Terry de Castro explains why yoga can help us become more compassionate.

Terry DeCastro, 52, is based in Los Angeles, California. After 20 years of touring the world as a musician in several bands, Terry decided to become a yoga teacher. She has been teaching in LA for three years now, here she explains how the practice of yoga can help to cultivate compassion. She'll also talk about a fabulous new trend in yoga classes that has started to sweep the whole country, and it involves, among other things, ...baby goats. Terry is an animal lover, and though she doesn't have one of her own, she looks after pets, both furry and feathery, for her friends and neighbours.

Compassion doesn't come naturally to everyone -- it is not a 'given'. Many people find it difficult to access this most essential of human emotions, particularly when they're frustrated or irritated. I spoke to someone just last week who was going through a difficult time with a disabled child. He was trying to access his compassion, but sometimes it was hard. He said, 'I just don't have it in me'. Not everyone is automatically endowed with the same capacity for compassion as someone else. And even naturally compassionate people can have moments of lapse. Sometimes we find it easy to feel for another person and see into their unique situation, while other times it may feel like a struggle to muster it up. But it is possible to cultivate this essential human capacity through methodical and deliberate ways. Practicing yoga is one way that we can begin to deepen our compassionate feelings, both toward others and toward ourselves.

Yoga is an indescribably vast discipline that includes physical 'asana' (postures and movement), spiritual practises, the study of sacred texts and meditation. But for these purposes, let's focus on yoga as a mindful, moving meditation offered in most yoga studios all over the world. There's still a great deal of diversity, as studios vary in the style of yoga they offer. Some specialise in Iyengar, Astanga, Hot Yoga, Vinyasa or straight 'Hatha' yoga. But whatever style you may be drawn to, one of the potential benefits of a regular yoga practice is an increase of general well-being. We deepen our breath, we move with intention, we stretch, we sweat, we pay attention and suddenly we are more calm and more focused.

Studies have shown a world of evidence showing the benefits of yoga: increased strength, flexibility, and a calming of the central nervous system. All of this leads to feeling better overall, and when we feel more physically balanced and more mentally at peace, we're more likely to extend our good feelings outside of ourselves, toward others. When we're stressed, it's difficult to see beyond our own predicaments, but if we're more relaxed, it's far easier to take a moment to feel for someone else. In other words, compassion needs a balanced and healthy container from which to grow.

Beyond the well-being that yoga can help to foster, there's a deeper level of contemplation that comes when we tap into ourselves through meditation. Practicing the yoga postures is a type of meditation, but with or without the physical movements, a regular meditation practice can bring untold insights and new levels of self-discovery into our lives. In the quest for peace of mind, we find a deeper part of ourselves, a part that will almost undoubtedly yield a greater sense of compassion toward others and toward ourselves.

I believe that compassion lives in the deepest part of our humanity, and in order to ignite and increase it, we must search for it, actively cultivating it within ourselves. There are many meditation exercises that incorporate the deliberate cultivation of compassion. One of the most well-known is the 'loving kindness' meditation: 'May all beings be safe, at peace and free from suffering'. You can say this meditation inwardly at anytime to anyone, even yourself (May you be safe ..; may I be safe ...). There are many variations on this meditation, and one of them is: May all beings in the air, on land, and in the water be safe, happy, healthy, and free from suffering. 

And speaking of all types of beings, this leads me to this question: what do animals have to do with yoga and compassion? Other than the obvious answer that many of the yoga poses have names like: eagle, pigeon, downward dog and cat/cow, you would think that animals have got precious little to do with yoga. But not so, especially here in California (and in reality, all over the US), where new trends in yoga have started inviting animals into the yoga studio. The first trend is called 'Cat Yoga', and is literally: practicing yoga with cats. The studio where I now teach in LA, Mockingbird Yoga, used to have a resident cat called Truly, and she would saunter in and out of the yoga room, snoozing, purring and saying hello when she felt like it. Yoga studios are calm, safe environments for cats, who are free to roam and hide at will. The other trend is called Baby Goat Yoga, and you guessed it: it is literally practicing yoga with baby goats. This kind of yoga is often practiced outdoors (if the class is indoors, the goats are at liberty to roam outside). Healthy goat treats are always on hand, and in truth, participants usually gain more pleasure from being around these lovely creatures than from doing any actual yoga!

And what does this have to do with compassion? I firmly believe that animals can automatically infuse almost any situation with a huge dose of joy and love. Any time my boyfriend and I take an animal into our house, we immediately become more playful and, well, happier. We took care of a cat for the better part of three years, and I would repeatedly say that she brought an 'infusion of love' into our lives. We also looked after my co-worker's bird for one week, almost four years ago, and we still talk how much we doted on him, how much fun we had with him.

Animals bring fun, love and well-being into the home. So why not ask them into the yoga studio? It seems to work (it would be nigh on impossible not to be in a good mood with a cat snoozing on your yoga mat or a baby goat bleating in your ear when you're upside down). One of the studios here in LA brings adoptable cats into their studio, hence doubling as a pet adoption. It may sound like a bit of a stretch (no pun intended) but yoga and animals go together, and together they may be a nice way to consciously cultivate compassion. I've yet to attend a baby goat yoga class, but it is high up on my to-do list.

Find out about Mockingbird studio here

Read more about yoga with cats here

Rad more about baby goat yoga here 

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