Can it always be gentle?

yoga blog, psychology

Life is hard” – “Tough it up” – “You’re too kind” (…)

Have you also heard any of those, or perhaps all of them… many times?

Growing up, I used to cry when I felt hurt, physically or emotionally. Around age 10, adults around me started telling me I was too gentle, too caring, or (worse) too sensitive. Fearing more shame, I started shutting down so eventually I would cry less and show feelings that much. Perhaps, I should grow a thicker skin, I thought.

Twenty-five/thirty years later, after having dedicated a good portion of these to spiritual and personal growth, luckily for me I have learned to soften… again. I have come to understand and experience the value of gentleness, softening, and—ouch—vulnerability; three qualities that our western world does not exactly put first (except perhaps gentleness when it comes to handle a newborn). Personally, my learning process is still ongoing and far from being over, and in fact I like playing with the idea that it might never end—to my very own advantage.

Finding my way into gentleness again

What kickstarted my healing journey (or, we could say, my softening-again journey) was yoga. When I fell in love with the practice fifteen years ago, I was blown away by how I could both take part on an active, dynamic exercising form that clearly and positively affected my body (especially as someone who always learned and lived as not being good at sports) and open up to my inner landscape, slowly opening to a deeper truth that, at that time, I liked to call authenticity. Many things started to shift, both in my body and in my mind. Not only would I quietly cry for no reason in savasana, but I would also prefer spending my Saturday alone or sharing about my feelings with friends rather than drinking beers at the barand discussing mundane things.

One day, someone put between my hands a book that just lighted the bulb in my head: “Issues in your tissues” (Denise Labarre). With its simple language and stories from the author’s hundreds of massage sessions, this book strongly exemplified and clarified for me how our body literally “keeps the score” (another great book) and either suppresses or expresses our psycho-emotional and trauma baggage in many ways. Today, I just take the body-mind (and beyond) interconnection for granted after many years of experience within my skin boundaries of the relationship between my feelings, my thought patterns and narratives, and my physical health and symptoms. Not only does this interconnection make sense, but it has also become a fulfilling and rich way to live my life. Was I to trace this deep understanding and reorganization in me back to its source, I think I’d tie it to make room for gentleness

Gentleness, as I see it, is a conscious willingness to soften, to lessen muscular and mental resistance, and to ultimately deconstruct the shield one has built around oneself. As a result, a better capacity to listen develops. A form of listening that opens the backdoor of our awareness—the sort of door we had forgotten could open or even was there all together. A door into who we are beyond the usual identity and other outer-world definitions.

As I am sure you might have experienced, any form of self-reflection or mindful practice necessarily involves some type of softening in the first place. Let us explore that a little more.

Resisting gentleness

My years of yoga studies and teaching have taught me many things beyond cool postures. One of them is how we bring our life patterns with us on the mat. Of course, yoga (and other presence-oriented disciplines) carries virtuous benefits that can be almost immediate: calming the mind, reducing stress, connecting to oneself, improving body posture, etc. Yet after a while, just like when a romantic relationship passes the honey-moon phase, the old patterns come back and keep repeating.

For example, I have a strong tendency—and I know I am not the only one—to push through in most of the things I do. Whether it is doing a few extra house chores, working a little longer on my computer and ignoring the first sign of needing to pause, or taking on too many responsibilities (without even being asked to), I can easily overextend my energy. On the mat, my tendency translated into a resistance to take breaks in my home practice or skip savasana (i.e., final relaxation time). Beyond my own mat, I have witnessed similar tendencies many times in classes too: people stay seated to meditate longer instead of taking the final rest (“let’s stay productive here!”), or they just never take the option of the break when I offer the choice to go into a pose a second time or not. We are here to get results—not to look down at intense forms of exercises, highly beneficial too—but when it comes to slow down and pause, two forms of gentleness, resistance often appears. Do you recognize that too?

Where has gentleness gone?

Recently, as I was teaching my more active classes, I thought about gentleness and how we can keep practicing it while engaging in something more intense and muscular. For example, in a high plank position, can the groins stay soft and can the neck remain long and spacious? In vipassana (i.e., longer silent mindfulness-based retreats), I heard teachers talk about “effortless effort”: the art of balancing steadiness and detachment, force and gentleness. But where do we find gentleness in the midst of forcefulness?

Most of what we do in life requires some degree of effort, that is some engagement even if only the willingness to lay down and do nothing for five minutes. Meditation and yoga, as many other mindful, present-oriented practices and growth modalities, inherently ask from their practitioners to make the effort to show up. At the next level, if you have had any interest in meditating on your own at some point, you most likely have experienced how difficult it is to bring your wandering mind back to the moment. Doing asanas, rising children, dating someone, meditation, and basic self-care… It nearly always takes some intentional efforts.  

Obviously, our modern world has geared our lives towards efforting so that we continuously think or act—consciously or not—with the aim of producing or achieving something (e.g. exercising, earning money, growing our career, losing weight, holding a hand balance for 30 sec, being a better friend, conscious parenting or another milestone or deadline we ought to meet).

Bringing softness and gentleness into that, ironically, requires a great deal of… effort! “So,” you might ask, “where do we start?”

Gentling our way through

Put this way, remembering to be gentle might seem like an extra TO-DO on our already long list. No, thanks.  

This is exactly where the gentleness revolution, so to speak, can start. With revolution, I allude to a change of paradigm. What if it had nothing to do with adding something… but, in the contrary, making room for less?

Going back to our yoga and meditation examples, can you hold downward-facing dog with the same stability but perhaps a little soft bend in the knees? When you eat lunch, how about slowing down the chewing or just the rhythm of bringing your fork up to your mouth? Can I check my emails or messages on my phone 50% less today? Right now, as we sit, can we relax our belly and our wrists a little?

In meditation, the effortless part of effortless effort, or gentle effort as other teachers have put it, refers to the concept of vairagya or non-attachment, one of the two pillars of the attitudes to adopt in yoga according to Patanjali (see The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, sutra 1.12). In contrast to the second advised attitude—abhyasa or the discipline to stay focused—vairagya conveys the essence quality of an open mind: a willingness to let go and release any attachment whatsoever, which deeper root ties back to our fear of losing control.

The gentle realization

Yes, this brings up a whole other topic, but clearly the general resistance to gentleness must be here for a reason. We, our society, and thus the way we have constructed our daily lives would rather avoid feeling the vulnerability of fully admitting the truth that, ultimately, we are not in control—and will never be, despite all our efforts. This truth, well-known for millennia by many ancient wisdom traditions (i.e., Buddhism, classical yoga, or even Sufism), was recognized as one of our deepest fears, along with the undeniable 100-percent likelihood to die (e.g. Patanjali, Sutra 2.9, and other sutras from Pada 2 on the five causes of suffering, or kleshas).

Will it then be too scary to be gentle, and fully own our vulnerability?

Or does perhaps our accepting of the inevitable, if we dare to go there, come with a deep relief… and the realization of our humanness?

On a practical level, implementing gentleness can start small and take an endless number of forms; from smiling at ourselves in the mirror, holding the door for a stranger, or taking three belly breaths under the shower.

Gentle summary

If you feel inspired to bring a little more gentleness into your life and experience what value it might have for you, here comes a little inspiration:

  • Smile at yourself in the mirror at least once a day.
  • Take three deep breaths while in the shower.
  • Set a timer and lay down for 3 or 5 minutes.
  • Commute or hang out at home without any headphones or speaker on
  • Notice if your thoughts are running a potential conflict in your head and consider simply dropping any righteous argument about it.
  • Next time you stand in line at the grocery store, send a gentle thought to the person next to you.
  • Think of a person you hold some grudge or resentment against and try to send them kindness and wish them well.
  • Visualize you as a child or teenager and hold them in an imaginary circle of warmth, love, and gentleness.
  • When you exercise or do your yoga practice, check if any part of your body can relax or soften without compromising the integrity of the posture, e.g. your neck, groins, knees, jaws, pelvic floor, or even (subtler) your diaphragm or inner armpits.
  • Journal about what gentleness means to you and find three ways in which you can express it on a daily basis.

Wishing you lots of gentleness and deep happiness. Enjoy your exploration, and may gentleness make you receptive to the preciousness of your own presence. Because, in the end, this might be what this life is all about.

Love and warmth,


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