San Francisco Public Radio did a lovely 1-hr show on the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The piece features the founder of CCARE, the scientists who are studying compassion, as well as one of my compassion cultivation courses, and stories from students in it.

You can download or stream the audio story here, or read the transcript here.

Below is one of my favorite excerpts:

Deborah Defilippo heard about CCARE when she attended the 2010 discussion between scientists and the Dalai Lama. Researchers talked about the health benefits of meditation.

“I am, I guess you could say I’m a type A, high achieving person,” DeFilippo says. “And I’m now catching myself when someone in front of me is driving below the speed limit, saying the phrases that are in almost every single meditation practice that Kelly has. And that is, you say for each individual and yourself and the world, ‘May you be happy. May you be free from pain and suffering. And may you experience joy and peace.’ …It’s like taking a deep breath and a lot of calm does instill within me.”

Stanford’s CCARE program has its critics. Some worry this type of secular practice will lose something, and perhaps lack substance. Others say the aspirations of CCARE – to make a more compassionate world  — are too idealistic. They question how much students can learn in nine weeks.

But McGonigal says many students do connect what’s taught by CCARE with what’s occurring in their lives.

“One of my favorite stories was a man who was in a church setting and a homeless woman had approached this group that was meeting at the church…. And he could feel in himself that little bit of threat or stress arising that would normally have led him to maybe get rid of that person as quickly as possible so that she didn’t disturb the group that was meeting.”

The man remembered a lesson from the previous week in class.

“He considered the other ways of thinking about her,” McGonigal said. “That, just like him, she was human. She was suffering. Going down the checklist, does this person need help? Do I have the resources to help? And turns out that she had diabetes and she needed food and there wasn’t food available in that moment and the people in the group were able to get her something to eat and the whole thing ended very differently because he was using this framework from the study that we talked about … People can take something from a study and use it in everyday life.”

– Narrated by Judy Silber for San Francisco Public Radio. You can download or stream the audio story here, or read the entire transcript here.

I’m excited to announce the release of my latest audiobook, which presents six live lectures and twelve guided self-reflection and mediation practices. The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Guide to Personal Transformation (Sounds True) integrates the most exciting scientific findings about how the mind works with the wisdom of mind-body traditions like yoga and Buddhism. It deepens some of the most important ideas from The Willpower Instinct (Avery 2012), including the importance of mindfulness, self-compassion, and acceptance for change. The program also provides practical support to help you explore and embody these qualities through breathing, meditation, and relaxation practices.

You can order the 6-CD set OR download the program in MP3 format at Sounds True.

Or order the 6-CD set from any major bookseller, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Chapters (Canada), and Indie Bound.

Program Description

Personal Transformation Based on Mindfulness and Self-Compassion

What’s your most important goal? Why does it matter so deeply? How will you overcome the obstacles? Answer these questions with sincerity, proceed with mindfulness and compassion, and you have just set in motion a revolutionary method for personal change that is supported by both the latest science and traditional wisdom. On The Neuroscience of Change, psychologist and award-winning Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal presents six sessions of breakthrough ideas, guided practices, and real-world exercises for making self-awareness and kindness the basis for meaningful transformation.

Practical Methods to Retrain Your Brain to Support Your Goals

Our understanding of the incredible power of the human brain is at an all-time high, with the emerging fields of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and psychophysiology opening new possibilities for greater health, happiness, and freedom from suffering. Drawing on her training as a research scientist and longtime practitioner of meditation and yoga, Dr. McGonigal reveals these startling findings, including the clinically supported methods for training the mind away from default states that no longer serve us, and establishing behaviors and attitudes aligned with our highest values and aspirations.

The First Rule of Change: It’s Already Happening

As the world’s wisdom traditions teach and science is now verifying, our lives are in fact defined by constant change. Whether you’re looking to change a behavior, improve your health or other circumstances, or simply for a way to bring hope and resilience into your life as it is, The Neuroscience of Change will help you trust yourself and unfold your true capacities for personal transformation.


  • Willingness, self-awareness, and surrender—how to nourish the seeds of change
  • Focusing on the process, not the outcome
  • How to overcome the “trigger-to-instinct” reaction
  • The proven benefits of meditation—and how to start practicing yourself
  • How to transform self-criticism into self-compassion
  • Why your mind creates habits-and how to consciously create new ones
  • Making values-driven commitments
  • Visualization and the principle of “encoding prospective memories”
  • The power of the vow
  • “Deep activation” and the danger of rejecting what is
  • Working with inner experiences as the key to making outward change
  • Six hours of breakthrough science, practical wisdom, guided exercises, and mindfulness meditations for making positive change that lasts

You can order the 6-CD set OR download the complete set at Sounds True.

Or order the 6-CD set from any major bookseller, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Chapters (Canada), and Indie Bound.

Yoga Offers New Hope for Chronic Pain by Kelly McGonigal

This article originally appeared in Yoga International, and is an adaptation of material from the book Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Strategies for Calming Your Mind and Healing Your Pain (New Harbinger).

There are few things more frustrating to a person with chronic pain than hearing someone say, “Your pain is all in your mind.” But if you’re one of the estimated 50 to 75 million Americans living with chronic pain, these words might actually be the key to relieving your suffering. Chronic pain is in the mind—but this does not mean what you think it means. The experience of pain is real. Pain has a biological basis. It’s just that the source of pain isn’t limited to where one feels it or thinks it is coming from.

For decades, scientists and doctors thought that pain could be caused only by damage to the structure of the body. They looked for the source of chronic pain in bulging spinal discs, muscle injuries, and infections. More recent research, however, points to a second source of chronic pain: the very real biology of your thoughts, emotions, expectations, and memories. Most chronic pain has its roots in a physical injury or illness, but it is sustained by how that initial trauma changes not just the body but also the mind-body relationship.

The complexity of chronic pain is actually good news. It means that trying to fix the body with surgeries, pain medications, or physical therapy is not your only hope. By first understanding chronic pain as a mind-body experience and then using yoga’s toolbox of healing practices—including breathing exercises and restorative poses—you can find true relief from pain and begin to reclaim your life.

The Protective Pain Response

Understanding the difference between acute pain and chronic pain will be critical to your ability to reduce and manage your pain. Let’s begin by examining the basic steps of the pain response: sensation, stress, and suffering.

The protective pain response begins when the body experiences some physical threat, such as a cut, a burn, or an inflamed muscle. This threat is detected by specialized nerves and sent through the spinal cord and up to the brain where, among other things, the threat signals are transformed into pain sensations. Emotion-processing areas of the brain also get the message, triggering a wide range of reactions, from fear to anger. Combined, your thoughts and emotions about the physical sensations of pain make up the suffering component of the full pain experience.

To help you take action, the threat signals have been simultaneously routed to the areas of your brain that help the body launch an emergency stress response, coordinating the actions of the nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. The emergency stress response triggers a cascade of physiological changes that give you the energy and focus to protect yourself from life-threatening danger.

Even after the threat is gone, the pain response is not over. The mind and body are very interested in making sure you know how to protect yourself from this threat in the future. So the nervous system begins the process of learning from this experience. Any kind of injury or illness, even one that is short-lived or appears to be fully healed, can change the way the nervous system processes pain.

Understanding Chronic Pain

Chronic pain differs from acute pain in three important ways. First, the body can become more sensitive to threat, sending threat signals to the brain even when the threat is minor or non-existent. Second, the brain can become more likely to interpret situations as threatening and sensations as painful, producing pain responses that are out of proportion to any real danger. Finally, with repeated pain experiences, the boundaries between the many aspects of the pain response—sensation, suffering, and stress—get blurred. In most cases of chronic pain, the mind and body have learned all too well how to detect the slightest hint of a threat and mount a full protective response in all its glory.

So the things that make pain so effective at helping us survive acute emergencies and handling short-term pain are the very things that make chronic pain so complex and persistent. The pain you feel may reflect a protective mind-body response that has become overprotective.

Pain Again

Why does past pain make you more sensitive to future pain? You can thank one of the great wonders of our nervous system: its ability to learn in response to experience. This ability is called neuroplasticity. Through the repeated experience of pain, the nervous system gets better at detecting threat and producing the protective pain response. So unfortunately, in the case of chronic pain, learning from experience and getting “better” at pain paradoxically means more pain, not less.

Both modern science and yoga share this idea: present pain and suffering have their roots in past pain, trauma, stress, loss, and illness. Modern science uses words like neuroplasticity to describe the process of learning from past experiences; yoga uses the word samskara. Samskaras are the memories of the body and mind that influence how we experience the present moment. Samskaras keep you stuck, feeling the same emotions, thinking the same thoughts, and even experiencing the same pain.

Samskaras do not always lead to suffering—they also lead to positive change. Just as trauma, illness, pain, and stress leave traces on the body and mind, so do positive experiences. What you practice, you become.

Learning is lifelong, and none of the changes you’ve learned have to be permanent. Neuroplasticity can be harnessed for healing. Your mind and body have learned how to “do” chronic pain, and your job is to teach it something new.

Unlearning Pain Through Relaxation

The best way to unlearn chronic stress and pain responses is to give the mind and body healthier responses to practice.

By helping you transform chronic pain-and-stress responses into “chronic healing” responses of mind and body, yoga helps reduce your suffering of chronic pain. Your mind and body have built-in healing responses that are just as powerful as their protective pain-and-stress responses. Whether it’s a meditation on gratitude, a relaxation pose that puts the body and mind at ease, or a breathing exercise that strengthens the flow of energy in your body—they all share the benefit of bringing you back home to your natural sense of well-being.

Relaxation specifically has been shown to be healing for chronic pain. It turns off the stress response and directs the body’s energy to growth, repair, immune function, digestion, and other self-nurturing processes. The relaxation response unravels the mind-body samskaras that contribute to pain and provides the foundation for healing habits. Consistent relaxation practice teaches the mind and body how to rest in a sense of safety rather than chronic emergency. Below, we will look at a breathing practice and several restorative yoga poses that promote the relaxation response.

These simple relaxation practices will lead you on the path of ending your suffering. Yoga can teach you how to focus your mind to change your experience of physical pain. It can give you back the sense of safety, control, and courage that you need to move past your experience of chronic pain.

Breathing the Whole Body

Breathing the body is a visualization practice adapted from the traditional practice of yoga nidra (yogic sleep) and the body-scan practice taught in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program for people with chronic pain. Start in any comfortable relaxation pose such as shavasana (corpse pose). Place your hands on your belly and feel the movement of the breath. Notice the belly rising and falling, and notice the breath moving in and out of your body.

In this practice, you will imagine that you can inhale and exhale through different parts of your body—as if your nostrils were moved to that part of the body. Start with your feet. Imagine the breath entering your body through the soles of your feet, and exiting your body through the soles of your feet. Notice any sensations there. Feel, or imagine, that flow of energy in the feet as you breathe. Now repeat this visualization for other parts of your body: Your lower legs, knees, and upper legs. Your hips, lower back, middle back, and upper back. Your belly and chest. Your shoulders, upper arms, elbows, lower arms, hands. Your neck. Your forehead and the crown of your head.

When you get to an area that feels tense, uncomfortable, or painful, don’t skip it. There are several things you can try that may make you feel more comfortable. First, stay with the visualization and direct the breath right at the sensations of discomfort or pain. Imagine that the breath is dissolving or massaging the tension and pain. Imagine the solidity of the tension or pain softening. Find the space inside the pain. Second, try moving your attention back and forth between the uncomfortable area and a more comfortable area. For a few breaths, breathe into the painful area; for the next few breaths, breathe into another area. Switching back and forth like this can teach the mind how to give the uncomfortable sensations less priority. You are practicing a healthy kind of distraction: intentionally shifting your focus while still being present in your body.

When you have worked your way through the whole body, let yourself feel the breath enter the body through your nose, mouth, and throat. Imagine the sensation of breathing through your whole body, as if the body were gently expanding as you inhale and contracting as you exhale. Feel, or imagine, the flow of energy through your whole body.

Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga turns on the healing relaxation response by combining gentle yoga poses with conscious breathing. Below you will learn four restorative yoga poses that may be practiced on their own or in a sequence.

There are several factors that make restorative yoga so relaxing. First, each pose is meant to be held for longer than a few breaths. You can stay in a restorative pose for 10 minutes or even longer. The stillness allows the body to drop even the deepest layers of tension. Second, restorative poses use props to support your body. Props can include the wall, a chair, a couch, pillows, blankets, towels, or bolsters designed especially for restorative yoga practice. The right support in a pose will make it feel effortless, so your body can fully let go.

You shouldn’t feel strong sensations of stretch or strength the way you might in a more active yoga pose. Stretching and strengthening, although healthy, are both forms of tension in the body. They are a kind of good stress on the body, asking the body to adapt to the challenges of a pose. But restorative yoga is all about letting go of tension and stress.

Although these poses may look as though you are doing nothing, this is far from the truth. Restorative yoga rests the body but engages the mind. The breathing elements of each pose make restorative yoga an active process of focusing the mind on healing thoughts, sensations, and emotions.

The order of poses presented here is just one possible sequence. As you explore the poses, you may find that your body prefers a different sequence or that you would rather stay longer in one pose than practice several poses for shorter periods. You can also integrate restorative poses into an active yoga session.

Nesting Pose

Nesting pose creates a sense of security and nurturing. It may also be a position you are comfortable sleeping in, making it an excellent posture to practice if you have insomnia or other difficulty sleeping.

Lie on your side, legs bent and drawn in toward your belly. Rest your head on a pillow, and place a pillow or a bolster between your knees. Rest your arms in whatever position feels most comfortable. If available, another bolster or pillow may be placed behind your back for an extra sense of support.

Rest in the natural rhythm of your breath, observing each inhalation and exhalation as it moves through the body. Take comfort in the simplicity and effortlessness of this action.

Supported Bound Angle Pose

This pose relaxes tension in the belly, chest, and shoulders that otherwise can restrict the breath. Lean a bolster on a block or other support (such as telephone books). Sit in front of the bolster with your legs in a diamond shape. Place a pillow or a rolled blanket under each outer thigh and knee, making sure that the legs are fully supported without a deep stretch or strain in the knees, legs, or hips. Lean back onto the bolster so that you are supported from the lower back to the back of the head. Rest your arms wherever is most comfortable.

Now notice the whole front of your body relax and gently open as you inhale. Follow this sensation and feel the ease in the front of the body as you breathe.

Supported Backbend Pose

Supported backbend is a heart-opening pose that reinforces your desire to embrace life and not let challenges—including pain—separate you from life. This pose also works magic to release chronic tension in the back and shoulders, undoing postural habits that come from spending too much time at a desk, at a computer, or driving.

Sitting, place a bolster or a stack of pillows or blankets under slightly bent knees. Place one folded pillow or rolled blanket or towel behind you; when you lie back, it should support the upper rib cage, not the lower back. If you need extra support underneath the lower rib cage and lower back, roll a small towel to support the natural curve of the spine. Place a rolled towel or a small blanket to support your head and neck at whatever height is most comfortable.

This pose improves the flow of the breath in the upper chest, rib cage, and belly. Allow yourself to feel this movement as you inhale and exhale. Imagine breathing in and out through your heart center. Visualize the movement of breath from your heart to your lungs as you inhale, and from the lungs back out through the heart center as you exhale.

Supported Forward Bend

This pose relaxes the hips and back, unraveling the stress of daily activities on the spine. Hugging a bolster and resting your head on its support provides a natural sense of security and comfort.

Sit cross-legged on the floor. Lean forward onto the support of a sofa, a chair, or a stack of pillows, blankets, or cushions. If you have a bolster, place one end in your lap and the other end on the sofa, the chair, or the stack of support. Rest your head on whatever support is available. If you are using the bolster, you can hug it in any way that feels comfortable, turning your head to the side. Be sure that whatever support you are using is high enough and sturdy enough to support you, without creating strain in the back or hips. If you feel a strong stretch that is uncomfortable to hold, you need more support.

In this pose, the belly, chest, and back all expand and contract with each breath. Feel the movement of the whole torso as you inhale and exhale. Feel your belly and chest gently press into the support of the bolster or pillows as you inhale. Let the sensation of your breath deepen the sensation of being hugged.

Below are the resources I prepared for my sessions/intensives at the 2012 Toronto Yoga Conference. Enjoy!

PDFs of Slide Shows:

Strengthening the Heart with Compassion Intensive  Slide Show: CompassionIntensiveSLIDES  (for the full text PDFs of studies mentioned in this slideshow, see

The Science of Willpower Slide Show: WillpowerIntensiveSLIDES

The Science of Meditation Slide Show: ScienceofMeditationSLIDES

Guided Meditations/Practice MP3s/Written Exercises:

Breath Focus MP3 (instructions for practice followed by 3 5-min intervals marked by meditation bowl ringing, for up to 15-min practice)

Listening to Your Body MP3 (5-min meditation/reflection)

Befriending Your Body Body Scan & Gratitude Practice MP3 (20-min meditation/reflection)

Self Compassion Letter Writing Exercise (word doc)

Values Affirmation Writing Exercise (word doc)


Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation: Potential for Psychological Interventions” (scientific review article 2011)

This Is Your Brain on Meditation” (Yoga Journal article 2009)

Links to Relevant Organizations/Resources:

The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

The Compassionate Mind Foundation (includes scales/surveys for practice and research, published studies, training manuals, and more) (the website of self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, which includes a page with links to all published research on self-compassion)

The Yoga Service Council (there’s still time to register for our first-ever conference at the Omega Institute in New York, May 2012!)

The International Association of Yoga Therapists

Further Resources for Practice and Teaching

If you are interested in sample yoga sequences and scripts for meditation/breathing exercises, I recommend my book Yoga for Pain Relief (New Harbinger 2009).

If you are interested in extended guided meditations (mindfulness, self-compassion, etc.) as well as the science of self-compassion, meditation, and behavior change, I recommend my new 6-session audio course with Sounds True, The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Program for Personal Transformation, available 4/28/12.

The Willpower Instinct (Avery 2012) describes the science of self-control and how it can be applied to you own goals and challenges. It is based on my Stanford University course “The Science of Willpower.”