Radical Compassion


Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD

Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD

I was 16 years into my practice when I found myself crying profusely in Savasana (Corpse Pose). Lying in this vulnerable posture during my beloved teacher Tracee Stanley’s yoga nidra immersion, I realized I had been treating myself as an enemy. Something happened during this specific Corpse Pose—one of hundreds I’d practiced by this point—that offered a glimpse of surrender, peace, and acceptance. Enveloped in stillness and silence, I noticed that for once, I was not trying to control, critique, or compare myself, and I became acutely aware that I had been missing self-love and compassion: that I did not know how to love myself fully. It was the depth and nurturing that I encountered through yoga nidra that gave me the strength to face the truth and acknowledge the parts of myself that I had been denying, such as my needs for rest and to be taken care of and held.

As I lay there, Tracee’s words moved into every fiber of my body: “We cannot teach what we do not practice,” she said. This statement prompted me to ask myself hard questions: How can I teach my yoga students how to practice compassion with their bodies if I am not accepting all of the parts that make up mine? How can I expect my yoga students to trust me if I dismiss, and lack trust for, the parts of myself that want to be seen?

See also Chelsea Jackson on Diversity + Embracing Who You Are

Because I truly felt held by the yoga and the guidance of my teacher, I felt liberated from self-judgment around these questions. Normally, I would have wiped away my tears and the associated emotions before anyone noticed. I was breaking free from concern for how anyone would see me or interpret this release. With my breath, I let go of the self-talk that would have said I was taking up too much space with my sobbing.

I am convinced that I showed up differently for myself during this particular Savasana simply because it was time to accept my suffering and open up to a practice of radical compassion for myself. Now, each time I step onto my mat, my body remembers that moment of not being controlled, critiqued, or compared. It remembers that the road to freedom from suffering can exist only when compassion is present.

Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD

Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD

Self-Love in Action 

I remember being a little girl, learning about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing the word “compassion” for the first time. To me, it always seemed like something that could only be shown to someone else. After all, Dr. King spoke specifically about it in regard to social injustice and inequality: He talked about compassion, or a lack thereof, when describing the social conditions African American people had to experience based on systems of marginalization and oppression. He spoke of it while demanding that the government respond to individuals and communities that were suffering because of inequality, and he wanted everyone to know how marginalization and oppression impact us all, not just those denied their basic human rights. He asked for curiosity and empathy: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

See also Why Every yoga Teacher & Practitioner Needs Inclusivity Training

Dr. King advocated—and gave his life—for the eradication of suffering based on something as arbitrary (yet real) as race. He sacrificed his life sharing the teachings that remind us that social change, liberation, and connection can be achieved only through radical compassion and nonviolence.

He taught me that it is violent for me to suppress my experiences with suffering and dismiss the consequences of that. Because when I do, not only am I not honoring the practice of ahimsa, which also means nonviolence, I am not practicing yoga. By definition, yoga means to unite, or to join. Whenever I deny myself the acknowledgement and acceptance of who I am, I am in direct opposition to myself. So when I reflect on that “aha” moment in Savasana, and the profound experience of recognizing that I was treating myself as my own enemy, I can fully come to terms with Dr. King’s words. I made space to get quiet enough to listen to the ways in which I was afraid of my own questions, the experiences this body had encountered that carried suffering, and every urge that came up in me to pretend that part of me didn’t exist. From this place, I am able to confront the points of view and narratives that I regurgitate from society—the ones that tell me I am not worthy of rest, to be held, and to be loved fully.

I have learned, and continue to learn, that the moments that call for copious amounts of compassion—for myself and others—are also the moments I tend to avoid, escape, or try to “make better” through impulsive words and actions. I am still working on sitting with the feelings that accompany an unintentional lack of awareness around my words with someone, especially if I offend or hurt them. It is a challenge. It is so much easier for me to rush and defend my mistakes in order to not feel the depths of my actions or to become overly apologetic in an effort to move beyond the discomfort.

Watch Chelsea Jackson Roberts Shares Her Personal yoga Story

It was during my emotional release in Savasana that I realized I was avoiding compassion in my own yoga practice, too. I was depriving myself of the opportunity to slow down, or practice Savasana, because it meant being still and quiet enough to hear my own suffering crying out for release. Because of this profound moment I experienced, I can see that radical compassion, even if initially uncomfortable, leads to liberation, freedom, and love.

Now, for me, compassion exists in the silence before words or action. It can be found in the moments I choose to stay present and not escape. Compassion allows me to see the points of view of those whom I am not in agreement with in order to learn something about myself and the ways I respond to—and at times lack compassion for—myself. It looks like being still, allowing myself to be held, and allowing the tears to flow. I cried in Savasana because it was the first time I’d been grounded in the reality of who I am and how much I truly owed myself. Each time I step onto my mat, I am recommitting myself to a practice of radical self-compassion so that I can practice that same empathy and love with my students and every single living being I encounter in this lifetime.

Try Chelsea Jackson Roberts’ Self-Compassion Sequence to Find Serenity.

About the author

Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD is an internationally celebrated yoga educator and the founder of yoga, Literature, and Art Camp for teen girls at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Chelsea is a Lululemon global yoga ambassador who travels the world sharing some of the ways yoga can be used as a tool for social change. As an Off the Mat, Into the World faculty member, Chelsea enjoys writing and speaking about her research and how yoga can be used to understand cultural, social, and racial differences. Chelsea is the cofounder of Red Clay yoga, a non-profit in Atlanta that provides access to yoga within marginalized communities. Learn more at chelsealovesyoga.com.

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