How to bring compassion into your yoga practice with Esther Ekhart

If we bring compassion for ourselves, our bodies and our minds to our yoga mat, we can make the world a happier and healthier place, says Esther Ekhart, founder of EkhartYoga

Esther Ekhart practising yoga at home

Yoga has always been a part of my life, in one way or another. It was my mum who got me into it; she started going to yoga classes, then she went on to do her teacher training. I saw how it really worked for her, making her more relaxed and happier in herself, and it piqued my interest.

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I started sneaking into the room where she practised and copying her, noticing that it was actually quite difficult. She started teaching me, and that was how it all began.

When I was 18, I went to do my own yoga teacher training. I was very lucky – I think my teacher saw something in me, and I became somewhat of a protégé for him! He educated me about the philosophy of life and the importance of compassion for yourself and others; his advice really changed me.

I grew up in The Netherlands but moved to Ireland when I was 26, and that’s when I began to teach yoga full-time. While we were there, my husband built a yoga studio – the Boab Centre. It could only fit about 12 people in the room and was made of clay, with a grass roof. It was beautiful.

I was teaching 10 or 12 classes a week, each one full to bursting, yet I felt bad about the people who wanted to attend but couldn’t fit into the class. I didn’t have the resources to build a bigger centre in order to reach them. One day, when I was on a meditation retreat, I was walking in the forest and I suddenly had this idea to put classes online, so that more people could join. At that point, I hadn’t even considered that this could reach people all over the world – it was just a practical solution, aimed at people in the local villages.

I started small, on YouTube, and when that took off I decided that I wanted to create a subscription website, where people could access all kinds of yoga classes. EkhartYoga was launched in 2012 and since then it’s grown from just six teachers and three styles of yoga to a platform offering thousands of classes, programmes and in-depth learning resources for students and teachers alike! I’m still just so happy that it worked, that people actually subscribed.

I love what it does for people too; the responses are so lovely. We get so many emails, thank you notes and comments and it means the world to me. As long as it’s working well for everyone, from our members to our teachers, that’s all that matters.

Esther Eckhart sitting outside with her dog
Harold Pereira & Lyanne Keegstra

For me, online yoga has so many benefits. There are the practical elements – some people live remotely and can’t get to a studio, while others work irregular hours so aren’t able to attend a regular class in person. Then there’s the fact that you can find such a huge range of classes, teachers and styles to choose from. But the most important benefit for me is that it builds confidence.

I hear from so many people who don’t feel ready to go to a class; they feel self-conscious or that they need to look or be a particular way in order to attend. Of course, that isn’t the case at all – yoga really is for everybody. But if they can set themselves up at home, with no one next to them to distract them or compare themselves to, and do good classes with good teachers, they will start to feel more confident. Then they can go on to find a local class where they feel comfortable, and enjoy sharing their practice with others, too.

I feel very passionate about EkhartYoga’s classes being authentic and inclusive, especially now with everything that’s happening on social media. I’m not judging it – what people can do with their bodies is beautiful and can also be inspiring.

But if that becomes the norm, then yoga becomes a self-selecting practice – people won’t want to learn and go to classes if they don’t look a certain way or can’t do certain things. And that’s really not what yoga is all about. You should be able to adapt your yoga to suit where you are in your body and your life, not the other way around.

So on EkhartYoga, if a teacher falls out of a pose or trembles during a strong practice, I always leave it in. It’s important for people to understand that yoga isn’t about doing something perfectly – it’s about showing up and doing your version of it. Setting up your home practice is really just about working out what works for you.

Esther Eckhart practising yoga at home
Harold Pereira & Lyanne Keegstra

Some people like to do their classes first thing in the morning, while others prefer to do it when they get home from work, or just before bed. I think finding out what suits your rhythm and personality is key to maintaining a regular yoga practice.

The main thing is that it’s easy for you, because then you’ll actually settle down and commit to it. It’s the same for length as well – if you have the luxury of doing a long practice every day then that’s great, but most people have busy lives so that may not be possible.

I recommend doing a regular 20 minute practice (or however long you can fit in). But try to do one longer session a week if you can as well, just to keep exercising your ability to concentrate on doing one thing. We’re losing our ability to do that these days, but if we practise it on the mat, then we’ll get better at it off the mat too. Above all, the most important thing is to practise with compassion.

Yoga should be about compassion; for ourselves, our bodies and our minds. It means practising in a way that serves rather than harms, that is kind rather than judgemental, and to take this approach with us off the mat and into daily life. This will hopefully lead us to a point where we are incapable of hurting ourselves, others or the world.

5 yoga poses to help you to relax at bedtime

Esther shares five yoga poses to relax your body and mind before sleep. You can even do them in bed if you like!

Seated neck release
Harold Pereira & Lyanne Keegstra

1

Seated neck release

Release built-up tension in the neck and jaw. Sit in a comfortable position and tilt your ear towards your shoulder. Don’t go to your maximum stretch – you’re just aiming for a gentle release. Relax your jaw and both shoulders and take 3-5 breaths before moving to the other side.

Reclined butterfly
Harold Pereira & Lyanne Keegstra

2

Reclined butterfly

Connect with your breath and feel grounded, yet open. Bend your knees and, with the soles of your feet together, let your knees drop out to the side (you can support them with cushions). Place your hands on your belly and feel the breath move in and out for 1-3 minutes.

Reclined easy twist
Harold Pereira & Lyanne Keegstra

3

Reclined easy twist

Unwind your spine with a gentle twist. Bend your knees and take them over to the right side, using cushions for support if needed. You can keep the feet together or take them slightly apart. If comfortable for the neck, turn your head to the left. Stay for 1-3 minutes before taking the twist to the other side.

Supported child's pose
Harold Pereira & Lyanne Keegstra
4

Supported child’s pose

Feel deeply supported in one of my all-time favourite poses. Come into a kneeling position and drape your torso over a bolster or pile of pillows. Feel the weight of your upper body completely supported, staying here for 1-3 minutes. This pose allows your parasympathetic nervous system to get to work and your body to deeply relax.

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Legs up the wall pose
Harold Pereira & Lyanne Keegstra

5

Legs up the wall

Ease restlessness. This pose is great to do if you’ve been on your feet all day and can also help to ease restless legs. Start off by lying on your side, with your bolster or pillows within reach. Bring your hips close to the wall, bend your knees then roll into your back. Push into the wall and lift your hips to slide the bolster under your lower back. Stay here for 5-10 minutes.