The Brahma Viharas: An Ancient Practice for Modern Times

If you are anything like me, being with family during the holidays can bring up old issues and minor irritations. I’m pretty good at letting things go and using my yogic practices to ward off judgment. But there are times when, for instance, your Uncle Lester just won’t stop talking. Or, in my family, I often get triggered by well-meaning, bothersome patterns.

My mom is very loving, and I adore her. But I still get activated sometimes when she tries to suggest things or take care of me without my asking for help. I go back into my pattern of isolation because I feel smothered. Clearly that’s my issue and, no matter how much I work on myself, I tend to fall into that old habit. Or it could be something my dad says. He tends to be prickly on the outside but a sweet ball of mush on the inside. He is a very loving and generous man. But I still get activated sometimes when he uses judgmental language and a harsh tone. Even though I practice yoga, I still get activated. It happens. What’s different now, after many years of practice, is that I can more fully witness my patterns without getting caught in them for too long.

In terms of the holidays and the practice of gratitude, it can be difficult to feel authentic gratitude even—or especially—when you’re with the people you love most. How do you manage your relationships and your reactions to family and/or friends? This is a great contemplation worthy of your attention.

An Ancient Meditation Practice That's Still Relevant Today

This practice was created by the Buddhists, and later described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the Brahma Viharas (Four Celestial Abodes). I’ve added a few personal twists to make it more relevant to our modern times.

  1. Come to a comfortable sitting or reclining position. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Be sure to empty all of your breath on the exhalation, which will prepare you to take a full inhalation.
  2. Repeat the mantra Maitri silently a few times in a relaxed way. Reflect on the meaning of the term. Maitri is Sanskrit for the virtue of friendliness. The classical practice is to offer friendliness to all those who are happy.
  3. Now repeat the mantra Karuna silently a few times in a relaxed way. Reflect on the meaning of the term. Karuna is Sanskrit for compassion. The classical practice is to offer compassion to all those who are unhappy.
  4. Now repeat the mantra Mudita silently a few times in a relaxed way. Reflect on the meaning of the term. Mudita is Sanskrit for joy. The classical practice is to offer joy to all those who are virtuous.
  5. Now repeat the mantra Upekshanam silently a few times in a relaxed way. Reflect on the meaning of the term. Upekshanam is Sanskrit for equanimity. The classical practice is to offer equanimity and space to all those who are difficult for you to be with.
  6. Now repeat the meditation, but this time, offer the Four Celestial Abodes to yourself.
  7. Repeat the mantra Maitri silently a few times in a relaxed way. Offer yourself friendliness. See if you can befriend yourself. For all those times you put yourself out of your heart or have been overly critical or hard on yourself, try to become a friend to yourself with a warm and open heart.
  8. Now repeat the mantra Karuna silently a few times in a relaxed way. Offer yourself compassion. Recognize your own degree of suffering, and let your compassion surround you like the soft, soothing water of healing that it is. Let your heart rest in the warmth of your own compassion for yourself. Can you give that to yourself?
  9. Now repeat the mantra Mudita silently a few times in a relaxed way. Offer joy to your virtuous self, your deeper intention to do good things in the world, to uplift others, to bring your best self forward. Offer yourself joy for all of the ways in which you have been virtuous.
  10. Now repeat the mantra Upekshanam silently a few times in a relaxed way. Offer yourself space for the difficult parts of yourself. Surround yourself in a nonjudgmental light for your limitations, failures, and unintentional meanness at times. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and see if you can forgive yourself. Let it be okay that you did what you did, that you said what you said. Try to love yourself without shaming yourself. Practice, as much as you can, giving yourself space for operating below your standards.
  11. Now simply allow yourself to sit quietly. Listen intently to your heart. Allow yourself to be befriended, receive compassion, joy, and spaciousness—from you.
  12. After a minute or two of silence, open your eyes.

I’ve found this practice to be amazingly powerful in reestablishing a loving connection within myself. Whenever I feel vulnerable, hurt by someone else, or critical, I like to bring it all back to my relationship with myself. You will be able to relate to others only at the depth of connection you have with yourself. Cultivating friendliness and compassion for yourself is the prerequisite for offering the same to others.

Find out about upcoming programs with Todd Norian at Kripalu.

This article was originally published on ashayayoga.com.

Todd Norian, E-RYT 500, is an internationally acclaimed yoga teacher. A student of yoga since 1980, he masterfully offers alignment-based, heart-centered yoga. With warmth and humor, Todd excels at making deep philosophical teachings accessible and relatable.

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