Yoga Wisdom for Modern Relationships

“The quality of our relationships is a reflection of our state of mind.” — Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra


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There is a profound truth in Yoga philosophy that at first seems pessimistic, but once understood, brings freedom and the experience of unconditional love. The teaching is that all things we love, including relationships, will eventually bring us sorrow. For instance, we enjoy spending time with our friend, and then they say something that hurts our feelings. We appreciate our parent and then feel burdened by them. We feel respected by our partner and then feel they are not treating us well. We have fun with our child and then find ourselves bored or exhausted.

This back and forth nature is what Yoga philosophy calls “the noose of suffering.” The good news is that Yoga offers us a path toward transforming this suffering into enlightenment through self awareness, understanding our mind, taking responsibility for our own thoughts, and realizing ancient spiritual wisdom.

The first step in Yoga is awareness, and for most of us this begins with the body. We learn the physical poses of Yoga, which help us become more aware of health and imbalance in our body, where we hold tension, and how to relax. Most students of Yoga become more aware of how they breathe and how to do so more consciously, becoming more alert and relaxed. This alone helps countless students to reduce stress in their lives and therefore in their relationships. Many students will tell me, with a humble smile, that their families like them better on the days they do Yoga.

The more transformative and lasting benefits however, come when we heighten our awareness of how our mind works. This understanding is key to enlightenment through our relationships, and key to how we experience all of life. In short, we attract to us the people and situations that match our existing thoughts.

A Thought Is A Seed That Sprouts

A yogic concept called the gunas, or qualities of reality, helps us understand the different ways in which our thoughts can affect our relationships, resulting either in more suffering or more joy.

Relationships that lead to peace and contentment contain a quality called sattva, an energy that is pure, balanced, and of a virtuous quality. We often ask our students to think of someone for whom it is easy for them to love — perhaps a pet or child — as it reminds them of this nature of unconditional love, overflowing with abundance, freedom, peace, purity, forgiveness, acceptance, trust, surrender, ease, and a feeling of union with something greater than ourselves. All these virtuous words in Yoga define our true nature.

But we forget our true nature, and the limited nature of our mind takes over. This leads to the other two qualities, rajas and tamas. Rajas is a state driven by the ego that seeks to control, manipulate, convince, judge, help or fix. We see it in our relationships when we want someone to change, when we think we are right about something, or have expectations of another in any way. Tamas is the opposite, driven by a low self-esteem or weak ego. Fear predominates, as does the need for approval, a victim mentality, insecurity, or any disempowered state.

The power of understanding these qualities of reality is that they help us be more aware of how we are thinking in any given moment, at which point we can steer a different course. But consciousness is not enough unless we have also committed to take responsibility for our own state of mind. It is very easy to blame other people or life events for our misery, especially when we are steeped in that quality of thought. There are two concepts that can assist us here.

First, if we are ready to take responsibility for our own thoughts, we begin with the recognition that our thoughts are not correct! They are, quite simply, units of energy that are constantly changing. We can cling to them or not. Meditation teaches us to watch the thoughts go by like clouds in the sky, and not latch on to them.

Yoga describes our entanglement with our thoughts as maya, referring to the earthly or human condition that is by nature dreamlike or illusory. Our thoughts only become true from a spiritual or enlightenment perspective when they match the vibration of love or any other virtue. This becomes useful in relationships as we practice releasing our attachment to our thoughts, and being right. Instead, we choose to release the thoughts that are non-virtuous and feed those that are.

The second idea that helps us take responsibility for our thoughts is the notion of karma, which reminds us that every action brings about a reaction. If we choose to believe this theory, it also stands to reason that every reaction had a prior action. That means that our reaction to other people has to do with an action we already started into motion in the past. It could be this lifetime or a past lifetime, should you be inclined to believe in reincarnation.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a well known Buddhist monk, provides a helpful metaphor involving seeds. When we have any thought, it plants a seed of that quality. For example, if I get angry, I plant a seed of the angry feeling. That seed will inevitably grow and blossom into a flower that I will see in the future in some way. When I get angry at my friend, I am seeing the blossoming of a flower from a seed I planted in my past. This helps us to see that our reactions have less to do with the person we think is causing them and more to do with the past thoughts we cultivated. Thich Nhat Hahn advises us to water only the good seed-thoughts, and to practice a lot of forgiveness toward ourselves in relation to the negative seed-thoughts.

How To Choose Joy

With great practice, we can become aware of how our mind works and then begin to cultivate practices that support enlightened thinking. Yoga offers three ideas that can help us change our perceptions. The first is to understand that the real goal in life is not actually happiness, but wisdom. This means then, that each relationship is an opportunity to obtain more wisdom about ourselves and life. Whether we are happy or not is beside the point — it is a fleeting emotion anyway. Every person in our lives, and perhaps most especially the difficult people, become our greatest teachers.

We must then choose to believe this. We must decide that other people, and all events in life, are there to guide us toward our own self-realization. Or we can carry on and suffer. An idea was once offered to me by a great healer in my life, which exemplified the powerful shift that can come when we decide to believe something because it enhances our life to do so. This is a scientific process. We recognize that a certain belief causes us suffering and another belief causes us joy. Why not choose joy?

In this case, I was suffering from the end of a relationship in which I felt betrayed and abandoned. This healer suggested that I imagine that this person who had hurt me had done so because our spirits agreed prior to incarnation to be in each other’s lives in order that we might learn certain lessons. My partner left me because our souls had previously agreed he would, and as a result I would learn to honor and love myself. Whether or not we believe in reincarnation, or this story, doesn’t matter. When I imagined the story to be true, I felt incredibly free. I was able to truly feel forgiving of him and grateful for his role in my life. This is transformation, healing, and enlightenment.

Another tool Yoga offers when we are most emotionally charged in a relationship is the simple but direct practice of pratipaksa bhavana, or “practice the opposite.” This is particularly helpful in cases where we know we are thinking suffering thoughts but don’t understand where they come from and don’t know what to do. If applied to the former example, I was feeling betrayed and angry. I could ask myself, “What is this trying to teach me in this moment?” or “What is the opposite action I could take, the one I don’t feel like taking, but the opposite?” If I was feeling angry I could practice forgiveness or acceptance, or whatever feeling sets me free in that moment. The advice “Fake it ‘til you make it” applies here. Each day, pray or meditate and ask to get one step closer to actually feeling that new state. It might take time, but it works.

Releasing Relationship Karma

Finally, we have wisdom available to us that is over two thousand years old. The teachings of Yoga were first put into writing in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These teachings direct us fundamentally in how to manage our mind. This is particularly useful when we remember that many of our issues with others come as a result of subconscious beliefs, so no amount of self awareness will change us. The sutra in chapter 1, verse 33, provides a path for re-training our mind, or releasing what Yoga would call our subconscious deposits (bad karma).

It says, “By cultivating attitudes of friendship toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and equanimity towards the non-virtuous, the consciousness retains its undisturbed calmness.” Let us understand these four guidelines.

Cultivate attitudes of friendship toward the happy and compassion for the unhappy.

These first two guidelines are easy for most. We cultivate an attitude of friendship (maitri) toward happy people when we smile back at them, or reciprocate their kindness. We avoid letting ourselves be victims of jealousy or envy. We have compassion (karuna) when we listen to our friend who is sad, or bring soup to our father when he is sick. This guideline encourages us to pray for all who suffer, that they might be blessed and guided according the larger universal plan. Perhaps you feel how this action transforms us ten-fold in the process.

Cultivate delight in the virtuous.

The third guideline invites us to emulate the people we admire, rejoicing that they exist. We can strive to emulate their virtuous traits, such as generosity, selflessness, strength, courage, peace, or wisdom. We can delight in the curiosity of a child, the hard working nature of our neighbor, the humor of a teenager, or the dedication of Mother Teresa.

Cultivate equanimity towards the non-virtuous.

The final guideline is perhaps the most difficult in its meaning and in its application. To practice calmness or equanimity (upeksanam) with the un-virtuous calls us to look at the words “equanimity” and “un-virtuous.” Any un-virtuous traits we observe in others, such as insensitivity, cruelty, or greed, is a reflection of our state of mind.

We generally judge in others what we harbor in ourselves. Furthermore, judging them only reinforces that quality in our own minds. The world is within us and to change the world we must change our thoughts. I’ve heard countless attempts to make exceptions to this advice, but none of them bring freedom to the beholder. Only more suffering. Once again, we are brought to the well of enlightenment, but no one can make us drink.

If we so choose to cultivate equanimity towards the un-virtuous, we do so with an attitude of neutrality, balance, unaffectedness. It is not likely that we will feel this state easily. It is often described as simple, but not easy. This guideline calls us to live in that sattvik or pure state, where no person or thing can pull us off balance. It reminds us that our happiness is internal, not dependent on external circumstances. It is not apathy or aloofness, but a true “being with what is” or living meditation. It is real and unconditional love.

Perhaps the most profound practice of this wisdom is to truly listen to someone else. Make a decision to be quiet and listen to someone you love for a significant period of time. Resist any tendency to judge, help, fix or talk at all. I have tried this with my husband when we walked on the beach, surprised at times with my own inability to remain silent for even a few minutes. When I would succeed, he would quite often tell me something important about the way he was feeling, or something he was thinking about. I am so grateful when this happens. By listening we unite with others and live out namaste, which means “The light in me sees the light in you.”

Namaste.

Julie Rost, ERYT, CYT, is director of the YogaLife Institute of NH, a training center and community for Yoga students, teachers and therapists, located in Exeter, NH. Visit www.yogalifenh.com or (603) 969-8968.

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