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Yoga for forgiveness

Research shows that practising forgiveness has substantial mental and physical health benefits. These include lower risk of heart attack, improved cholesterol and sleep, and reduced anxiety, depression, stress, pain and blood pressure.

When we don’t forgive others, we find ourselves in a state of anger and resentment, which triggers the stress response and ultimately results in negative health impacts. Anger triggers the “fight or flight” state, switching on the stress response, causing the heart rate and blood pressure to rise and the body to prioritise systems only related to immediate survival. The mind races so that you can make quick decisions and focus on a perceived threat, all of which is useful from an evolutionary perspective when there is an actual tiger running towards you. But when the tiger is another person we are obsessively focusing on, or perceiving as a “threat”, that anger is ultimately going to drain our “prana” or life force. Movements of the mind are just energy, and hatred is like a vacuum that will suck the life out of you, leaving you exhausted. Suppressing the immune system in this way in moments of crisis is necessary for the short term. However, when we are triggering this stress response long term because of our inability to let go of feelings like anger and resentment, our health will eventually suffer. Not forgiving others isn’t punishing them; it’s making you sick.

Aversion as an obstacle to peace

Patanjali tells us in the second pada of the Yoga Sutras that aversion (dvesha) is one of the five main afflictions (kleshas), or obstacles to yoga. If you want more peace in your life, you will have to work with aversions. They are one of the root causes of your unhappiness. When you experience aversion, you try to create distance and separation from that person or thing you feel repelled by. The goal of yoga is the opposite to this: it’s non-separation, to reunite, bring together and yoke.

When you find yourself being triggered and wanting to create distance from a person or experience, the yoga practice invites you instead to get curious — to take a good, hard look at why you are trying to move away and create separation. Sometimes there is a good reason to create some distance. Your intuition may tell you something or someone is not safe, and you should always listen to that. Or perhaps some time and distance bring clarity needed to move towards resolution. Maybe a boundary needs to be set to keep your mental and physical health intact. Often there’s not really a tiger; rather, the repulsion is showing us where there is some work still to be done inside ourselves. I get very excited when I feel aversion towards someone, or they make me angry, especially if I can’t let it go, because generally I know there is some very unattractive part of myself that I am avoiding having a serious look at. But once I do, I feel lighter and freer.

Keys to forgiveness

Svadhyaya or self-study

You’re not going to like everyone. The point is not to love the people you hate. The point is to seek to understand where that hatred comes from and try to soften it. You may not be able to love your enemies, but you can always forgive them. Resolution doesn’t look like a neat, tidy package. Healthy, human relationships are imperfect and messy. It can be a big jump to forgive those who have hurt us. Start in the tiny. Notice when you have an aversion or dislike of people or experiences in your day-to-day life. Watch your aversion arise, and how you try to get distance and protect yourself. If you look honestly, is there any real danger, or can you soften and seek to understand instead? To be clear, I’m talking about the small triggers, not the big ones that from a psychological point of view take you back to a traumatic experience. That is a separate conversation, that requires specialist help, and I am not a trauma expert. Your safety is primary, and I encourage you to seek help from professionals who can provide you with all the tools you need if you do feel overwhelmed by specific triggers. However, studying the self every day, observing how we respond to those small triggers, shows us where we are stuck or where we need more support, and works that muscle to help us flex forgiveness in the bigger and harder moments.

Working with hatred

You’re going to love some people more than others. That’s just the reality of being human. Get interested in how you value some people and things more than others, how you attach to the ones you like and try to get as much distance as possible from the ones you don’t. When aversion turns to hatred, that’s when the real work begins. Getting curious about what is sitting underneath that deep aversion will foster some very powerful self-knowledge. My greatest learning has come from those I have found it almost impossible to forgive or build a bridge with. I’m so grateful I’ve had those experiences now in order to understand who I really am and soften those more rigid parts of myself. They have fostered empathy both for my own imperfections and others’. Don’t be afraid of hatred, but don’t let it steal your energy and attention. Do what you can to understand where it comes from and act from that place.

Breath

The quickest way to shift from “fight or flight” into a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state is through the breath. Research suggests that it takes somewhere between three and seven breaths to move from the sympathetic nervous system, where the threat state is triggered, to the parasympathetic state. The parasympathetic nervous system allows us to move from the limbic brain, which is full of emotions and reactivity, into the prefrontal cortex where we can think more clearly and problem-solve. We cannot forgive when we are still in a threat state. Use the breath in order to put your brain back into a healthy place where it can work through what it needs to in order to foster forgiveness.

Compassion

The only time we cause harm is when we are unconscious. As practitioners of yoga and meditation, we know how hard it is to stay conscious, even with all the things we have in our toolkit. We still lash out and cause harm in an unguarded moment and that’s OK, it’s part of being human. Let that serve as a reminder to ourselves how challenging it is to not cause harm in the world.

One of the primary foundations of yoga, like Buddhism, is ahimsa or non-harm. Compassion is the key to everything. It softens the hardest heart and leads to understanding. It is a generous act we can practise every moment of every day and one of the most important practices when we are working on forgiveness. Start with compassion for the self, honouring our humanity and validating our experience. It is not possible to forgive others without first forgiving yourself. Look at whatever is getting in the way of you holding space to have empathy for yourself or forgive yourself for the imperfect human you are. We are all going to make mistakes and make a big, fat mess of things. When we see it in ourselves, we give others more space to make mistakes too. As you try to have compassion for someone or something that has caused you harm, notice what arises and what gets in the way of your ability to do so. Maybe you can find a way to work with that block.

Curiosity

Seeking to understand is a powerful way to stay out of judgement and stand firmly in curiosity and compassion. When you sit in judgement, you are viewing the world through the filters of your experience. The mind doesn’t see things as they are, rather through the smudged glasses of our unique world view. Our mindset, culture, beliefs, past events, among other things all colour the lenses. When you stay curious and present, you clean the lenses and see things more clearly.

Research shows it takes less than a second to form an impression of someone. You are constantly unconsciously scanning for threats, necessary for your survival. But if the mind stays in the loop of your opinions and judgements, you will see threats where they don’t exist. The more open you stay, the more interested you are in others, the easier it is to forgive.

When you put yourself in others’ shoes you are trying compassion for size and may be surprised at what you discover in the process. You don’t need to fully comprehend someone else’s behaviour. Think about your own actions and why you do the things you do. We are very complex beings. But in seeking to understand, we step out of judgement, and maybe understand a small part of a person or situation that otherwise you would have stayed blind to. You may even discover an aspect of yourself in the very thing you despise in someone else. Be honest and kind in the process and know that the more responsibility you take in every relationship, the more empowered you become.

Assume people are doing their best

We act in life with whatever conditioning and tools we have. Very few people wake up in the morning thinking, “Today I’m going to cause harm!” And yet all of us cause harm regularly, unintentionally. It’s a great reason for us to prioritise yogic practice ourselves in order to stay conscious and minimise the suffering we ourselves are creating in the world, both to self and to others. Instead of judging others, contemplate your own actions, examining where you cause harm each day. Is there a place you can take conscious action — do better, forgive yourself or apologise to someone else? Instead of assuming the worst, can you change your perspective and consider that perhaps those who harm us are also doing their best with what they have? When we assume bad intent, it will blur the lenses in all our experiences. Assuming good intent isn’t being a pushover; it just reframes how you view the world and how you may go into conversations and experiences. Perhaps it helps you stay open instead of immediately being on the defensive or attack. Or it may help build a small bridge to understanding.

Liberation

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” So said Nelson Mandela.

Forgiveness doesn’t just free others. Ultimately it frees you from the bondage of self-hatred, for the choices you made and the chains of resentment and anger which keep you small and exhausted. Don’t just do it for others. Do it for you.

Forgiveness yoga practice

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Thus Mahatma Ghandi.

Forgiveness is going to require your courage. In this practice, we ignite a little bit of fire to build our courage, with some heart-opening to widen our capacity for compassion. In addition, we stretch the psoas which contracts when we are in fight or flight. As we release it physically, it helps move towards a parasympathetic state. Finishing with some dreamy restorative elements to keep us in the rest and digest state.

Crescent lunge — Stretches psoas line and opens heart

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From standing, step left foot back, setting right knee over heel and left hip over knee. Pick the pelvis up so you are stretching front of left hip. Either keep the knee down or extend the back leg, trying to keep the pelvis lifted as you do. Keep back heel over ball of foot. Interlace fingers behind the back and open the heart as you slide wrists down the back leg. Take five breaths and over to the other side.

Forearm plank — Builds core, igniting inner fire of courage

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From all fours, place forearms on ground, parallel to one another, shoulders over elbows. Tuck toes and extend legs, walking feet back so that heels are over toes, legs active and hips in line with shoulders. Take five to 10 breaths.

Camel — Opens heart, stretches psoas and ignites fire

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From kneeling, tuck toes and lift hips up over knees. Place hands in lower back and climb the heart up. Stay here or reach hands to feet. Engage the belly. Take five breaths, come back up and sit on heels as you close eyes and feel.

Lizard — Stretches psoas and hips and move towards restorative

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From all fours, step right foot to right side of mat, toes turning out, knee over heel. Shuffle the left leg back until it is extended. Keep arms extended or take forearms to the earth or blocks. Have a few breaths with knee over heel. Let the right knee drop out to side and come to outer edge of foot. Support head with hands or blocks. Take five to 10 breaths.

Supported bridge — Restorative heart-opener

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Lying on back, feet hip width apart, lift hips up and place a block under lower back and sacrum. Let hips be heavy. Keep knees over heels. Take five to 10 breaths.

Reclined Supta baddhakonasana — Restorative heart and hip opener

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Reclining on a pillow or bolster, take soles of feet together and butterfly knees out to side. Support knees with blocks if needed. Take 10 to 15 breaths.

Full yogic breath — To shift into parasympathetic nervous system

Still reclined on bolster, slowly breathe into lower belly, side ribs, back ribs, filling the container all the way to the collar bones with breath, and then let the breath move out naturally on your exhale. Don’t fill the breath so much that you feel anxious. Focus on lower belly as it tends to be the most challenging to fill and is most helpful in calming. Think about filling it to about 90 per cent capacity so you are full but calm. Take seven to 10 rounds.

Photography TESSA TRAN

Rachael Coopes

Rachael Coopes

As a mama, writer, Play School presenter and yoga teacher, Rachael Coopes loves storytelling and yoga philosophy. A Certified 800-hour Jivamukti teacher with more than 1000 hours of training and a decade of teaching, she currently facilitates Yoga Teacher Training programs at BodyMindLife. She is eternally grateful to all her teachers.

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