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“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – The 14th Dalai Lama
Academics form an institute to study kindness
UCLA just received a $20 million grant to open its Kindness Institute. The Institute is designed to study the effects of kindness across many disciplines – from evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological perspectives. Daniel Fessler, the director of the new Institute who has been studying kindness for 15 years, says that “science shows practicing kindness and compassion has direct emotional, psychological and medical effects.”
I, who have been studying yoga for a little longer than Fessler has been studying kindness, would like to point out two key points in the above statement. First, according to the scholars and scientists at the Kindness Institute, kindness is or can be a practice. Second, the emotional, psychological and medical effects of practicing kindness mentioned being studied are experienced by the one being kind. That’s right. The positive effects that the recipient of kindness experiences often pale in comparison to the effects felt by the person making the kind gesture.
Kindness, when practiced, becomes a habit
Kindness as a practice can begin on a yoga mat. It is interesting that yoga, like the scientists at UCLA, flips the direction that one would assume the effects of kindness would flow. When practicing yoga, we practice being kind to ourselves. We are gentle with and respectful of our bodies as we move on our mats. Resting when tired. Backing off of a challenging stretch when we cannot sustain it while maintaining slow, even breaths. We are patient with our hopes for progress, choosing instead to accept ourselves as we are right now.
It doesn’t take long before the kindness we show to ourselves when practicing asana (yoga postures) becomes second nature. In other words, by practicing kindness, kindness becomes a habit. Without warning, we will find ourselves seizing opportunities to be kind all throughout our days. Picking up litter on our way into a store. Slowing down for a few seconds to hold the door for the person behind us. Choosing to allow someone else to park in the “God spot” near the door of the mall. Offering a poop bag to another dog owner caught unprepared in the park.
Kindness connects us to the world around us
The very word yoga means to yoke together or to be connected. Yoga teaches us that we are all part of an unfathomably huge whole. The purpose of the first five elements of yoga philosophy, the yamas, is to keep our relationships (with others, ourselves and our higher power) healthy. Practicing kindness, then, is a natural way to practice yoga off our mats and in our lives as we deepen and strengthen our connection to the world around us.
Kindness is good for our health
Just as practicing yoga is good for you, so is practicing kindness. In fact, being kind has some powerful health benefits. According to Psychology Today, being kind boosts your serotonin, a hormone that gives you a feeling of satisfaction or wellbeing. Kindness can also reduce anxiety, according to a study at the University of British Columbia. Kindness is also good for your heart, and therefore helps you live longer. According to Dr. Susan Cain in her blog, when we are kind to someone, our bodies release oxytocin, which dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. Finally, kindness deepens and strengthens our relationships (our connections, to use a yoga word), which, according to medical doctors across disciplines, makes us healthier and happier.
With all of these benefits, is it surprising that an act of kindness could be as good (if not better) for the one being kind than it is for the one receiving the kind gesture?
Be kind for kindness’ sake
Without a $20 million grant, my years of studying yoga make me certain of one more super-important thing. For a kind act to be most powerful (for both giver and receiver) it must be authentic. Yoga teaches us to do for the sake of doing, not with attachment or hopes of any specific result. In this light, then, yoga would caution us from being kind because it is good for us. To be kind in hopes of somehow benefitting ourselves would seriously diminish the results of the act – for all involved. Rather we should be kind for kindness’ sake – letting goodness flow out into the world and maybe back our way.
Having explored the power kindness from my yoga mat, leaves me waiting eagerly to see what else the scholars at UCLA learn. In the meantime, I’ll wrap up with one more quote – “Kindness is free. Sprinkle that stuff everywhere.” The world around you and the world within you will be a better place because you do.
If you’re looking for a warm, welcoming community where you can practice giving and receiving kindness, join our community at Yoga With Spirit.