“As I began to love myself, my relationship with everyone changed.”

Yoga is a contemplative practice. Like meditation, many prayer practices, journaling, Tai Chi and many, many others, yoga gives us the chance to practice concentrating and focusing, with the higher goal of developing an understanding of ourselves. In addition to creating deeper self-knowledge, contemplative practices awaken our spiritual side. For some this serves to deepen an existing faith. For others, a spiritual awakening creates a longing to live more ethically or empathetically with the world around us.

Even if we begin to practice yoga for the physical gifts – strength, flexibility, or endurance – the practice quietly draws us past this surface level. As we move and breathe on our yoga mats, we shift into “observer” mode. In the beginning, we are observing things like the alignment of our bodies or our level of fatigue. Before long, however, we’re observing more subtle things. We begin to notice physical growth and change in ourselves. We begin to notice our reactions – to success or to challenge or to the glimpse we just caught of a super bendy classmate.

Once we start to notice our reactions, we begin to realize we have choices not only in physical actions such as how we move our body, but in how we respond to situations. As this happens, our glimpse of that flexible classmate may elicit a deep breath rather than a surge of envy. In time, that deep breath will be coupled with a deliberate effort to refocus on ourselves.

This shift in focus may simply draw our awareness back to the physical experience we’re having in that moment. But, with practice, these moments of mindfully refocusing will shift into powerful moments of affirmation. We may feel pleased about the moment we’re having – a sense of gentle pride that we can do something we once could not, or the nurturing understanding that we’re doing something to take care of ourselves or a gentle pat on the back for stretching ourselves to do something difficult.

Like our experience and abilities on our mat, these moments of affirmation begin to accumulate. Over time, yoga leaves us with a (sometimes very new) appreciation for ourselves. With more time, this appreciation deepens into love.

Loving ourselves is very foreign for many of us. Something in our culture makes it much easier to beat ourselves up than to love ourselves. We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We compare ourselves not just to the “real people” we know and love, but to the fictitious images of perfection that we see in advertisements, magazines, movies and even in our own imaginations. We chastise ourselves for mistakes made. We drop our heads in shame when we don’t fulfill our own ridiculous expectations.

We rarely, if ever, offer ourselves gentle generosity  – forgiveness, understanding, the chance to make amends or simply to try again.

On our mats, these gentle gestures of generosity are easier to try. After all, the world will not end if you cannot touch your toes. “Good Lord! It’s only yoga,” says one my favorite teachers, David Swenson, with a laugh and a smile.

This practice with gentle generosity with yourself piles up like all practice does. Before we know it, we are more forgiving, more understanding, more willing to say “Whoops!” and try again off our mats. In a nutshell, we are more willing to treat ourselves with love. In a powerful proof of the adage, “Fake it until you make it,” the more we treat ourselves as if we love ourselves, the more we actually begin to love ourselves. It’s a little miraculous, actually.

More miraculous, however, is that this new relationship with ourselves sets the tenor for every single relationship we have in life. Because we have always been stingiest with self-love, learning to love on ourselves opens flood gates of love out into the world. When someone messes up, it begins to feel quite natural to say, “No problem, let’s try again.” When someone has a different approach than ours, we might notice feeling curious rather than defensive. When someone disagrees with us, we might find ourselves looking for ways to connect rather than ways to convert them to our beliefs. When someone hurts us, we might pause to attempt to see past the pain we’re feeling to wonder at what pain they must be in to hurt us so.

It is a wonderful cyclical joy that when we embrace a contemplative practice such as yoga and begin to live more gently and more generously in the world, the world around us returns the favor. Perhaps love really does make the world go ‘round.