November is the beginning of the holiday season, a time for us to naturally focus on celebrations with family and friends---our communities. This year community means so much more to me and I’m guessing you may be feeling the same. Because we have experienced so much isolation and political, racial, and economic division this year, I feel we are more mindful of how important human connection is to our overall happiness and wellbeing. Maybe the silver lining to what our world is currently going through is that we have a better appreciation for community. While this holiday season may be a lot different than how we’ve celebrated in the past, I think it will be more meaningful---less commercial and more focused on ways we can connect with our loved ones. A trend that I hope continues beyond this holiday season.
So, how can we cultivate stronger connections? As a yogi, I look towards the yoga philosophies and practices to help guide me and have a few ideas for you to consider. But first, I want to share with you some fascinating facts I found about the positive effects of human connection.
Human connection improves our health and happiness
Connection to others is a key component of who we are as human beings and is innate for our survival. A study conducted by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D, a Science Director at Stanford University concluded that strong connections make us healthier, happier, and actually help us live longer----a 50% increased chance of longevity! It strengthens our immune systems and reduces anxiety and depression. She sited one study that even determined that “lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.”
Brene Brown, writer and research professor on subjects of vulnerability, courage, shame and empathy summarizes our basic need for human connection:
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
Yoga-inspired ways to cultivate stronger connections
Yoga is grounded in nurturing strong connections. In fact, the word yoga means to yoke or union---the coming together and the interconnectedness of everything and everyone. Yoga is a key factor that has contributed to my personal growth and has helped me develop more intimate relationships. It has taught me to be more open, compassionate, honest, and communicative and, as I’ve shared before, I wholeheartedly believe it helped me to marry the man of my dreams.
One practice that has helped me nurture connection to myself and to others is using the maitri mediation technique. Maitri translates to loving-kindness and it’s a beautiful meditation to cultivate love and compassion for ourselves and others which naturally draws us closer. This meditation gently lowers the walls we may have built around us and opens are hearts. I recommend you try it.
Here’s how to practice maitri meditation
In this meditation you will silently repeat a set of 5 mantras that are designed to have you focus on positive thoughts toward yourself and others. For the first round, the mantra will be directed at you and is:
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I be safe
May I be free from suffering
In the second round, you will dedicate the mantra to someone you love, such as a spouse or close friend. For the third round, select someone who is neutral to you. This is someone who you really don’t have a close connection to, such as your mail carrier or a neighbor that you say hi to on your morning walks, but you don’t really know them. For the fourth mantra, pick someone you dislike. This mantra is very effective in helping you let go of negative feelings you may have for someone. And when you soften that anger or hatred, you feel lighter and less burdened. For each of these mantras, replace the word “I” with the name of each person.
Finally, for the last mantra you will send loving-kindness to all beings:
May all beings be happy
May all beings be healthy
May all beings be safe
May all beings be free from suffering
Notice how each round makes you feel physically and emotionally. Sometimes it may be helpful to repeat a particular round of mantras more than once to allow time for the message to sink in. Each time you practice this meditation you can select new people for each mantra. I also encourage you to take this practice off your meditation cushion (or whatever you sit on while meditating) and practice it out in the world.
Practice loving-kindness in your day-to-day life
Using the maitri meditation as your guide, how can you practice loving-kindness towards yourself, someone you love, someone that is neutral and with someone you dislike?
Practice loving-kindness towards yourself - What action can you take that will cultivate health and happiness in you? It can be as simple as a walk through a park, journaling or committing to a daily meditation practice. Are there things in your life that cause you to suffer that you can let go of? Perhaps an old, limiting belief or a bad habit.
Practice loving-kindness towards someone you love - Think of ways you can bring joy to someone you love. What can you do or say to make them feel special? A “thinking of you” card is so simple, but so meaningful, especially if you elaborate on all the wonderful qualities they have. In what ways can you lift them up?
Practice loving-kindness towards a neutral person – How can you bring a smile to someone (behind their mask, of course)? These days a smile won’t do! So maybe a wave! Say hello and formally introduce yourself. Very simple interactions make such a positive impact and this type of outreach and positive energy is contagious!
Practice loving-kindness towards someone you dislike – This practice can be towards someone you have negative feelings towards. How might you soften your anger or show some compassion to this person? Most often this practice is about you letting go of the negative feelings and energy inside you. I have a quote from the Yoga Sutra on my desk that helps me let go of these feelings, maybe it will help you too:
“Being firmly grounded in nonviolence creates an atmosphere in which others can let go of their hostility.”
As in the maitri meditation practice, notice how you feel in while practicing loving-kindness out in your world.
May you be happy, healthy, safe and free of suffering!
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