening asanas and bring a kindly, warm attitude to our heart center as we do them. While we’re resting in savasana we can bring our breath and a sense of gentle kindness to the heart space.
Off the mat, in our daily lives we can try the same. As we’re walking down the street, try to bring a touch of your breath to the heart space. As we do this over time, the heart will activate and gradually begin to open. As it does, karuna – a deep, warm and open compassion – will begin to flow out.
Now that’s something the world needs more of!