Excerpt from AC’s work-in-progress book “Sacred imperfection - living, breathing yoga”

The Embrace of Earth

How do we face the obstacles that are bound to block our passage from time to time as we travel on the road of life? In one of the most beautiful verses of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes how meeting pleasant things and people with friendliness, meeting unhappy, sorrowful circumstances with compassion, meeting truly good things with delight and really bad ones with equanimity will make the consciousness settle (1.33).

I think it’s safe to say that for most people dedicated to the practice of yoga, compassion is regarded as something that carries as much capital (in this case spiritual) as driving the newest Audi does if you’re a banker or reading Proust on your vacation if you’re an academic. And in a world where compassion is sorely needed to replace the walls that we literally and figuratively build to close ourselves off from those who suffer, this is a good thing.

In Five Element theory, the element that supports compassion is Earth. What at least traditionally signifies the mother is what we meet here: Earth in balance is nurturing, caring and all-embracing.

When I think of this element, I always think of that day when I lay down on the warm earth in a place that I love after months of struggle. My back was resting on the ground, my heavy head and heart finally felt supported, and I was transported to a different state of mind almost immediately. No matter what else was going to happen in my life, at least the earth had my back at this very moment. Some days, I can still sense that warm firmness against my skin.

Replicating the qualities of earth is something we find ourselves doing a lot as yoga teachers. We support, we nourish, we embrace. And we wouldn’t want it any other way, as truly caring for others is second-nature for so many of us.

Nevertheless I see a lot of yogis burn out due to all this caring. Not because they care too much about their students, but because they bring unlimited compassion into all areas of their personal lives as well.

Giving 90% to those people we care about and receiving maybe 10% back is not uncommon amongst many of the yoginis I know. Many of us have carried this pattern with us since childhood, so it can be extremely hard to dissolve, and while always being in a 50/50 relationship is not necessarily possible and might not even be what we want, there should at least be a little bit of balance.

If you find yourself drained, exhausted and sad when you look at what you give (your time, support, compliments, advice, help, etc.) compared to what you receive in return in your most important relationships, this is often a good place to start practicing compassion towards yourself, either by verbalising your own needs, or by making changes in how you relate to those people closest to you.

In my own case, I know that the alternative to this is often hurt disguised as coldness, a coldness that can eventually become irreversible.

Because of this the hardest teaching that my own teacher ever shared with me was to not place anyone outside of my heart, no matter how much I felt that they had let me down. If I did, he said, there would always be a hole the shape of them inside of it, and walking around with a heart full of people-shaped holes obviously isn’t very healthy.

So these days, I try to remind myself that if I keep giving to someone who gives very little back, not because they have very little to give, which would be fine, but because they simply don’t care, then I should probably replace all that giving with kindness towards myself. A great place to start doing this is by spending time in the company of people who are grateful to have me around. This does not mean pushing anyone away. It simply means finding a place for them in my life where they play a smaller and less significant role.

I also remind myself that compassion has to start with me, and that I have to love and respect myself enough to give up striving for the attention of someone who just won’t make space for me in their life and heart. Love that isn’t given freely is very rarely a love worth having, anyway. And if I allow myself to be wise enough to see this, there’s a good chance that I’ll be able not only to compassionately self-nurture but also to give with undiminished energy to those who really appreciate what I have to share.  

In Tibetan Buddhism, compassion always rests in wisdom. And the wisdom of earth is that you’re worthy of the kind of love that feels very much like lying down on the ground in a place you love on a warm summer day, safe, supported and cared for, not having to give or be anything but exactly who you are.


Join AC for a night of self-care on Friday May 3 at 16.30 to 20.30. Two spots left (mobilepay 495 DKK to 51235572 to secure your spot).