Before you speak, ask yourself: "is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?" —Sai Baba
We live in a competitive culture. Quick responses and problem solving, preparing for the attack, and getting the job done shape our values and our style of relating to others. We tend to plow into conversations with more concern for getting our points across, winning, or being heard than we have for listening, holding space, or giving others the opportunities to express themselves. This can, over time, undermine our relationships.
Quick responses and problem solving, preparing for the attack, and getting the job done shape our values and our style of relating to others.
Enter mindfulness—a way of being that emphasizes attention, awareness, self-examination, intention, and skillful action. Behaving mindfully involves communicating from a place of awareness, while maintaining an intention to hold space for others. But when we feel stressed, excited, threatened, triggered, or defensive, it can be very difficult not to react in ways that serve our immediate needs or interests rather than considering how our responses might best serve our relationships.
Mindfulness in a relationship involves a commitment to deep listening. While this may seem simple enough, many of us have very different ideas about what constitutes a good conversation. Last year I made the acquaintance of someone with whom I shared a common love of yoga and psychology. It seemed like an exciting connection, and I looked forward to many interesting conversations about how we might be able to work together. Early in our friendship, I observed that each time I told a story he responded with one of his own. No sooner did I stop talking than he would jump in.
It didn’t take long to realize that he wasn’t really listening. When I commented on this he replied, “Well, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do? Respond to your story with one of my own?” Given how much that dynamic undermined our ability to connect, I’d say that the answer was no.
Good conversations provide time and space for listening, reflecting, and learning as much as they do for information exchange. We’re not able to be present for others when, rather than listening, we concentrate on conversational volleying. It circumvents the opportunity to understand someone on a deeper level.
Good conversations provide time and space for listening, reflecting, and learning as much as they do for information exchange.
As yoga practitioners and educators, one of our tasks is to create a zone of respectful silence in which others can explore and express their thoughts and feelings. The ancient yoga texts are replete with teachings of the essential role of inner and outer silence as necessary for svadhyaya (self study) and the cultivation of mindfulness and inner peace.
In the Maitri Upanishad, silence is described as “tranquil, soundless, fearless, sorrowless, blissful, satisfied, steadfast, immovable, immortal, unshaken, and enduring.” It is from there that we bring our best selves into the world, acting from places of wisdom, clarity, and self-awareness rather than self-interest. Practicing silence allows us to become attuned not only to our inner wisdom, but to the presence of others and what it is they need from us.
In other words, instead of filling the space, we pause, wait, and listen. This doesn’t mean that we don’t participate in conversation—rather we allow our interactions with others to flow freely without imposing our needs, agendas, or anxieties. We learn to pause rather than push. This can be remarkably challenging if our tendency is to problem solve, help out, or fix things.
The practice of shavasana, a period of anywhere from a few to many minutes at the end of a yoga practice in which participants are asked to lie on their yoga mats in “corpse pose,” offers an exceptional opportunity to play with our capacity to pause and create space. Although being still in a state of relaxation sounds appealing, it can be incredibly challenging, particularly in the context of a hectic, nonstop life.
I began practicing yoga after five years of a regular meditation practice. Although meditation hadn’t been easy for me at first, I was reasonably adept at sitting on my cushion for lengths of time without too much discomfort. With that background, you’d expect shavasana would have been a piece of cake for me. It wasn’t.
Early in my yoga exploration, I was a full-fledged “shavasana dasher.” No sooner had the class wound down, than I'd bolted out the door. The thought of lying still in a quiet room drove me nuts. For the life of me, I could not understand how busy people could just lie around and do nothing. I had better things to do, so I left. Years later I see shavasana as a gift, but it took a great deal of time and practice to get there.
Shavasana challenges the drive to keep busy and fill our lives to the brim. It offers a reflection of our capacity to take a purposeful pause and hold space for ourselves. If you struggle to create time for yourself, chances are it isn’t easy for you to offer that to others.
Shavasana challenges the drive to keep busy and fill our lives to the brim.
Yoga practice offers us a safe place to explore the art of pausing, listening, self-reflection, and silence. A relaxing breathing exercise like ujjayi pranayama is an excellent tool for calming the neurophysiology that makes us reactive and for cultivating the capacity to stop, listen, and observe ourselves and those around us.
The tools of yoga allow us to recognize how we relate to the world. The more we learn to create space for ourselves, the easier it becomes to offer space to others. In stopping for a moment (or longer), we awaken to the beauty and wonder that resides in all beings, creating opportunities for connection, gratitude, compassion, and loving-kindness. From this place of embodied action, we become the change we hope to see in the world and inspire others to do the same.