No pair is immune to the challenges of coupledom. While counseling may be the typical go-to resource for guidance, some counselors with yoga backgrounds are taking sessions to the mat, encouraging people to bolster their relationships with asana, pranayama, and meditation through partner yoga therapy.
Using Our Bodies to Bypass Our Brains
During sessions, couples may synchronize their breathing, assist each other with asana, or link their bodies together to create one pose. Given the therapy’s cooperative nature, partners are forced to rely on each other, which makes communication necessary and builds trust in the process.
Where traditional talk therapy relies on gaining perspective through conversation, somatic-based techniques put the mind and body in concert to address well-being through prescribed movement, awareness of physical sensations, and, in the case of partner yoga, various poses. It’s a scientifically-backed approach: Research indicates that this kind of body-oriented psychotherapy can decrease stress, reduce symptoms of depression, and lessen anxiety, while the practice of yoga can enhance sexual intimacy, improve relationship satisfaction, and cultivate compassion—evidence enough to invest in a mat (or two).
“When conflict is intense, couples often defend their behavior, which makes perspective-taking and empathy go sideways,” says Melissa Whippo, a licensed clinical social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area who’s been a therapist and yoga instructor for nearly two decades. “Partner yoga gets us into the body, which slows down the nervous system. In a more relaxed state, finger-pointing softens and couples can witness each other’s experiences with greater compassion. Talking about problems can keep us in our heads, but partner yoga shows couples how their communication patterns play out in real life,” she says.
When couples get tangled in reactivity and emotion, for instance, Whippo might ask one person to rest in Balasana (Child’s Pose) with their partner’s hand gently resting on their sacral area. The person on the mat must then express what they need from their partner in order to enhance the pose, and then offer further feedback on the adjustment. After both people have a turn holding the pose and offering support, Whippo draws awareness to any intense feelings that may have been present just moments before the exercise: “How did the energy around your anger change? ” she might ask. “What did you notice? ”
Using Simple Moves to Deepen Closeness and Ease Conflict
Twelve years ago, Whippo began integrating partner yoga into her work to help clients reconcile grief, conflict, and communication blocks. Social scientists call this an experiential exercise. Similar to mindfulness, meditation, and art therapy, couples yoga therapy relies on bodily movement to help unearth curiosity and insight about human behavior.
And couples don’t need to be experienced yogis to benefit: This type of yoga therapy requires minimal physical prowess. What’s more important is a willingness to show up—for both yourself and your partner. “Sharing breath and touch allow us to be more present with our bodies and emotions rather than in a reactive place in our minds,” Whippo says.
In this way, she helps couples cultivate awareness around their emotions, using the nonverbal behaviors she notices in their movements as cues for leading them to connect physical movement with mental movement. That, in turn, provides insight into the couple’s dynamic.
For Amanda Webster, a yoga teacher and life coach who turned to partner yoga therapy with her husband, Eric, after bouts of secret-keeping had compromised their trust, that meant practicing asserting herself. “If a pose was uncomfortable, I had to speak up, which forced me to state my needs,” Webster says. “Even now, if we have a bad day or need to connect, we’ll do a shared pose or meditate together.” One of her favorite poses is standing back-to-back and holding hands, something Webster and her husband still do several times each week. “It’s a reminder that we’re here to support each other,” she says, “even when conflict creeps up.”