Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Answer to the query in my "About Me" section may have been found

When I started this blog, I wrote the "About me" section half-jokingly. As a result, my yoga blog really became about answering this question: how exactly did yoga manage to transform a cynical me into a more hopeful, grateful, more compassionate person?

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist who also teaches yoga at Stanford, may have just answered my question in her presentation. It's presented in the standard way that scientists are trained to present data: straightforward, no bells and whistles, no poetic metaphors, just straight up facts explaining how self-compassion works. I'm still working on doing my presentation Dr. McGonigal's way so I can pass my oral defense this year (I tend to jump all over the place and am not always clear, if you haven't noticed yet :) ), but I wish I had SereneFlavor as a teacher so I can communicate half as beautifully as she does. I'll just have to keep reading everything she writes I guess.

Let me summarize for those who don't want to watch the full video (at the bottom of the post):

There are two ways to think about one's own suffering:

1. Be self-critical about it. I suck. I'm not good enough, careful enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, kind enough, smart enough, skilled enough, trying hard enough and that's why this terrible thing is happening to me.

2. Offer compassion to oneself as a good friend would do in the situation. Reflect on the unpleasant event and think self-soothing thoughts, such as "you poor thing, you have tried your best and too bad it didn't work out. It's okay, next time you'll do better. It's not meant to be." etc.

The first way is quite typical of how we think when we encounter something negative, such as failing a job interview, getting into a car accident, breaking grandma's favorite dish at a Xmas party, etc. What happens is that brain regions associated with self-inhibition, self-control, punishment, self-punishment are activated when we think this way. (ie. Samskara in scientific babble).

The second way of thinking (people rarely think this way when they've done something wrong), activates brain regions associated with passion, and understanding what's happening in the body.  Practicing thinking this way reinforces this type of thinking pattern and automatically makes one more compassion towards other people as well.

Now, I haven't been practicing thinking the second way at all when something crappy happens to me. However, yoga teachers often ask us to thank ourselves for coming to class and for being kind to ourselves. I thought this instruction was strange when I first heard it, but I did what the teacher asked anyways. Yoga teachers also stress the importance of paying attention to any message the body's sending us, to do all poses in a way that feels good and causes no pain.  In reality, it's not the poses themselves that make use feel connected with one another (although practicing with others in a shala cultivates a sense of connection); when we practice listening to our own body, we're really exercising the brain regions associated with compassion, understanding, and loving kindness! Even when we practice compassion on ourselves, our ability to be compassionate to other people improves. Who knew!

Conversely, those who are used to being self-critical are also more judgmental of other people without realizing it. Hmm, so me and my whole family are guilty of this. When we think we only hurt ourselves by being overly self-critical, in fact we are training our brain to be less understanding and less compassionate towards other people as well.  So, when my mother or my cousin or my aunt keeps telling me what I should do or how I should be, it's really because they're judgmental of themselves. Since I am also self-critical (already beating myself up before they tell me what I should do), I am less likely to be willing to receive well-meaning feedback and constructive criticisms from others. So the trick to stop having strong hostile reactions towards my family's tendency to judge everybody involves practicing more self-compassion and loving kindness towards myself. I can do that! Time to ramp up Project Self-pampering!

I know most of you yogis out there know about yoga and compassion already and don't need hard scientific proofs to believe in it, but I'm a skeptic and a curious cat. I like scientific explanations of how stuff works, including yoga magic :)

Here's Dr. McGonigal's talk on self-compassion:


  1. Hey!! Check this out:

  2. SereneFlavor, one step ahead of me as usual :)

    Loo, hear hear :)

    Isn't weird that self-compassion is a recent hot research topic? You'd think we'd have this figured out over thousands of years of humanity.

  3. Wow. This is fantastic insight. I think I understand a little bit better the nature of the Asian upbringing that I received, as well as the root of all the family conflicts I've seen. This perspective is so counter-intuitive to the Asian parenting model, it's no wonder that we're masters of the art of self-criticism! You're not going to see a Tiger Mom trying to teach her kids to be more compassionate ;)

  4. I know!!! When I encountered yoga and heard this talk I was like, you mean sacrifice my own needs and desires to please other people in order to get them to like me despite how much I hate it doesn't make me a better person? Instead we just end up criticizing/hating everyone behind their backs! The Asian society just got it all backwards eh?

    Treat ourselves well and we'll be more likely to extend the generosity to others as well.