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 ifyou 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 ofyourself rise up to support you. It may be compassion for yourself, it may be a sense of presence, it may be peace or acceptance. Ifyou 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.
Ask, "What's the most important thing?" "It's what I ask myself when I'm teaching yoga-what's the most important thing right now? Generally it's the safety and well-being of the students. And then, their growth and learning," Lasater says. When she asks the same thing about her husband, she often thinks, "I want to stay in a relationship with this person. Let's figure out a way to meet both of our needs."
In a relaxed moment, set up an agreement with your loved ones for handling conflict. When Judith Hanson Lasater finds herself triggered, she takes a walk. This method has become useful for her whole family.
In a heated moment they will say to each other, "I'm going to go walk around the block, because I'm not acting consistently with my values. I don't want to disconnect; I'll be back. And I'd like to start over with this discussion."
"You know, 'How human of me to get irritated about the stupid way the toothpaste cap is off' kind of thing. And how human of him to act the way that he's acting. Somehow, when I hear that in my head," says Lasater, "it evokes a sense of compassion. It's just what human beings do. We want our way, and not only do we want our way, but we want it right now."
Underlying each complaint that partners express to each other is usually "Hear me, see me," Lasater says. "I could take offense, or take it personally, or I could say to myself, 'Hmm...what is he really saying from his heart?'" What sounds like a grievance might actually be a plea to be appreciated.
Get some deep rest Is your partner often annoying you? Try Savasana for 20 minutes a day. "So much of what we find irritating is just that we're tired," Lasater says. "And to really deeply relax shifts your entire nervous system."
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 Als-tad'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—ifyou 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 ofview that we have is quite different: The relationship is a matrix
i 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 ofwhat'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 non-judgment 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 pranayama 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 blam-ing—"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 ofyou 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 Feld-mans, 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 anything—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 continued on page 90
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