Yoga, Self-Compassion, and Accepting the Inner Critic

The first tenet of yoga—the foundation on which our yoga practice rests—is ahimsa, which translates as non-harming or nonviolence. Ahimsa is the first of the yamas, the ethical guidelines laid out in Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga.

The Sanskrit word ahimsa comes from the root word “hims,” which means to strike. As is common with many Sanskrit words, preceding the root word with the letter “a” turns it into its opposite. In yoga, ahimsa is synonymous with self-kindness, self-compassion, and self-care.

The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word “yuj,” which means the union of body, mind, and spirit. In yoga, we listen deeply to our body’s inner wisdom, and our actions are in alignment with an intrapersonal attunement.

What does it mean to listen to our bodies? We have all had the experience of going for a second helping of that delicious chocolate cake. Our bodies may be satiated from the first helping, but our minds want that second piece. Maybe we had a hard day and we’re using the sugar and caffeine to make ourselves feel better on an emotional level. However, on a physical level, our body doesn’t need more empty calories. When we are not attuned to our body’s internal messages, then we suffer the consequences. We wake up the next morning with a headache from a sugar overload.

I learned this powerful teaching many years ago when I was an avid Ashtanga Yoga student. Ashtanga is a very vigorous form of heated yoga that relies on a sequence of 26 yoga postures. Some of these postures are very difficult, and the body can get injured if the joints are not ready to do the posture. I was not aware of how much striving there was in my practice. I would look over my shoulder, notice someone a lot more limber than me, and wonder, “Why can’t I do what she’s doing?” I gave myself a hard time for never being good enough. I deluded myself into thinking that if I could achieve the posture that she was doing, then I would be a “good yogi” and I would be content.

I was unaware of the extent to which I was caught in the grip of desire. In that grip, I stopped listening to my body. I contorted my body into positions that I was not yet ready for, and took my joints beyond what they were capable of doing. One day, I heard my knees snap as I tried to force my way into Marichyasana D, a difficult pose that combines the legs in a Half Lotus position with a seated spinal twist. I had torn my right medial meniscus, the soft cartilage that runs along the inner knee. Fifteen years later, I have not fully recovered from this injury.

However painful and humiliating, I thank my injury for this powerful teaching. Had I listened to my body, I would not have injured my knee. I was looking for happiness and fulfillment in the wrong places.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong in pursuing our goals. It’s the quality of our minds that we bring to our yoga practice that is the difference between suffering and freedom. Happiness is not predicated on achieving a perfect yoga form. There is a deeper happiness that arises when you tune into your body’s internal wisdom with the heart qualities of kindness, compassion, and patience.

Kristin Neff, associate professor of human development at the University of Texas, Austin, is one of the world’s leading researchers on the topic of self-compassion. She says that most people believe that we need self-criticism to motivate us. Meaning, if I am not hard on myself, I’ll let myself get away with everything.

Many of us have learned to use anxiety or the threat of self-criticism as a powerful motivator to accomplish our goals. That nagging voice that says, “You’re not good enough. You need to do more of this. You need to do more of that,” although painful, actually has good intentions. We think that, if we criticize ourselves, we’ll be in control and able to force ourselves to be the person we want to be. This belief permeates every aspect of our lives. So it is not surprising that we bring that mindset when we step onto our yoga mats.

There is a downside to self-criticism. We are on the receiving end of the internal critic’s harsh treatment and the experience of suffering that comes from that. Self-criticism results in negative feelings and that is a poor motivational force. It’s exhausting to be on the whipping end of the critic’s lash.

Neff's research has found that people who are hard on themselves are less resilient after a setback and more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. When you're self-critical, you treat yourself in ways you would never want to treat someone you love: beating yourself up for every imperfection, punishing yourself for any weakness, and discouraging yourself from going after what you really want. By contrast, self-compassion is defined as caring for ourselves as we would care for someone we truly love.

But when we judge our self-judging, that adds more fuel to the fire. When we resist our suffering, we suffer more. The more we try to get rid of the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, the more they intensify.

Instead, when self-judgment or self-criticism arise, we can make room for it. We don’t have to push it away or get rid of it—that would be an act of himsa. Making room for self-criticism is an act of self-kindness. We make space for the darker parts of our story rather than shutting them down. We can ask, “How is this trying to help me? How is it trying to keep me happy?” Instead of criticizing ourselves, we can simply acknowledge that we are looking for happiness in the wrong places.

When we criticize ourselves, we can become aware of the suffering in that experience. We can re-envision our fear, anger, self-recrimination, and self-judgment as suffering rather than as being bad or wrong or contemptible. The starting point is noticing when self-criticism is happening. Mindfulness can help us develop a refined ear for the self-critical voice. Even when it’s very subtle, we can still hear, Oh, my tone when I talked to myself was kind of harsh. It is important not to squash the critic but rather to honor and validate it for the work it is doing. We can say to the self-critic, Thank you for trying to help me. I think I may try another way of moving forward, by motivating myself with some kindness this time, but I appreciate what you are trying to do for me.

Yoga practice is not a self-improvement project. It’s not like, if we practice for 20 years or 40 years, suddenly our self-critical side will go away. It might, but most likely it won’t. What changes with practice is that we learn to make room for it. When you put a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water, it changes the taste of the water. However, when you put the same amount of salt in a gallon of water, the water will hardly change taste at all. Our self-critical side is like the teaspoon of salt. What changes with practice is that we can surround it with greater kindness and awareness.

So, when your inner critic starts up when you’re holding a pose, can you be curious about it? Our mindfulness practice invites us to bring the qualities of openness, curiosity, interest, and kindness to our experience. We can go in with a sledgehammer, or we can bring a quality of kindness and even a sense of humor to our inner critic.

Notice how it feels in your body and mind. What are the sensations that accompany the thoughts? What emotions are present? Is there sadness, anger, or grief? Then choose a more compassionate response. For example, if you find that you are giving yourself a hard time for not being flexible enough in a pose, remember that the pose is meant to gradually improve your flexibility, not to force you into a perfect asana overnight. Just being present in the pose is enough. If you notice yourself thinking I’ve got to go further in this pose or make this pose look better, ask yourself instead; Does this pose feel good? Does it feel safe? How can I care for myself in this moment? Can I bring some kindness in this pose? Can I soften around the edges? Where can I let go? Invite yourself to let go of critical thoughts and honor where you are, right now in this moment.

We can stop our practice and put a hand over our heart as a gesture of kindness; we can remind ourselves that it’s okay, we all have negative feelings, it’s part of the human experience. We can counteract the negative voices of self-criticism with metta, or loving-kindness. As we let our hearts quiver in a yoga pose, we can say to ourselves inwardly and silently, May I accept myself just as I am ... May I open to this moment with ease and kindness.

As humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers wrote: The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.

Find out about the Month of Compassion at Kripalu.

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This article was excerpted and adapted from an essay originally posted on David's blog.