An Exercise in Karuna

Back in the fall of 2012 I completed 200 hours of yoga teacher training. The course was called the Karuna Teacher Training program and when it randomly came up in a google search I only clicked on it because it sounded like something out of Hawaii involving surf boards. Upon further inspection I learned that karuna is a Sanskrit word meaning “compassionate action”. The basis of this program was compassionate action towards self and others (and in the Buddhist philosophy where all are one it is quite impossible to have one without the other). This seemed like a good fit at the time mostly because I figured a program of this nature would not involve boatloads of stress or mean teachers. After embarking on this journey through yoga I started to apply this idea to other areas of health and fitness. In an industry where one of the most popular phrases is “no pain, no gain” is there room for compassion and if so how can it be applied? The closer I examine this relationship the more I realize that compassion is indispensable to overall wellness.
The idea of being fit is often attached to that of perfection: a fit body looks perfect, performs perfectly, and feels perfect all of the time. Lacking in one of these areas equates to being unfit. Living with this assumption makes the attainment of fitness an especially drudging task. Why even consider reaching for something so utterly unattainable? Failure is inevitable so why even begin? This is where many people simultaneously start and end on their fitness journey. I see many clients get frustrated with themselves for not performing an exercise perfectly even though their body may not have moved in that way for 20 years. Their body may have been through illness, injury, childbirth, but to them this has no bearing: they should be able to perform the task just as they could 20 years ago, in an almost completely different body. Facing every challenge with this mentality can make a workout seem like an exercise in beating yourself up and unless you are trying to recreate Fight Club what is the point? Life does a fine job of kicking our ass, why spend any more time kicking our own? Approaching exercise without judgement allows it to become what it truly is: an opportunity to improve our overall quality of life by being able to move through the world with more comfort and ease. Entering a workout with compassion allows us to be where we are and end up a little better off than we were before. Knowing that compassion is part of the process makes it easier to come back time and time again and make changes when our body asks for them, an inevitable part of the fitness process since our bodies are constantly in flux.
Now I know I may sound like I am up on my high horse preaching away but I assure you the main reason this post came to mind is because it’s something I have struggled with myself lately. In becoming a member of the baby-loss community I’ve taken solace in online forums where other mothers are trying to come to terms with the sudden and random loss of their babies. A phrase I keep seeing over and over is “be gentle with yourself”. It reminds me of yoga teacher training when things were blessedly simple although I may not have realized it at the time. I struggled with having self-compassion back then and it seems even harder to have it now. Time now is divided into before Eve died and after. It is a challenge to be compassionate towards a body that I am angry at for betraying me and worst of all my daughter. It is also a challenge to be compassionate in accepting that no matter how well I eat or hard I work I will not look, perform, or feel 100 percent anytime in the near future and possibly not ever again. Most days I have so much anger and sadness that a years worth of runners highs wouldn’t completely alleviate the pain. I am learning to meet myself where I am at and work from there and though things are far from perfect exercise seems to be doing something. I try to believe that the fact that I am able to keep moving means there is a glimmer of hope somewhere inside me even if it is buried so deep that it is barely visible.
I am starting to realize that compassion is an exercise all its own. Though it would be nice to always enter a workout feeling full of energy and on top of the world for most people that is a rare state of affairs. We need to be able to work from were we are.
The other translation of karuna means “any action that diminishes suffering”. When we exercise we diminish our own suffering by becoming healthier physically and feeling better mentally. When we feel better physically and mentally we tend to more pleasant and productive individuals who are better able to reduce the suffering of those around us. It might be a stretch to say that exercise can make the world a better place but looking at it from the principle of karuna that statement might not be too far off.