Yogi Assignment: Empathy

For the last two weeks I’ve been in the Fiji islands. To say it has been a paradise merely scratches the surface of how magical these islands truly are. The weather is sublimely tropical, the water crystal clear and the nature pristine. We traveled by boat, sea plane, helicopter, car and foot. We swam with all sorts of fish, corals and crustaceans as the waters are teeming with life. We saw eight (yes eight!) rainbows!! This is all the experience of a lifetime, but really it’s the heart and soul of the people of Fiji that are the true gem of this small pacific nation.

One morning as Tim and I were getting ready to depart one of the beautiful islands we visited, I got slightly stressed. Our boat was ready and all our luggage loaded. The two men who were set to help us into the boat stood by the shore and started waving me over. It was just a few minutes past our appointed departure time. I was ready, but Tim had just gone back to leave a tip for the staff. They kept waving me over and I kept trying to indicate that I was waiting for my husband. But the signals didn’t translate and they kept waving me over more enthusiastically. Then, one of the other staff came up to me and asked what was going on. He was tall and strong, built like a warrior with thick muscles and well-defined features. When I said that the boat was ready but my husband wasn’t, he sensed my stress and reached over and hugged me. Immediately I realized I was stressing and really for no reason. The boat would wait and the two guys didn’t mind being by the beach for a few extra minutes. But what really struck me was the level of empathy and sensitivity that this man showed me. He sensed the slightest level of stress and his reaction was to reach over and give me a hug. As a city girl, an entrepreneur, an author, a generally busy person and a constant traveler there is a certain level of stress that I am acclimated to. I didn’t even register I was stressed out, but this man did. I’d like to just pause and acknowledge both his sensitivity and emotional intelligence. I was no one to him, a visitor, a tourist, a total stranger and yet he felt my pain, my stress and my discomfort. He registered it, processed it and responded all within a matter seconds, even before I did. And as I stood there wrapped in his big strong arms, the stress went away and I just felt so grateful.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Imagine if every time you noticed someone nearby you was getting even a little stressed out, you leaned in and gave them a hug. Instead of telling them to calm down, forget about it, or trying to fix them, you just felt their pain and held space with them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten into a disagreement with my husband when all I really needed was a hug. So this week’s Yogi Assignment is Empathy, inspired by my Fijian hero. It takes the perfect combination of strength and sensitivity to cultivate empathy. If you aren’t sensitive enough you’ll never notice how someone else feels. If you aren’t strong enough to feel their pain (and your own), you’ll block it all off.

Feeling is all about opening your heart to the world around you. It isn’t fast-paced or goal-oriented. It’s a process of communication and intimacy. Empathy is a risk. You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and be willing to experience things that may be uncomfortable to you. Feeling someone else’s pain may break your heart. You may cry tears for them. But it’s the only way your own heart will grow bigger. You have to let it all in. If you block even one little part off, you block a piece of yourself off. Once you say no and close yourself to others, you build an emotional wall around your heart. The heart needs nourishment and connection to flourish. If you’re all alone in your gilded cage of absolutes, then your heart will start to harden and eventually wither away and die.

Empathy, the journey of the heart, is essential for the yogi’s path. Every asana that targets opening the chest, extending the spine and freeing the hips is really all about breaking open the armor around your heart. Every asana that teaches you strength is all about making the heart stronger. Yoga is an empathy exercise that starts with yourself. First you learn to embrace every emotion, muscle and cell of your own and then you develop the same strength to embrace the whole world. The pain of the world is sometimes so great so that it may feel devastating to let it all in. An average day’s read through the loss and suffering felt by real people all over the world can seem like too much bear. This is why we need to be stronger. It’s not about lifting up to handstand to show everyone how awesome you are. It’s about looking every single person in the eye, feeling their pain, hearing their story, letting it all in and opening your heart to them and, yes, when appropriate, giving them a hug.

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