Lessons in Love: Practical Advice from the Yoga Mat

By Melissa Bryan

Lead With Love

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.

May all beings be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.

Valentine’s Day 2021 recently passed, and as I sit on the opposite side of that holiday having just taught my high school students to create heart maps to identify the parts of their lives that fill their hearts, and having just finished Romeo & Juliet with some and Great Expectations with others, I find myself reflecting a lot on love and how it works in the universe. Literature helps us question the larger, and perhaps fated, direction of our future existence; story syntax offers us that predictive power.

What, however, helps us live those universal governing concepts? How do we practice transcendent and deep love in our present? Yoga teaches us that.

These words, “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu” remind us that love radiates out from us; it is the hope for everyone to have happiness and be free, and the best way to receive love ourselves is through contributing to the happiness and freedom of others.

In preparing for my class on Elie Wiesel’s Night this week, I read an excerpt from another Holocaust survival memoir, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning . The imprisoned Frankl says of love while wondering if his wife is still alive, “I knew only one thing- which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.” Frankl’s expression of love is one that, I think, yogis are after when they chant the line, “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.” For him, love is something rooted within oneself, but that simultaneously emits outward, too. It is not another person, it is not formed by the external environment, it is not performative nor dependent, and it is not possible for another to dismantle it; love goes very far from oneself and very far within oneself.

Through a yogic lens, love is happiness and freedom, but it is actually more the quiet , persistent way in which we contribute to those experiences for all beings everywhere.

If yoga is a state of mind after all, and not an action alone, then one way we might define a yogic transcendence and its necessary counterpart, drawing-inward, is as a practice of love. In fact, the practice of love is so tethered to the yogic state of mind that we are often reminded by our teachers to “lead with love” or “shine our hearts out” as in a great physical effort to manifest that which we chant on the mat and hope to contribute to the world beyond our mats.

Much like love, a wildly complicated and muddy emotion, yoga also embraces ambiguity. It is only after many years that one can understand that giving love (happiness and freedom to others) begets love in return, right? Experienced lovers know that love does not rest on another person, nor rely on what others think or feel for them. It doesn’t exist or cease to exist with the comings and goings of people or places, and I think the same is true of yoga. Now, rounding out 20 years of yoga practice, I can finally “sense how all the parts…are involved with each other,” to recall the MoMA’s definition of painting.

I might not be sure of love’s every stroke or be able to articulate in words how yoga interweaves body and mind or know how a painting is birthed, but I “sense the parts” and can see the image clearly. Fortunately, over time, we accrue proprietorship over what we see (art), how we practice (yoga), and the way we live (in love).

Last night, as I lay in my bed, head under my pillow, blocking out remnants of stray light, I uncovered what seems so special about yoga. It’s the way yoga practically instructs all actions – those actions that are very far from the mat, are duty-bound to the mat. And as I endeavor to “lead with love” on the mat, I find I am able to “shine my heart” toward others at home, at work, on the street, and in every meandering quotidian moment of my day. In darkness, I did indeed sense how the parts of my existence are all “involved” with each other, and then I knew I live a yogic life.

A beautiful thought about one’s own selfhood and interrelatedness to the universe to be sure, but what pragmatic tasks allow for an unquestioning acceptance of the cloudy connections between body and mind, love and yoga, mat and street relationships?

I might say that the yoga within me, the practice I purposefully cultivate in the studio, has helped me to recognize the thoughts and feelings I want to explore (and let go of the ones I don’t want to caress or nurture any longer) in my mind, in my heart, and certainly on the page. To paraphrase a yogi scholar whose class I weekly frequent: those ideas that come to you on the mat will come back to you; if they are in you, they will be there when you leave. In other words, those unconsciously spawned insights that spontaneously emerge from the diaphragmatic breathing and the kinesthetic asanas on the mat do not desert you when you sit listlessly on your couch at home. The tender, supple intuitions that gather and calm you on the mat begin to permeate every interaction off of the mat.

I’m quiet at yoga, and I am quiet at home. You are focused in the studio, you are focused at work.

We listen to the teachers while on the mat, we listen to loved ones off of the mat. Continuity is never severed.

In essence, then, the physical practice of asana (as well as the focus on spiritual aspects of the practice and attention to ascending chakras) spurs and affords us a mantra-esque framework on which to attach our habitual lives and through which to evaluate and assess those unpracticed and unmindful words, actions, and thoughts. With a little routine and as an earnest pupil, you can train yourself into “yogic thinking” when away from the practice in order to assess how loving your actions, words, and thoughts really are. But, with ample practice and attendance to the discipline, you can miraculously generate a loving automaticity when engaging with yourself on the mat and with others off of the mat.

While I have come to the mat time and time again over twenty years to hone my physical practice, it is the words and guidance of my teachers that reverberate throughout my days, throughout many months, and throughout the years. Those words and lessons effortlessly follow and flow from me everywhere and everyday, but that isn’t necessarily true of the asana.

Opening Chant

When we open class, very often we chant. One opening chant is “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.” The chants may change, alter, and repeat, but the class will chant together, and that guidance sets us all up for connection. A first act of love. It is not merely a connection with the people in the class, though, because often one’s eyes are closed and your energy is really drawn inward, but the collective voices do what I remember my children’s yoga teacher training said about the purpose of “Om;” namely, Om, like chanting a phrase, is about seeking a universal vibration. While we are within, we are also without. While we seek the depth of our souls or psyches, we are also hoping to channel, I think, somewhat simultaneously, a union with all things in the universe. We are asking together that all beings are happy and free, and we hope our practice will “contribute” love to them. As they say, “That which we manifest….” It is a pretty powerful moment.

As with most openings, the Om or the chant are paired with the setting of one’s intention or dedication. Teachers direct us to practice for another, not for oneself. In my case, while I am on the mat, I tend to have a pretty consistent intention or person to whom I dedicate the practice, but what I realize about intentions, like the practice we have in the physical expressions of asanas, is that they aren’t resolutions nor must they be achieved or won.

There are many days when I am not at my best and when I do not have a “steady gaze and steady breath,” and therefore, I move through the flow without a “steady mind.” Some days, I am just a weak, sluggish blob, but I continue to go, set an intention, sing out with my fellow yogis, and I am secure in the notion that my mat intentions, whether I practice mindfully or not that day, are going far without and within nonetheless. How do I know? I know because, as my teachers have said, “everything is connected;” when we leave yoga we feel better, and we act better, and we simply “sense” that connectedness.

The opening aspects of a class, the chants and dedications, Oms and intentions, I think are like the heart maps I assigned my students this past February. They encompass all of the pieces of our being – the blissful and the broken. I can put them on a page to read or consider them as I move in class; I may not really know how the pieces are involved with one another, but I sense the picture. I know they make up my heart.

All that designs the heart, therefore, is the reason we practice life, just as the intentions we set are why we practice yoga. If we have a bad day or feel blue, we experienced practitioners know that there is no self-damnation, negative narcissism, nor paralytic self-consciousness because our focus was all set for the love of others. There is “no drama, just a lot of rama .” (virtue or chivalry)

To quote my same most sagacious – if at times hilariously cantankerous – yoga master:

Who you are on the mat, is who you are in life.

Practicing Love: Mat Applicability

In top-ten, listicle fashion, below is a smattering of some accrued teacherly “isms” that have a useful impact on the mat and off of the mat. These axiomatic expressions constitute the ways in which we can look at and examine our lives as much as our yoga practice. They reposition us in class, but in life as well. They are, hopefully, the gleaned framework that girds our unattended and unloving thoughts.

1. “Set your drishti”
2. “Make any movements you need to, then settle in”
3. “One breath, one movement”
4. “If you fall out, get back in”
5. “Inhale to lengthen, exhale to deepen”
6. “Your thoughts are not yourself”
7. “If it’s hard to get out of, you are doing it right”
8. “Remove all props”
9. “Without disturbing others, come to sit up”
10. “Shanti, shanti, shanti” – peace, peace, peace

When you think about these lines in the context of a yoga class, all of us practicing yogis understand the power of pranayama, the difficulty of balancing poses, the essentiality of managing your thoughts and distancing yourself healthfully from the obsessive eddies of the mind, the uncomfortable and painful dismounts or exits from splits or backbends, and the time to ready yourself for the unsupported and flaccid corpse-like end of class. The whole practice though, and indeed each line shared here, is an exercise in love (being happy and free). Think about applying some of those very same words to your life outside of the studio and off of the mat.

Take a moment and really think about those very phrases in the context of your relationships. I hope you will sense the same picture that I have; namely, everything is connected and through yoga, it is pretty simple to practice a more loving life.

“Namaste, have a good day.”

Extra Reading
Ode To Psyche


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ditor’s note: This is a guest post by Melissa Bryan, a Karma Kids-trained children’s yoga teacher, a twenty-year practicing yogi, and a high school English and ESL teacher in New Jersey. She holds an MA in Teaching English, an ESL certification, and she is earning an MA in Creative Writing and Literature. She is also an adjunct professor in Writing and Assessment in ESL, and she is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project at the Drew Writing Project/Digital Literacies Collaborative in Madison, NJ.

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