Updated: Apr 2, 2021
The correlation between an awesome downward facing dog pose and a healthy relationship may seem like a stretch, but if we look at yoga for what it truly is, a practice of cultivating self awareness, we may begin to understand how to use these ancient teachings to create harmony with ourselves, and as a result, in partnership with another person. We sit in the role of observer when we practice yoga, paying attention to what we are usually unconscious of. We notice the way the soles of the feet contact the ground, the middle back widens with breath, the desire to leave the posture arises, or a feeling of embarrassment comes when we become aware that others in class can see us. Paying attention to postural habits and habitual thoughts, we open up to the possibility that there is a choice. I can press a little more with my heels, and support a lift in the chest with more core strength. I can let the bottom of the belly relax and allow the movement of breath into the pelvic floor. I can stay in the posture, even though I have the impulse to leave, and I can be aware that others are looking at me while reminding myself that I choose to surround myself with people who see my beauty. When we have the self awareness to notice our thoughts, and we choose to respond to our loved ones consciously, we can avoid much of the habitual suffering that is brought on by unconscious, automatic emotional responses.
Stan Tatkin, in his book "We Do" talks about two regions of the brain, which he calls the "Primitives," or the automatic responses, and the "Ambassadors," which work more slowly to allow for interpretation and problem solving. The primitives are in charge when we are on auto pilot, turning right onto the street where home is, and the ambassadors take over when we realize we meant to turn left and stop at the store. Tatkin says we rely on the primitive parts of the brain for 80 to 90 percent of what we do. "What we smell, taste, touch, see, hear, and feel are connected to this region." The ambassadors are responsible for predicting, planning, error correction, and perhaps most importantly, regulation of emotions and impulses.
In a physical yoga practice we get to know our own individual bodies, and rather than blindly following the yoga teacher's instructions or going through the motions while thinking of other things, we can learn to use the ambassador regions of the mind to move with self awareness. You may notice each day that the left hamstring takes more time to release than the right, or come to realize that backbending must be done with support, since your spine is vulnerable. As you learn to move in ways that take these particulars into consideration, you begin to recognize how to move in ways that not only avoid self harm, but actually promote balance and healing. When the yoga teacher suggest triangle pose, you can take responsibility for doing the posture in a way that helps, not hurts you. In this way we develop wisdom; a knowing of how to take care of the unique body we find ourselves inhabiting. Similarly, when cultivating awareness of emotions, we begin to notice that we have automatic responses to certain triggers. A raised eyebrow on your partner's face might trigger self doubt, which may be felt as sadness, bringing up tears, and the primitive brain's response could be "Why are you being mean to me?" A loud noise may provoke annoyance, and the habitual response could be "Stop doing that!" Your wife raising her voice in a disagreement might bring up fear, which could trigger you to run from the room to avoid further interaction. We all have some hardwired responses when dealing with emotions, many of which have been unconscious since we were children. Bringing these pieces of ourselves into consciousness gives us the freedom to look with adult eyes at the best way to respond, the way that may bring about more connection and understanding, rather than repeat a habitual cycle of defensiveness and suffering. Recruiting the ambassadors, rather then allowing the primitives their knee jerk response, requires practice.
A way to begin practicing this as "relationship yoga" can be as simple as letting your partner know what happened for you. In taking ownership of your automatic responses to emotions and inviting your partner to witness your self discovery, a new pattern can emerge. I call the following process a "reveal," but it is taught in many iterations and called other things by many communication experts and guides.
Step 1: Ask your partner if they are willing to listen to your experience, without sharing their own for a few minutes. Let your partner know that you are learning something about yourself that you wish to reveal, because you care about the relationship and think it might help in future communication. Choose a time that works for both of you to have the conversation.
Step 2: Begin with the facts, and keep it very basic. "I shared my new idea with you, and you raised your eyebrows. You did not ask me any questions about my idea."
Step 3: Share the feelings and sensations that you were aware of. "I had a feeling of sadness move through me, and I felt like crying."
Step 4: Share your thoughts, and be sure to own them as creations of your own mind, rather than assuming that you know what your partner felt or thought. "My mind said it was because you doubt my intelligence. The thought went through my head that you are being mean to me, and that you don't like my idea. In thinking about it now, I realize I have some self doubt that came up."
Step 5: The listener is in the role of receiving the information, reflecting back what she heard, and asking if there is anything else. "I heard you say that when I didn't ask questions, and I raised my eyebrows, you felt sadness and self doubt. You thought I didn't like your idea and thought I was being mean. Did I get that right? Is there anything else?"
Step 6: After revealing your experience, making a request can be helpful. "When I share my new business ideas with you, I have some self doubt, and could use some support. Would you try to help me by asking constructive questions about my ideas?"
The listener may agree or not agree to the request.
This "reveal" works best if both partners are familiar with the process. Before beginning, it helps to have an agreement that when the process is complete, the conversation is over until some time (a day perhaps) has passed, especially if emotions are still high. The listener may have noticed her defenses come up, her own thoughts and emotions in response, and may want to set a future time to have her own "reveal" heard.
A relationship is rich soil for cultivating new awareness of self and practicing conscious communication. When both partners are willing to risk vulnerability by revealing the parts of themselves hidden in shadow, they can have a truly supportive role in helping each other to grow.