Love and Yoga
Explore Two Necessary Practices for Building a Healthy Relationship
Love is similar to yoga in that each is both a practice and the experiences that arise from the practice. A loving experience is effortless and ecstatic. Loving is a mutual immersion into each other. As with yoga, however, the practice of loving requires commitment and patience. Intimate relationships are, at once, both the ecstasy and the laundry.
If you have ever fallen in love, you know the feeling of effortless mutual immersion. Falling in love is easy. Like seeing, feeling, and breathing, loving is an organic expression of our being. Living in love is different, however. There are families, jobs, friends, money, and countless neuroses to contend with. The effortless fall into love does not take into account prenuptial agreements and student debt.
Intimacy is the effort to grow closer. Presence is relaxing into that closeness. In loving, one partner generally inclines toward intimacy, while the other toward presence.
Yogic relationships exercise our skills in both the practice and the experience of loving. Within this article, we will refer to the practice of loving as “intimacy,” and the experience of loving as “presence.” Intimacy is the effort to grow closer. Presence is relaxing into that closeness. In loving, one partner generally inclines toward intimacy, while the other toward presence. Recognizing these tendencies in the partners will prevent misunderstandings and help to uncover the root of much discord that can undermine otherwise healthy relationships.
Our Love Story (The Abridged Edition)
We met in the 1990s through the Saskatchewan punk scene. We were (and still are) awkward but sincere idealists who wanted to make the world a better place. We quickly fell in love.
While in college, we had to negotiate a long-distance relationship. We lived 500 miles apart, and there was no such thing as FaceTime, which left us with daily phone calls as our sole means of connecting. Previously, I had used telephones only to make plans or quickly convey information. But these phone calls were completely different. They were not about making plans, they were a means for us to maintain a daily connection.
Below is a brief window into a typical call for us—first from my point of view, and then from Sarah’s.
Colin: My roommates and I are watching Monday Night Football and having a beer while we talk about our weekend. The phone rings. I answer, suspecting it is Sarah. I am excited to hear from her and find out how her day was, but my friends are loud and the football game is just getting good. My divided attention must be obvious, because only a few minutes into our conversation, after a moment of silence, Sarah says, “Hi…remember me?”
Sarah: It has been a long day of school and homework and I want nothing more than to virtually snuggle with Colin on the couch and talk about our days. He is 500 miles away, so I pick up the phone and call from my quiet apartment. He answers but I find that he’s far away, both physically and emotionally. I need nothing more than his warm, deep voice reminding me of our connection. After repeating half-answered questions and hearing his one-word responses, I say, “Hi…remember me?”
We eventually moved in together, married, and had two beautiful children. We now run a busy yoga studio together on the Canadian prairie.
Sarah had practiced yoga as a teenager growing up in Saskatoon, but prior to meeting her, my only exposure to yoga was through books on meditation and in readings on mysticism for my religious studies courses in college. Still, it did not take long before we realized that our shared love for yoga held many valuable lessons for our relationship.
Intimacy: The Practice of Loving
Intimacy refers to a kind of knowing or familiarity on the deepest levels. Intimate relationships are ones in which nothing is held back. In yogic terms, intimacy is the practice of knowing who, or what, you really are.
In yoga asana, knowing yourself can be as simple as knowing your limits—knowing when to move into your restrictions with conviction, and when to acknowledge your edges with softness and grace. That kind of knowing is subtle, intuitive, and in many ways unteachable.
In meditation, intimacy is the recognition that we cannot see ourselves because we are doing the seeing. As our teacher once said, the thing you are looking for is the thing you are looking with. Becoming intimate with yourself is a necessary prerequisite for intimacy with a partner. Simply put, you need to be comfortable with yourself before you can be comfortable with anyone else.
Intimacy is connection. Connection with your partner is not unlike connection with your own body. There are restrictions, limitations, and discomforts. There are tight spots in our relationships. We need to know when to push into those spots in an effort to open them up, and when to give our partner some space.
The Problem with Intimacy
Individuals with illness-anxiety disorder (what used to be called hypochondria) spend a great deal of time intimately observing themselves. Even though they may have no symptoms, they obsess over anything perceived as a warning sign. The irony of illness-anxiety disorder is that the anxiety itself can become debilitating: People can worry themselves from imagined states of disease into very real ones.
Intimacy in relationships can go in a similar direction. In the example above from our phone call, Sarah may have imagined that her partner simply did not care about talking to her. She may have imagined that he was distracted and thinking of someone else, and that her relationship was crumbling as she sat there helpless on the other end of a phone 500 miles away. All the while her partner loved her dearly, but was watching football with his roommates.
Obsessing over every minuscule detail of a posture will not necessarily improve the quality of the posture, just as obsessing over your partner’s behavior will not improve the quality of the relationship. In both cases, we need to learn to let things be as they are.
Presence: The Experience of Love
Presence is the uncomplicated beingness of things as they are. There are no questions necessary. There are no problems or issues. Being present is not trying to change anything. It is allowing everything to be as it is.
B.K.S. Iyengar famously said that each asana should comprise both pose and repose. The pose is the effort and intelligence used to bring our bodies into a particular posture. Repose is maintaining that posture with calmness and grace. Repose is allowing the posture to be as it is.
A similar process is at work in meditation practice. A certain amount of discipline and continence is required to counter the tendency toward perpetual physical and mental movement. But stillness requires no effort. Once we experience some calmness and quiet, we simply abide in our essence.
Being together is simple. We don’t need to work on anything. Everything is perfect, just as it is. Is it not ?
The Problem with Presence
However, sometimes everything is not great. Our bodies hurt and require attention. Our partners are hurt and need attention. Our unconscious, unhealthful habits require conscious attention (intimacy) in order to change them. We can get too comfortable and start taking our bodies, and our partners, for granted. Simply being present to these issues is a great start, but healing requires a therapeutic intervention. Awareness itself is inert without intimate engagement.
The solitary yogi deep in meditative bliss atop a snowy mountain is actually a crappy partner. Emotionally, that person may as well be wedged into the couch with a bag of Doritos and a video game. Absorption, whether into waves of meditative bliss or the endless flow of televised sports, has a tendency toward feeling detached and distant. Like Shiva, we all have to come down from the mountain and re-engage with the world.
The Dance of Intimacy and Presence
How many relationships have ended after a prolonged dispute in which both partners are aware of the issues but cannot or do not act to address them? How often have you spoken with someone whose relationship ended without them knowing why?
Yoga provides us with opportunities to practice intimacy and presence with ourselves in a way that helps us to extend those gifts to our partners. Practicing solo is just so much easier. On our yoga mats the stakes are relatively low. If you incline toward overthinking and obsessing about details, you can use yoga practice to experiment with letting go of that tendency to mentally scrutinize. If you tend to be emotionally unavailable, you can use the time on your mat to experiment with intimate attention to detail.
Ultimately, intimacy and presence comprise a complementary union that feels like fullness. Over the phone it can be hard to know whether your partner is listening with deep presence or just tuned out and drifting. In person, there is far less risk of such uncertainty. Simply allowing your partner to express him or herself, and remaining wide awake and present to all that is expressed, in itself is a powerful practice.
Allowing things to simply be, without any intervention or critique, will yield the greater intimacy and presence necessary for you to dance your relationship into deeper and more profound levels of immersion.
If you’d like to go deeper, please watch for part two of this article. It will contain practical advice and exercises designed to cultivate your dance.