Today's Daily Tip
Grow Your Love
When Alejandra Sosa Siroka and Matthew Siroka of San Francisco take a yoga class together, there's always a moment when they catch each other's eye. "It might last a third of a second, but we recognize each other again—'Oh, it's you, beautiful you, next to me,'" says Alejandra, a 37-year-old interpreter, translator, and communication consultant. "Whether we're in Downward Dog or inverting, it's just a glance, and we're going through our own thing, our own inner process of growth. But at the same time, we're next to each other."
This sense of feeling connected while still being anchored in their individual selves is one of many gifts from yoga that flow from the classroom and into their marriage. "Yoga makes us more aware of how we're interacting with each other," adds Matthew, a 36-year-old attorney. "We're also less quick to anger, more quick to be compassionate."
The Sirokas have found that yoga not only helps them dial down negativity in a relationship, it can also make the relationship juicier and more fun. "Just like colors seem brighter and flowers smell more beautiful when you're in this enhanced state of awareness," Matthew says, "love—the most powerful thing you can experience—is even greater, too."
Many of the skills and principles that yoga teaches—cultivating mindful awareness, speaking truthfully but without harm, and experiencing union, to name a few—can be applied to intimate relationships, helping you and your partner get out of ruts, resolve conflicts, and ultimately enjoy a sweeter sense of connection. And because romantic relationships have a way of evoking life's deepest pains and joys, applying a yogic structure to them has the potential to bring radical transformation.
"In a sense, your partner is your guru," says Jett Psaris, a counselor and the co-author of Undefended Love, which examines emotional barriers to intimacy and uses concepts from Eastern and Western thought to help readers overcome them. A partner, she says, "can stimulate and reflect the very best parts of who you are and the very worst parts of who you are—your edges, the places of contraction, but also the places of expansion."
That expansion can take years to identify. But just as your yoga practice is exactly that—a practice, requiring observation, curiosity, and a sense of presence—so your relationship can be a practice, too. Instead of a quest for perfection, it can be a process that takes you deeper inside yourself and connects you more deeply to your partner. As many a yoga teacher likes to say, the practice is not about the destination, but the journey. And as you traverse the path of your relationship, yoga can make the journey more pleasurable, engaged, and alive.
Lessons from the Edge
The couple that pioneered "the yoga of relationships," Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, co-authors of The Passionate Mind Revisited, have been applying their own unique perspective on yogic wisdom to their relationship for most of the 35 years they've been together. One of the main principles they use comes directly from Kramer's now-famous concept of "playing the edge." A phrase that was coined in the 1970s, playing your edge can be applied to any asana, and chances are that you've done it many times—you come deep enough into a forward bend, for example, to find your edge, that place where you clearly feel the sensation of a stretch. Then you pause, observing the feelings in your mind and body. Instead of pulling away, you breathe and, perhaps over time, the edge releases and you fold effortlessly deeper into the pose, until you come up against yet another edge. It's a practice that helps refine an awareness of your physical and mental states.
As the edge became a staple in Kramer's teachings on the mat, Alstad, a renowned author and lecturer who created the first women's studies courses at Yale and Duke universities, realized the same concept could apply to relationships. When you hit the threshold of what you think you can stand in a situation, you watch, breathe, and allow the experience to unfold—without trying to change it or turn away from it. Then what seems like a limitation can expand into a whole new experience. In order for this to be really effective, couples need to explore edges together.
For example, in a recent relationship workshop, Psaris counseled a couple after they'd had an argument that began when the woman reminded her husband to turn on their irrigation system. He exploded, feeling that she was, once again, saying he wasn't good enough. While in therapy, Psaris suggested the man stay with that uncomfortable "edge" of feeling inadequate. She asked him, "What if you have a bucket of inadequacy in you, and your partner poured in a teaspoon of comments that caused it to overflow? You're focusing on the teaspoon instead of the bucket."
She asked him to sit with the near-excruciating pain, a sensation that traced back to childhood. When couples get to this type of difficult point in the process, Psaris suggests leaning into it, opening to it, and breathing with it the way they would in yoga. "You begin to feel some deeper part of yourself rise up to support you. It may be compassion for yourself, it may be a sense of presence, it may be peace or acceptance. If you can stay with the feelings with awareness, something else will rise up."
After some time the man's pain shifted, and he felt a wave of calm. Then a remarkable thing happened. His wife admitted she had, in fact, been unconsciously attacking him under the guise of an innocent household reminder. She shared the frustrations that had led to that. Once they expressed their discontent and reached a place of empathy for the other, they felt a calm clearing. They went from deep discomfort to a feeling of spaciousness between them.
Unlike a solo venture on your mat, Alstad points out, deepening a relationship means that you also need to understand and navigate your partner's edge. "You begin to identify the emotional minefields in each other that might be explosive and cause pain, and you can try to be very sensitive around them," she says. And then you can both explore the edge with patience and a spirit of seeking the truth and mutual alignment.
According to Kramer and Alstad, when a beloved does something that catapults you right over your edge into the territory of true discomfort, the emotional pain can be valuable information and an alarm that something in the relationship is not working. Then, they say, it's time to consider changes that might need to be made—especially if you're stuck at an impasse, which is Alstad's term for an extreme knot about a fundamental, core issue, like whether or not to have kids together.
Whether challenges with a partner easily dissolve with attention and love or call out for bigger change, Kramer and Alstad find that, like yoga, being in a relationship can increase your awareness, because the other person acts as a mirror and constantly reflects who you are right back at you. This heightened self-awareness can change you for the better—if you allow it. When Kramer and Alstad first met, he was all about independence, while she thought connecting was most important. "Diana amusingly used to call me the Clint Eastwood of yogis," Kramer says, "because I felt you had to do it yourself. And that changed." He adds that a lot of people think, "'I have to get myself together before I can be honest or ready for a true intimate and deep relationship.' The point of view that we have is quite different: The relationship is a matrix for change. And it can help show you things that you've never seen before."
For example, says Kramer, "When Diana and I got together, I really believed I didn't have a chauvinistic bone in my body. She very kindly but very adroitly pointed out all of the male privileges I took for granted, and it kind of blew my mind. It really transformed me. And I don't think that I would have gotten that awareness all by myself."
Bruce Riley and Kelly McKaig, a married couple in Chicago, have also seen yoga transform the communication in their 23-year relationship. Riley, a no-nonsense 55-year-old painter, says that his practice has helped him build awareness of his mental patterns so that he now notices when he's not present. "Yoga kind of gets it into your bones to actually be present," he says. Sometimes while practicing asanas, "I realize that I'm thinking about something else, and I'm not aware of what's going on. In Triangle, I wasn't extending out and moving down, I wasn't rotating my thigh outward, doing a root lock, or tucking my tail. I wasn't aware of all the stuff I might have been monitoring," he says. When he notices this on the mat, he can see how he repeats it in his relationship, but again, he treats it as an awareness practice. He doesn't necessarily judge the moments in which he lacks presence; he simply notices those moments and starts over.
"Yoga is like a wakeful meditation. And it spills into everything else I do," he says. "I watch how I am with her, constantly. And if an ugly thought comes up, I don't spank myself over it. I just go 'Whoa, look at that.' The observation of that dissipates any of that ugliness. It constantly happens. I don't think it'll ever stop, but it's not my point to stop it. The quiet observation just effortlessly takes care of everything."
McKaig, a 48-year-old prop stylist, agrees that yoga has helped them talk and connect more smoothly. "The whole thing has brought a sense of nonjudgment to my life in general, which includes my marriage," she says. "I can step back and observe instead of jumping to conclusions. I can let go of preconceived notions of the other person and get down to their actual motivation or seeing things from their side." She adds that practicing difficult asanas that she never thought she'd do—like Handstand—has bolstered her courage and emboldened her to discuss difficult issues. This translates in her relationship as an ability to face certain problems that she might prefer to avoid.
These days, their conflicts often diffuse quickly. "You'll be getting mad and you'll just see it, maybe both at the same time," Riley says. "You just laugh, voice it, and then get back to what you were talking about."
Whereas Riley and McKaig's communication has evolved organically with their yoga practice, other couples require more structure. Kate and Joel Feldman are longtime Kripalu Yoga teachers and co-founders of the Conscious Relationships Institute in Durango, Colorado. Kate's also a licensed social worker, and Joel's a certified life coach. As they evolved as a couple, they learned to sit down and talk openly about their conflicts. They'd take turns talking and listening. She'd ask him to express his feelings, listen, and then take her turn talking. They've committed to doing this with most conflicts in the relationship—even when they don't want to. "Like doing pPranayama and meditating every day at the same time: You may not always feel like it, but you know it's good for you," says Joel.
Take your Time
Feldman suggests scheduling 20-minute sessions. Each person talks for 10 minutes, uninterrupted. The idea is to step back and witness the other person's feelings, without reacting, judging, or turning away from the difficulty that their feelings may trigger.
There's no formula, but often it can look like this: Decide who will go first. It should usually be the person who is having the strongest reaction to a situation. One person will often start off blaming—"I can't believe you didn't finish the dishes." And then once they've been able to express their feelings without getting trounced or having their partner break down, they can access and own the feelings that spurred the blame—"I feel hurt by that because I'm interpreting it to mean that you don't respect me." Which can often lead to a past association—"This reminds me of the humiliated feeling I got when my father criticized me." The listener is mainly silent, occasionally actively reflecting back what the speaker has said without being reactive or judgmental: for example, "So you feel like I'm being disrespectful of you and not really appreciating what you've done." Then the partners switch.
Kramer and Alstad also recommend booking time to discuss difficult issues, and to clear the accumulated emotional gunk they call "backlog." Like the Feldmans, they compare it to doing your yoga practice even when you're not in the mood, knowing that if you don't, you get cranky. Alstad adds that scheduling consistent times to talk gets easier. "You can sometimes work through something in 45 minutes that took a year of being stuck and polarized."
It's a challenge to speak clearly and honestly about thorny feelings, and sometimes even the most skillful communicators lash out. Psaris is careful to note there's nothing wrong with the occasional angry or hurt insta-response. "Sometimes acting out stirs up sediment, so we can actually begin to, after the fact, look more closely at our reactions," she says. But Judith Hanson Lasater—yoga teacher and co-author of the upcoming What We Say Matters, which she wrote with her husband, Ike Lasater—emphasizes the virtue of silence, because, like everything else in life, feelings can be impermanent. The more you can practice what she calls "the sacred pause," the better. "The asanas and the other practices create a self-reflective habit, so that when something arises, you don't react immediately. Applied to relationships, I call it the Marriage Mudra: Open your teeth, insert your tongue, and bite firmly," she says, laughing. The self-observation skills you've cultivated through asana and meditation can enable you to watch your thoughts without getting attached to them or making them feel more concrete by voicing them. "Sometimes it's best to just not say anything7mdash;not out of resentment, but out of choice," Lasater says. "Because you know it's going to pass."
Commit to Connection
It's no secret that relationships require work, but, as in yoga, you can find a happy balance between effort and ease when you apply your awareness. "A lot of people feel like, 'If you loved me, we wouldn't have to work at this,'" Feldman says, but he thinks that's an unrealistic attitude. The trick,when it feels like too much effort, is to find more ease. To help couples with this, Feldman and his wife help their clients discover "love rituals"—small gestures practiced up to three times a day for two to three minutes at a time—so they can reconnect with the partner as a source of pleasure rather than pain. One couple they counseled had virtually stopped having sex. The Feldmans asked them each to name one nice thing they'd like every day from the other. The idea was for each partner to acknowledge and grant the other's request.
The man wanted a hug with eye contact and a phrase like "I love you" when he left in the morning and came back at night. As a harried working mom, the woman requested that her husband help pick up around the house for a few minutes a couple of times a day. They put these "rituals" into action for six months. When the Feldmans saw them next, the couple reported that they were intimate again. "We were kind of dumbfounded; they seemed like such small things," Feldman says. But they mattered because these things say, 'I care about you.'" And sometimes, in addition to a laborious struggle to resolve big issues, these relatively ease-filled moments rebuild the foundation of a crumbling relationship.
Such rituals can build up reserves of love, in the same way yogic practices refill your stores of compassion and gratitude. "When you meditate for five minutes a day, you build up your peace bank account. When you do love rituals as a couple, you build up your connection bank account, your love account." So small rituals can help prevent blowups. "Most people are working with a deficit of feelings of love, generosity, and connection with their partner," says Feldman. "So when a new situation comes around, they have nothing to draw on. If you're regularly meditating and building that up, even if it's little by little, you can draw on that and it's actually a huge prevention."
Most of us are reassured knowing that it might not take hours of talking, listening, and sharing to keep a relationship vital and fun—at least not all the time. "If you create connection, you'll need less process," Feldman says. "You start to see the other as a source of pleasure rather than frustration, and as someone on your side rather than someone you have to fight against."
Start with Yourself
Yoga helps you communicate with your partner and connect more deeply, but it's equally important that yoga brings you into a deep relationship with yourself. "Because the practices help you to be fully present in your body," says Alejandra Siroka, "it's so much easier to be fully present with your partner through whatever is coming up in the moment." Her husband, Matthew, concurs: "When you're able to recognize and be loving and compassionate toward yourself—which the practice helps you do—you're able to recognize the essential humanity and connectedness with other people."
Alejandra says that when she and Matthew have that momentary "I see you" exchange on their yoga mats, it reminds her of when they decided to open their hearts to each other. "I reconnect to that moment," she says. "We glance at each other and have a little smile. And the little smile is mostly in my heart, saying 'Wow, this is you, and I really want to keep opening my heart to you.'"
This kind of heart opening and love can flow from the couple to the world. "The special love you have for your mate starts to spread out all over the place, and your self-centeredness decreases a little," says Riley, the Chicago artist. "The need for that mate is lessened, but the love is stronger." Kramer emphasizes that the process of intimate relating can also tether us more deeply to the Divine, to our core, and to each other. "It's out of that connection that we move," Kramer says, "that we change each other, that we become more aware of who we are in the stream of things."
For more tips please read Relationship RX
Valerie Reiss is the holistic living editor at Beliefnet.com.