How Maitri Opens Your Heart

Maitri means loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. David Nichtern and Cyndi Lee show you how to do this heart-opening Buddhist practice.

Cyndi Lee
6 November 2019
Photo by Xevi Casanovas.

Our hearts are always fundamentally open. They’re just covered up sometimes by doubt, hesitation, fear, anxiety, and all kinds of self-protective habitual patterns.

The practice of opening the heart is based on exploring and reversing some of these patterns. We cultivate openness while noting and dissolving the habits that obscure our natural sympathy and compassion for others.

At the physical and energetic level, we have an actual heart and surrounding area that can feel shut down and blocked up. So we can work on opening that area, bringing more prana and blood flow and breaking through the constriction and tightness that may have become normal for us.

David: Even though we might feel quite alone in our life and our practice, in the bigger picture we live in an interconnected web with others. The measure of success in our meditation practice is not how much we can transcend the pain and confusion of our own existence, but how much we can truly connect with our lives, and with the others who share it.

After creating a proper ground by training our mind, it is a natural evolution of our practice to develop care and consideration for others. In fact, there are many meditation practices that are intended to develop kindness and compassion toward others as well as ourselves.

It is entirely possible develop more positive habits that benefit oneself and others.

One such practice is called maitri. Maitri means loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. It can be a natural outgrowth of mindfulness and awareness, but it is also a further step into overcoming and transforming our habitual patterns of selfishness and aggression. Maitri is a contemplative practice that encourages us to use our thoughts and imagination creatively. We actually use the thinking mind to help us develop sympathy toward others.

In some sense, we have already trained ourselves to be self-centered, uptight, jealous, and short-tempered. We can also train ourselves to be expansive, open, generous, and patient, because our thoughts are not as solid as we have made them out to be. They actually come and go in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with a tendency to repeat certain patterns that have become comfortable and familiar. It is entirely possible to step out of these patterns altogether, and through contemplation develop more positive habits that benefit of oneself and others.

In maitri practice, we start by tuning into somebody we love and wish well. Then, through the power of directing our thoughts and intentions, we try our best to extend that loving feeling toward our indifferent group, then even to our enemies, and then gradually to all beings everywhere. We recognize that none of these categories of friend, enemy, and don’t-care is really solid anyhow. They are all changing year to year, day by day, and even moment to moment.

The traditional form that our good wishes takes is contained in these four slogans:

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be at ease.

We bring our loved one to mind, then ourselves, then the neutral person, and then the “enemy” or irritating person. In each case we simply repeat these slogans or contemplate their meaning. In this way we can deliberately cultivate and direct our goodwill and positive intentions toward ourselves and others.

Cyndi: There’s good news right off the bat here for yogis, because just the fact that you’ve come to yoga class is an act of kindness toward yourself. Asana practice is an unparalleled method for removing energetic obstructions that make it tough to feel good or to have energy for yourself and others.

In yoga the primary activity of the arms is to support the function of the heart and lungs, the heavenly internal organs associated with feelings, vision, and the primary channels of life-force, or prana. When our breath and blood are circulating freely, we feel fully alive and more available to ourselves and others.

Circulate is what we want our emotions to do, too. A sunken chest, slumped shoulders, and drooping chin inhibit energy flow and wholesome feelings. They’re depressing. The opposite is equally true—if your chest, back, and heart muscles are supported, spacious, and mobile, you will breath better and feel cheerful.

Loving-kindness asana practice focuses on heart-opening poses. We rotate our shoulders, open our ribs, and do backbends that release chest muscles and unlock sensation in the heart center. Some of these poses are challenging, but they can be done with curiosity and gentleness. One way I try to make them fun is by creating community.

Partnering exercises such as supported backbends or holding shoulders in a group tree pose teaches us how to support and be supported by others. When everybody falls over we laugh! It’s a clear example that if something doesn’t work for everybody, it doesn’t work. It’s an immediate reminder that our minds and hearts truly extend past the apparent boundary of our body. The sense of “other” starts to dissolve. We can experience interdependence right there on the yoga mat.

Traditional yoga theory emphasizes ahimsa, or non-harming. By applying maitri to how we work with relationships in yoga class, we grow the seed of ahimsa into an active blossoming of seeing others and consciously connecting to them. This shows up in our class etiquette: Can I move my mat over to make more space for a latecomer? Can I pass you a tissue? Yoga class becomes a safe haven for practicing kindness with like-minded seekers and gives us the skills to handle what we meet when we walk out the door.


This instruction is excerpted from a longer instruction on practicing yoga and Buddhism, “Yoga Body, Buddha Mind.”

Cyndi Lee

Cyndi Lee

Founder of the world-renowned OM yoga Center in NYC (1998-2012), Cyndi is known for her contemplative classes and soulful teachings. She is the author of 5 books, including Yoga Body, Buddha Mind: A Complete Manual for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, and the New York Times critically acclaimed May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind. In 2019, she launched a new online course, “Taking Refuge In Your Body,” available from Lion’s Roar.