Compassion, judgement,pity and the places in between.

Posted on June 15, 2012


Every Tuesday and Thursday I teach yoga asana to women who are afflicted with have eating disorders.

Severe eating disorders.

There are parts of me that want to jest about this somehow –to throw up a wall of sarcasm & block the primal truth of human pain and vulnerability writ large in the giant eyes and bird thin wrists of my students.

I know -I’ve said that being vulnerable is a good thing – sometimes I find it hard to take my own advice.

I laugh to avoid the deep. When the waters are too rough and my soul too leaky to withstand the gales of a fierce storm – I laugh to stay afloat. I laugh to shroud the things that have the capacity to pull my heart wide open apart and climb in to nap. I laugh to avoid being vulnerable…I am by default locked in to all these things so perhaps in truth laughter is simply a scaffolding that helps tie all of my disparate pieces together.

Anyway – I don’t want to laugh today- I want to find a place that’s not only comfortable but vulnerable just shut my eyes and go there.

In house treatment.

I always bring a cardigan with me to class – the staff asked me to cover my arms because the curve of muscle & adipose tissue can make the patients (heretofore known as my ladies) anxious. I wear pants and sleeves down to mid forearm at the shortest. I wear scarves twined around my neck and prayer beads covering my left wrist. Dressing for class is almost like dressing for god or for war – covering the most vulnerable parts of me to protect myself and others. It is unbearably hot teaching in layers -hot to those with curvy bodies anyway .The sharply angled bodies of my ladies are always covered in sweaters and socks and long thick pants. They tell me that it’s freezing in the yoga room, arms wrapped around thin legs. I guess that it has to be cold in a body made of nothing more than of a thin layer of skin stretched over bone and tendon…over heart and soul… I want to hug light into them but I can’t.

No Lunges.

No squats.

No deep forward folds.

No deep twists.

No touching.

No questions.

My instruction before I began teaching the class from the head nurse. Her delivery was caring as well as curt – Osteopenia and osteoporosis she says-the residents are very delicate. I can understand the curtness- it keeps the reality of her job out of her. She tells me this as a a girl with arms like bird wings wanders by with a tube up her nose snaking into her belly – to feed her. It took me a few visits to realize what it was. It took me a few more to stop seeing my ladies as the hollow boned finches. To see past their proximity to death and ease into the experience as a teacher instead of a healer of “broken things”.


Death is a complex thing. When I was 16 years old I started working in veterinary hospitals. That same year I saw my first traumatic death and then another and another and another. Watching creatures die clicked this thing in me. Made me want to heal the world that much more. Made me want to crawl into the cages of animals with cancer and hold them as we pumped chemo into their veins. Made me want to sooth the aches, the gouges the viruses and auto immune disorders. I wanted to pull all pain and all suffering from these creatures and place it in a deep hole so it could never hurt them again.

Most of the time I put the animal there instead.

This was one of the greatest lessons of my youth. Sitting with death and knowing it’s complexities on an intimate level.

I discovered how much we fear it. How much we fight it. I learned the nuances of compassion and connection and loss. I learned pity. Because of this I discovered asana – I was 18 and working full time as a vet tech and my soul was hungry for some place to be and that place to be was on my mat breathing and releasing and sometimes sobbing. I hold much love for my first teachers because they allowed me that space to work through and in and I  think in return I became a teacher that allows space for tears in class.


The thing about compassion is it constantly moves and grows in the body. No amount of knowingness in the head space can deepen the experience/understanding of it. Body knowledge keys the lock and the head comes after to analyze and assimilate. The ability to know compassion is available to all of us…some of us know it at the body level more fully than they know any other thing.

Hi. That’s me.

I teach this. I teach from that place I found when I was younger and I teach with my heart wide open. Admittedly a lot of this is vestigial.My mantra while working with animals was this:

I will stop doing this the day that I stop feeling in the face of death.

I stopped working in hospitals at 28 – not because I stopped feeling – because my soul stretched too thin and I had a psychotic break couldn’t stop feeling. One would think that I would shutter my heart after that…but while there are new filters in place (crazy pants meds) I think it just opened me up more to the beauty and suffering of others.


My first class I drove home crying. I wanted so badly to be strong – but when faced with raw pain, and swollen joints, and the fear of hurting someone while trying to help…it was a lot. All I want to do is crawl into a pile of these willowy women, hug them and listen to their hurts and fears and dreams and drives and let them know that it can be ok. That everything will be ok.

My ladies – they are private. They practice together and suffer alone. They wander into my classes like wraiths and every few weeks or months a group of them leaves for another center- another level of treatment. Each has a story. A path they walked to this exact moment and that path is equally as compelling and beautiful as the 7 billion other stories that fill this earth. I only get to know the part of their story that happens when they are practicing with me and I think that the brevity and not knowingness is a lot of what eats at me. I want to know and help and heal. I want to help lay flesh across their bones to keep them warm.

But that isn’t my role. My role is to teach.

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” – Pema Chödrön:

Yes. That one. Nails it.

Teaching from a place that is not only compassionate but equal and in being equal also allows space for vulnerability. My first teachers knew this – how to hold space and remain compassionate without being intrusive. How to afford vulnerability without taking on the ills of others. How to walk the edge of the deep and give without stepping into the storm.

I am learning this.

I continue to learn the nuances of compassion.

I am learning how not to pity.

I still cry sometimes after class but not as often- I go home and tell Chu about my experiences and cry more and deeply and then we talk about where the grief comes from. I can sit in the teaching space without thinking about Hecate and her hound but I am still easing into it. I sit with the parts of me that want to pity and judge or remove the lessons of life from these wonderful women. I allow for vulnerability.

so.. … . . .

Every Tuesday and Thursday I teach yoga asana to women who are afflicted with have eating disorders and it is one of the greatest lessons of my middling years.

Much love