Relationships as Spiritual Practice

Not long ago, a student asked me, “What do you think has been the most healing experience of your yoga practice?” The question gave me pause. My mind started scrolling through a list of my favorite practices. Was it nadi shodhana? Asana? Meditation? My experience of Ayurveda? Slightly stumped, I replied that it was probably some combination of these practices that created the most impact.

Several weeks later, I was still pondering the question. What part of my practice had created the most healing and transformation? As I reviewed my experiences as a yoga practitioner, a host of memories flooded in: moments of insights and emotional release, a nurturing sense of being a part of something greater than myself. These moments, fostered by my formal yoga practice, had all been powerful, and certainly healing. Yet there was something more.

As images of yoga mats and meditation cushions began to fade, other images emerged—of people who had supported, challenged, moved, and consoled me. Moments with friends, teachers, partners, and parents. A time crying on a friend’s shoulder. A time when conflict merged into greater understanding. Or the moment I finally said no to another’s misbehavior. Some of these faces were directly connected to my formal practice; others were, surprisingly, not. But they all had one thing in common—they had changed my life.

In a tradition largely focused on personal healing and transformative growth, I was surprised that so many of my most transformational moments came with another person attached. It got me thinking: When it comes to healing, how important are relationships on the spiritual path?

We are wired for connection.

From birth, we require connection to survive. Babies who don’t receive enough physical contact and emotional responsiveness are at higher risk for behavioral, emotional, and social problems. They cry more and sleep less. At its extreme, babies who are neglected and not touched often don’t survive. Human contact and engagement is as fundamental to our survival as food and water.

The impact of relationships on positive brain development goes well beyond infancy and far into adulthood. Studies show that certain types of therapies can change the brains of people with depression, borderline personality disorder, and trauma. A therapeutic relationship can produce changes in the brain equivalent to and sometimes lasting longer than medication. These studies point to the power of relationships to heal the mind.

Intuitively, this makes sense. Our biggest wounds most likely happen in relationship. Painful experiences of loss, betrayal, and abandonment can bring us to the cushion or mat to try to navigate through these difficult feelings. For many, yoga and meditation bring relief. Yet, can these wounds be completely healed on the yoga mat? Might not a wound that occurred in relationship need to be healed within relationship?

Ultimately, this is a question each of us will need to answer for ourselves. There is no straight line on the path of healing. Yet, I know I’m not alone in experiencing how relationships can help mend the heart. Perhaps you’ve experienced this too.

Healing through relationship requires vulnerable action.

What do healing relationship experiences tend to have in common? For one, they require our full availability. How often are we fully present in our interactions with others, rather than thinking about the 10,000 other things we need to do at the same time? Partial engagement won’t work.

Second, they require vulnerability and exposure. Transformation of the heart rarely comes when we’re partially exposing ourselves and partially holding back. You can’t expect true transformation to occur when you give a half-hearted apology to someone you’ve hurt, or when you lie and say that a friend’s comment didn’t bother you when, in actuality, she touched a tender spot.

Relationships become transformative when we stick our necks out, when we’re honest and vulnerable. The more we allow ourselves to be truly seen and known, the more we open the door to healing. When we do this, there’s no guarantee that things will go the way we want them to. That person may accept your apology, or not; your friend may understand your sensitivity about her comment, or brush you off. The transformation arises not from the outcome but from being honest, open, and willing to receive and be impacted by what comes from that authenticity.

Hearing these stories wakes me up to how important relationships are in personal and spiritual growth. Being in relationship with others, moment to moment, is a deep form of yoga practice. To be human is to be connected. Even if we cultivate a largely solitary practice on the mat, we will always bring our relationships with us. As psychologist James Hillman writes, “From the beginning, we emerge into awareness within a web of human connections that unceasingly engage us until death.” Or, in the words of Swami Kripalu, “The key to your heart lies hidden in the heart of another.”

Find out about The Science of Yoga with Angela Wilson at Kripalu.

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Angela Wilson, LMHC, RYT 500, is a Kripalu faculty member who has conducted research and written about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

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