Dr Stephanie Minchin (@theyogapsychologist) is a Clinical Psychologist, Yoga Teacher, and soon to qualify as a Yoga Therapist; Steph co-leads the MoreMind project with Liz Joy Oakley and co-facilitates Late Night Lock In workshops integrating yoga, psychology and sound healing.
When we talk about matters of the heart, many of us think about various concepts of love. Yes Valentines is the February buzzword, the shops are laden with pink and red commercial crock, and those that single are readily othered, to feel unloved and alone. But beyond the hype, the word Valentine is derived from the Latin word ‘valen’, to mean ‘strong and healthy’. So let’s consider how, if we are to feel loved and loving, we first need to feel healthy and strong in heart and mind. And these are the matters of ‘Anahata’, the heart chakra.
Anahata is the 4th chakra in the most widely used 7 chakra system and translated from Sanskrit means ‘unhurt, unstruck and unbeaten’. With the chakras starting from the root travelling up, Anahata is the central chakra where the yin and yang energy meet and represents not only love, but also kindness, compassion and warmth. Such qualities may develop more fully once the earlier chakras are first established to feel grounded and safe (Muladhara, root chakra), creative and free (Svadhisthana, sacral chakra) and independent, determined and willful (Manipura, solar plexus chakra). Inevitably Anahata is linked to the psychological development of our social identity; when our energy or charge is out of sync, excessive energy may lead to codependency and attention-seeking yet deficit energy may lead to judgement and isolation. In a balanced charge, Anahata radiates joyfulness, gratitude and compassion.
Now let’s consider compassion. It is suggested by http://www.compassionlab.org/ that the word compassion has its roots in ‘suffering with another’ (passio to suffer; com meaning with). Here we are reminded that regardless of how unpleasant and painful, suffering is innately part of the human experience. So when we talk about self-compassion, this literally means the recognition of our own suffering; an invitation to be with our own experience, even in pain, discomfort and distress. Doesn’t sound as exciting as love really does it.
In order to find an equilibrium in our energy at the heart’s centre, it is helpful to go in and observe our internal landscape, and get to know ourselves like a map to the road less travelled. Surely a journey many of us have ignored, avoided or overlooked. The fork in the road that was never chosen. A polite decline to bear witness to our own suffering. How can we look within, especially when we may have built so many walls and protective layers around our central most vulnerabilities? Shakespeare, always a man that knew, suggests that the answers already lie within… ‘Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know’. Perhaps this is a process of getting to know the truth that the heart already intuits.
Pema Chodron highlights that ‘compassionate action involves working with ourselves as much as working with others’. As a third-wave phase of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) was devised by Paul Gilbert, with an underlying evolutionary approach to understanding our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It is advocated that the compassionate mind is the mind that transforms; if we want a compassionate mind, we must nurture and nourish the compassion in our heart.
Gilbert (2005) states that compassion creates conditions that facilitate openness, caring and safeness, which in turn make exploring different elements of our minds easier, and can lead us to better self-understanding and self-identity through attending to and reasoning with our internal emotions. In considering self-compassion, Kristen Neff (www.self-compassion.org) suggests that an approach may involve three main components: being mindful and open to one’s own suffering; being kind and non self-condemning; an awareness of sharing experiences of suffering as an openness to common humanity. Therefore, self-compassion is not only about a soothing of the painful, but rather a way of being with it.
The Dalai Lama (1995) upholds that it is ‘within our very human nature to be compassionate beings’. As a psychology model, CFT highlights three innate, automatic, underlying systems within every human which operate as part of our experience – the drive (for reward), the threat (for protection) and the soothing (for restoration) systems. In order for us to be balanced and functioning, each system requires a harmonious and effective way of working together. The drive system is the work of our pleasure pathways, where we seek excitement and vitality, reward and achievement, activating us into action; the threat system is our alarm bell, focusing on threat, seeking for safety and offering us protection; the soothing system is our metaphorical hug, supporting us to feel safe and nurtured. A balance between all three provides regulation of our emotional experience, which supports our mental health and emotional well being.
Inviting compassion into Anahata
So how do we turn towards our heart’s centre? Of course, not one heart opener asana in yoga is going to free all matters of emotional pain, yet through yoga practice and yogic lifestyle beyond the mat we can tentatively start to explore inwards, shine a light in areas of darkness and start to nourish where we need openness and growth.
- Heart opening yoga poses ~ creating space and expansion in the chest, releasing what has been closed
- Practicing meditations ~ Loving kindness meditations (Metta meditation)
- Practicing visualisations connecting to Anahata e.g. a green light, a green breath (the colour of Anahata)
- Working with vocalisations and using your voice ~ Chanting ‘yam’ ~ the sound of Anahata
- Listening to self-compassion guided audios
- Doing self-compassion exercises (browse the many resources and ideas offered by Gilbert and Neff)
Tenzin Gyatso advocates that compassion ‘is not a luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability’. So next time that inner critic gets a little too loud and rogue, remind yourself that you are worthy of the love, warmth and compassion that you give out to others. For this is your opportunity to build a different relationship with your heart, to be ‘unhurt, unstruck, unbeaten’. You have the right to love and be loved.
- Gilbert, P. (Ed.). (2005). Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. Routledge.
- Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion focused therapy: Distinctive features. Routledge.
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About Stephanie Minchin
Steph first fell in love with yoga when she moved to London in 2010, and then deepened her practice and spiritual connection in an ashram in Kerala, India. After completing YTT (200 hrs) in 2014, yoga became an integral part of Steph’s life, finding grounding and growth in personal practice with life lessons beyond the yoga mat.
Through her training in Yoga Therapy, Steph now unites her professions and passions of yoga teaching and clinical psychology into her yoga classes. This opens an invitation for yoga to be more than making shapes on a mat, yet a deeper journey of understanding how we can improve our physical health and positively relate to both our mental and emotional wellbeing.
Steph integrates yogic philosophy into her teaching to encourage reflective self-study and self-inquiry through yoga practice, exploring the psychological and energetic landscapes of the self through yoga practice.
In her own experience of yoga, Steph has learnt how to be more present, with self-awareness, self-compassion and bodily acceptance. Steph advocates for the healing powers of yoga and believes that yoga is for everybody and every body, with a little piece of magic in yoga for all, inclusive of shape, size, ability or any other aspect of our individual uniqueness.
Steph teaches Flow, Vinyasa, Mandala, Yin, Restorative, and Meditation and co-leads the MoreMind project with Liz Joy Oakley.