The Yoga of Relationships
by Kate and Joel Feldman
Whether we’re young, old, or somewhere in between, loving relationships take center stage in the theater of our lives. Ultimately, money, career, or achievements matter little compared to the love we invite into our lives and let unfold over time. We all yearn to have love in our lives and enjoy the magic, pleasures, and growth of loving another person. And it’s not just in our minds: Studies show that people in satisfying long-term relationships have stronger immune systems and are better able to tackle life’s ups and downs.
Yet, the path to relational oneness seems strewn with land mines. The initial stages of love can be so effortless, overpowering, and magical, we cannot imagine it will ever come to an end. But no matter how deep and intense the love, all relationships—whether they are romantic, family, or friendship relations—sooner or later face the same reality. As the newness wanes, the day-to-day realities of coexisting together become increasingly difficult to ignore. And this, inevitably, is where the real work begins.
Dealing with Differences
We all feel that our relationship issues are unique, but in reality we face remarkably similar challenges. They tend to center around disagreements about money, kids, sex, housework, in-laws, or leisure time. Couples who stay together happily for the long haul don’t disagree about these issues any less than couples who split up. The difference is in how they handle their differences and how they use skills to build long-term happiness and satisfaction. Many couples avoid conflict because they are afraid it will lead to divorce, but, paradoxically, the number one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict. Successful couples understand that conflict is natural and learn to build mutual trust, which enables them to work through disagreements.
Many of the couples we work with complain, "If this is true love, why do we have to work so hard at it?" This is kind of like saying, "Why do I have to work so hard at mastering asanas or pranayama? Can’t I just sit on my yoga mat every morning?"
What would happen if we did not dedicate time, attention, and effort to our yoga practice? Nothing. Relationships are no different. In the same way that yoga requires knowledge and skills for the mastery of practice, relationships require relational skills in order for them to grow and unfold over time.
Successful partnerships are those in which both people care as much about the world of the other as they do about their own. This means working with your own individual self-reflection and growth and getting to a point where you can be a whole, separate person while simultaneously being deeply connected to those you love. It means learning and using relational skills that you intentionally build into your daily interactions: taking time to listen to and learn about who your partner is; learning how to make agreements; learning how to set boundaries; learning how to use skillful language when you are speaking; and being able to identify your feelings and speak them without losing your temper or perspective. And it means consciously caring for and cultivating your relationship (i.e., creating rituals, celebrations, and traditions that you and your partner share together).
Relationships ask us to live mindfully and to practice steadfastness, humility, truthfulness, contentment, and nonviolence (i.e., to never hurt anyone in word or deed). If you are familiar with the philosophy of yoga, you will recognize these as very similar to the yamas and niyamas, the ancient ethical prescriptions said to govern human growth and spiritual unfoldment.
The Goal Is Union
When we learn to treat others with relational skillfulness, we are practicing yoga. The ultimate goal of yoga is union—with the divine essence in ourselves and in the world around us. Like a wave in the great ocean of existence, other human beings have the capacity to melt our sense of separateness so that we experience oneness with everything and everyone. This is the true essence of yoga. Learning to see the divine essence in another human being, even when our human reactions, idiosyncrasies, and differences are staring us hard in the face, is the practice of the yoga of relationships. Relationship awareness and practices will gift you with the deepest experience of loving—connecting with another person at the soul level.
We have seen over and over again that when two people want to love and be loved, and when they are willing to grow and change, something mighty emerges. Both individuals grow and become more of who they uniquely are. The partnership provides support, comfort, intimacy, teamwork, and abundance. By developing the yoga of relationships, we can contribute our share to create greater harmony in our families, communities, and nations, and in our global family.
Nourishing Your Relationship
Couples who regularly nourish and feed their relationship as if it were a living being, create more aliveness and energy between them and find themselves more satisfied in their life together over the long term. Here are some specific suggestions for how to nourish your relationships, romantic or otherwise:
Quality time. Create regular, scheduled time for connection, dialogue, fun, intimacy, or even working through conflicts.
Intentional fun and pleasure. Studies show that couples that have five times more pleasure than pain (or comfort versus discomfort) in their everyday interactions feel deeply fulfilled in their relationship.
Appreciation, gratitude, and acknowledgment. Find ways to express these sentiments daily to your partner. Look for the good stuff. It’s always there.
Rituals of attunement, giving, and receiving. Find out what says "I love you" to your partner. Create acts of loving for at least one separation or reunion time during the day.
Shared sexual/sensual/romantic expression. Your relationship needs and wants physical and emotional intimacy. Discover mutually pleasurable ways of nourishing your senses, bodies, and hearts. If this is difficult, find ways to ease into it, beginning with dialogue. Get some help if you need it.
Celebration of life passages. Birthdays, anniversaries, and life-cycle changes are wonderful times to create "out of the box" celebrations. Your relationship deserves to be acknowledged. Make up your own form of celebration or use tried-and-true formats from your cultural and family traditions.
Values clarification, visioning, and goal setting. Set aside time every year to step back and look at your life and relationship. Think about what you want, where you want to go, and what’s important to you. Review where you are and how you got there. Set some future goals based on your shared vision. Write them down and post them for inspiration and guidance.
Joel and Kate Feldman were founding members of Kripalu and lived and served in the Kripalu community for 25 years. Now living in Durango, Colorado, they are therapists and workshop presenters specializing in intimate relationships. They can be reached through their website.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail email@example.com.