That’s what my yoga teacher instructed during our Power Vinyasa class. Yoga teachers say a lot of crazy things, which makes sense, since they talk us into action that would not occur to most of us.
“Find your IT band.” Hmm, I think it’s in my leg. I’m pretty sure it’s grumpy. How do I locate it on my own?
My yoga teacher can make the splits look effortless. She can stand on her hands with ease, even when she’s 9 months pregnant. It’s easy to look at her in a pose and think simultaneously, 1) “Wow, that’s incredible,” and 2) “My body will never do that.”
It dawned on me, in the middle of class (which demonstrates my monkey mind), that what I ask my clients to do, the ways I attempt to stretch their minds or to think differently, is a lot like mental yoga.
One mental muscle I help to enhance is empathy, as we don’t necessarily have to access it on a daily basis. It’s not in the required major muscle group to lead an engineering department or develop new technology. Or is it?
I recently gave a client a homework assignment to develop his empathy for someone who regularly challenges him. I gave a few prompting questions and he submitted a thoughtful account of the following:
- Common places that he and his Challenger have opposing perspectives
- Historical and demographic influences that have shaped the Challenger’s life (facts)
- Primary value (loyalty) of the Challenger
My client completed the assignment. He put in his best effort, he struggled with it. On paragraphs that I asked for more, he gave it. Where I pushed him, he obliged. But I was left feeling like we hadn’t quite reached the goal.
How do you teach someone to breathe into their shoulder blades?
In yoga, I find it’s helpful when the instructor walks around and makes very subtle adjustments, with dramatic results. A little pressure to my right hip can completely open a pose, or a touch to my left shoulder reminds me that it’s up at my ear instead of pulling down towards the ground. A hand on my back informs my mind that tightness resides there, that there is tension in my shoulders that forbids expansion. While my breath will biologically only enter and exit my lungs, I have learned that sending breath into the space between my shoulder blades is in fact a reality, an incredible focus of the mind.
Empathy, too, is a light touch. It dwells near sympathy, but is much fuller. It is confused with pity, but they are distant cousins. It requires compassion (to suffer with), courage, and vulnerability. It exists only with an open heart, and is incapable of being in the same room with judgment. It is caring, and understanding, and feeling for another, with the other. It asks us to tune in to a time when we had a similar experience, access the personal feelings we had, remember how we felt in our own skin. While holding on to that visceral and emotional story, we reach across the chasm between ourselves and the other and say, “Yes, I’ve been there too.” But it doesn’t become about us….we can contain our own emotional wound and still be present with the other’s current experience. Truthfully, no words are needed. Empathy does not need a voice. She’s a good listener. She is incredibly wise, but intellect is irrelevant.
Perhaps the needed adjustment is a small, gentle palm to our own heart.
A breath into that space between.