It’s no secret that long-lasting relationships are tough. We’ve all heard about the divorce rates in this country—it’s as though half of us are waiting to become a number; we’re labeled before we’re even on the dating market. It’s a scary feeling. Many become cynical about the idea of marriage or monogamy altogether by the time they’re in their mid-twenties, and some swear one or both of these off completely.
Several questions arise: Is it possible to maintain long-lasting, true bonding relationships in this day and age, and more specifically, in the chaos of a place like New York City? Is it possible that monogamy, a tradition that has been around since the first tribal communities on Earth, has run its course after thousands of years?
But I’d like to suggest that our yoga practice teaches us it’s still possible.The popularity of yoga is rising exponentially. It is hard to walk around Manhattan and not come across a person carrying a yoga mat or wearing yoga pants. In New York City alone, there are well over a whopping 3,000 yoga studios, many of which have opened only within the last five years that offer a wide variety of classes seven days a week. This is not including the sports gyms that offer yoga classes (Crunch alone offers over 15 different types of yoga classes) or the multitude of individual instructors that teach yoga on their own, in private lofts, client’s homes, out of their own living rooms, etc. Sometimes because of the speed of our lives, the yoga lifestyle in New York feels like an uncommitted relationship, a relationship of convenience and self-image.
Yet I suspect the interest in yoga runs deeper than the mere fascination with twisting our bodies into pretzels in between rushing off to accomplish our next errand or make our next meeting. Intuitively, through intense transformational experiences, and by word of mouth, many of us are becoming aware of the true power of the yoga practice; of tapping into an intimate tradition that unites the mind to the body and melds the soul into the heart of the universe, a tradition that is thousands of years old.
With such wisdom, what can yoga teach us about romantic relationships?
As we become increasingly familiar with and immerse ourselves in the world of yoga, it becomes important to understand a little bit about the roots of the tradition and how its philosophy can speak to our lives.
In Sanskrit, the term Yoga is used to signify a sacred union. The term yoga does not exclusively denote the physical postures we take in a class at a gym or studio, but rather, these asanas, or postures, are simply one way of creating the greater, deeper union that the ancient Sanskrit texts are interested in exploring, a union between the human being and the love which lives at the heart of all reality. There are a variety of different established yogas that work towards this same union: Karma Yoga, for example, is the yoga of selfless action, doing a deed for the sake of the deed instead of for a particular purpose or ultimate gain. Volunteering time at a homeless shelter is one example of Karma Yoga. Raja Yoga is another tradition, which constitutes the careful study of spiritual texts and the application of their messages and teachings to our daily lives; reading the Bible, the Koran, the Sutras, or even poetry— any study of text or art that lifts our spirits and challenges us to alter our behavior for the better is Raja Yoga.
According to the ancient yogic texts, yoga is a movement towards a place where you are no longer divided. This Union is dynamic because it, like reality itself, like our Universe, is always in flux, always in flow, like the way the ocean brings in tides, like day turns to night and back again. No ultimate beginning or end; it simply is this movement. None of these universal flows have a set goal in mind, a particular destination; the movement itself exists, always balancing itself out, like a seamless dance, like our breath or our heartbeat, self-perpetuating and inexplicable.
All the different types of yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Asana Yoga (the physical yoga classroom poses), to name a few, help us reach this Union and are complementary with one another. They are each different types of movements, different tools that aid us in reaching and deepening our own union.
My point then is simple: committed romantic relationships are a yoga practice.
And that’s the key thing to remember in order for them to work.
For our committed relationships to endure and flourish, we have to trust that they are:
1. A practice that is ever deepening.
2. A bond that is helping both partners to deepen individually.
3. A bond and practice that is strengthened by other committed practices.
I’d like to give two examples of how this works.
First the short one: Take, for instance, the premise that one of our yoga practices say our asana yoga (our physical poses), can inform the yoga of our romantic relationships. Each posture in any sequence or flow is a perfect combination of balance, strength and breath. When performed properly, the flow creates an optimal alignment such that the most amounts of benefits are received.
Take a pose such as Virabhadrasana I, or Warrior I. In this pose, the front leg is bent at a 90 degree angle, the back foot is firmly grounded, leg straight, hips square to the front of the room, tailbone tucked, both arms reaching up. The expression of the pose is “honor to the highest self” and when done with the right alignment, it not only lengthens and strengthens muscles in the legs, shoulders and arms, but it creates space in the organs, the heart and lungs, as well as stimulates vital glands that cleanse our blood and increase its circulation. If the back foot is not firmly grounded, then the practitioner may easily lose balance and the pose becomes wobbly, unstable. If the front leg is stretched forward too much, then pressure can injure the knee, further affecting the overall practice.
Similarly, if the alignment of some aspect of our relationship, say our behavior, is not firmly grounded, then our relationships can become imbalanced and unstable, creating unnecessary pressure in the joints of our relationships and risking fall or injury.
The balance, strength, alignment, and breath, are all integral parts of our yoga poses. They equate to things like: words, actions, feelings, and thoughts in our romantic relationships. Every time you push your partner off balance (through negative words or emotions, for example), he or she can pull or push back, and stress can easily enter the relationship.
For example, let’s say you struggle with jealousy and in succumbing to unjustified jealous thoughts and emotions; you react with neediness or blame. In doing so, you create a pressure within your partner to not become reactive or self-defensive about it, to not allow similar emotions to rise within them, and to behave towards you in kindness in the face of blame. Not an easy task. If being “good” in the relationship, feeling connected is akin to staying in a pose with grace, the first step is to become aware of what it feels like to come out of the posture (i.e. to feel jealousy). We can ask ourselves what triggered a response that caused you to come out of the posture (i.e. your partner was talking with their ex), and then visualize coming back to the posture and breathe through the uncomfortable moments of stress. Just like you can feel Warrior 1 burning at the thigh, the triceps shaking, the core working as hard as it can, it can be very uncomfortable to unconditionally love yourself and your partner at the same time. But hold the pose! Breathe through it. Don’t make faces, and no drama. Remember that it is only neurons firing, that’s it. It’s just yoga. It’s just life.
When we feel uncomfortable in a pose, our balance, our threshold for pain, our focus are all tested, and the tendency is to want to run away, to blame the teacher, our partner, to release the pose early, instead of working through the unpleasant moments that, like everything else, come and go, moments that, according to yogic philosophy, we are guaranteed to learn from. This is also true in the yoga of our relationships. Try first to see if you can stay in the pose. Here is a little checklist for staying in the literal and metaphorical pose:
1. Am I breathing slowly, deeply, steadily?
2. Am I staying calm, in facial expression, tone of voice and demeanor?
3. Is my discomfort coming from being imbalanced in some other way?
4. Am I blaming my partner?
5. Is my heart open?
Next time you’re taking a yoga class, think to yourself about the ways in which you each push and pull on your romantic relationship; what muscles you are lengthening, strengthening, and which organs you are revitalizing. Each of our asana poses can speak to our relationships, and for our romantic relationships to not only last, but deepen, we must take them as seriously as we take our other yoga practices, with as much care, effort and focus as our downward-facing-dogs or warriors. It’s important that both partners recognize that a relationship is a practice and a practice takes working towards focus, balance, strength and flexibility in order to evolve and grow. The more aware we are of the fact that relationships take work, the more fun the practice becomes, the more we make it our own.
My second example comes from Raja Yoga, self-study through scriptural study. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the central texts of yoga philosophy, Patanjali elaborates on the concept of practice. A true practice must have three specific constituents:
1. It must be practiced a long time
2. It must be practiced without break
3. It must be practiced in all earnestness
This is true of any practice, from meditation, to our yoga poses, and it’s especially true in our romantic relationships. In his commentary of the Yoga Sutras, Swami Satichananda (founder of Integral Yoga Institute) jokes about students approaching him with different problems they faced and him asking them:
“Well, have you meditated on it?”
Their response being something like “Yes! Every day for one week.”
One week is not enough, Satichananda reminds us.
Or, the student might answer, “Yes! For the past ten years, and I still see no change, what is wrong?”
Swami Satichananda might then ask a follow up question: “How often?”
To which the reply invariably was: “Here and there” or “Off and on.” This, he reminds us, is no practice at all.
The second condition calls us to practice without break. In the context of committed relationships, this means a form of energy you carry with you at all times; the consistency of keeping your partner in heart and mind throughout your day, and most importantly throughout interactions with other people, opposite sex or not, that may carry attraction energy towards you or vice versa. This is not to say that you must eat, sleep and breathe your partner, keep at their side twenty-four hours a day, but rather, that their presence remains with you, like a hint of sweet perfume, as you go about your own business every day. The most practical way (and my personal favorite) of achieving this is training your mind to think positive things about your partner every time they come into your consciousness, teach yourself to smile every time you think of them, or each time a negative thought regarding your partner comes to mind, counteract it with three good ones. The mind, as the yoga sutras tell us, is a muscle too. It takes time and practice to train it.
To take this pose a bit deeper, the second step requires that at times of conflict you learn to assume the best of your partner in any given scenario. As attractive as the pull of negative thought patterns such as nagging, blaming, etc. may be, a strong Relationship Yoga practice requires training in the art of assuming the best. When you assume the best of your partner, you are naturally sending them the message that you believe in the core of who they are, in their ability to act from their heart with the best intentions in mind. This type of message cultivates positivity in both hearts and makes it easy for your partner to behave with best possible intentions and for you to continue to teach yourself to believe that your partner is always behaving with the best possible intentions.
The last of Patanjali’s requirements for practice is that it is done in all earnestness, from the bottom of your heart. Anyone who practices posture yoga knows that there are some times when we’re just not into it. Some nights your poses are just sloppy and you just don’t feel like trying crow for the fifth time. It happens. There are slumps. But what Patanjali is talking about here is our overall attitude towards our practice. Even if no one could tell by looking at us, in our own hearts, we know, we simply do (even though a lot of the time we don’t like to admit it) when we are being earnest in our efforts. If in your heart you know this relationship is not the one for you, then end it simply, quickly and honestly.
Romantic Relationships as Yoga Practice
Romantic relationships can become a yoga practice and other yoga practices can inform and complement our romantic relationships. I believe the opposite is also true—the yoga of our romantic relationships can speak to our other forms of yoga, our asanas, our self-study, our worship, etc. in whatever shape these may take.
There is a lot more that can be said and elaborated on, but the truth is simple: We can shift our awareness of our romantic relationships from another painful battle with love to recognition of their depth as an authentic practice worth devoting our energy to. Living accordingly can awaken us to the myriad ways in which our romantic relationships can in fact become a flowing practice towards the sacred union of our hearts, our lives and ever-deepening romantic partnerships.