Practice for Romance: How Yoga Can Help Us Understand Dating
When I left my seven-year relationship, I fumbled for both where and how to date again. Having come from the non-strategic transparency of a committed relationship, I found modern courting rules—particularly surrounding texting, the medium for most start-up romances—ridiculous. One book recommends waiting 30 minutes to respond to texts if between ages 18 and 22, and three hours if older than 31. Friends told me not to double-text and to avoid exclamation points and periods; "If possible," they said, "make occasional typos."
How could I assert myself and find love and truth when dating resembled poker? Acting cool, feigning indifference, and suspending commitment seemed like a giant step in the wrong direction, though the right direction was ambiguous. “This is the game,” my friends told me, “This is what works.”
How could I assert myself and find love and truth when dating resembled poker?
But I didn’t want to play. While uninterested in another serious relationship, I still hoped my romances could foster genuine affection and vulnerability.
The problem with my idealism was that I myself was won over by others’ games. The less accessible guys were, the more I wanted them. The less they texted, the more I craved their contact. I found myself playing the game right back. These tactics operate on the principle of scarcity. What is scarce is valuable, so by being artificially unavailable, we up our desirability and the chances of date number 2, 3, 10, and 15 (after that it gets old).
So what’s wrong with the dating game? In her Huffington Post article, Antonia Opiah sums it up by asking, “How can you build something real with someone if it's based on something fake?” Though exhilarated by my play, I felt that I lacked authenticity, especially in my digital interactions. I wanted to be true to myself, but it was just as important to me to make my dates like me, a product of coy calculation.
Struggling to simultaneously entice and stay true to myself and others, I turned to yoga: How could I bring my practice off the mat and into movie theaters/bedrooms/ski chairs/iPhones/Pho restaurants/bars?
Struggling to simultaneously entice and stay true to myself and others, I turned to yoga.
First I set intentions. I didn’t want to cultivate superficiality or apathy. I did want to cultivate honesty, kindness, openness, and non-attachment. Next I made a list of my must-have qualities in a partner. Then I went back to the basics—of yoga.
I've found that by instilling patience, self-control, and self-sufficient serenity, yoga merges the false poles of "authentic" and "sexy." In other words, practicing yoga can help us capture the allure of mystery while still remaining forthright about who we are and what we want. But this doesn't magically happen after a few down dogs; the foundations of yoga are, like dating, by the book.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra outlines five observances for ethical living called theyamas. The five yamas are ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Practicing the yamas in my budding relationships has magnified my sense of genuine closeness and connection with others while encouraging microcosmic self-discovery and independence.
Ahimsa means non-harming, a version of “treat others the way you want to be treated." When we're compassionate, gentle, and peaceful, we embody ahimsa. By contrast, the dating game results in more than just ego bruises. When we view others as houses on a Monopoly board or notches on a bedpost, we compromise the wisdom of our singular humanity, ultimately perpetuating violence in the world. But when we extend compassion to others, we reap compassion back. Kindness also means non-judgment. While dating can easily become status and appearance oriented, when we commit to non-judgment, we plant the seeds of an accepting culture. Though practicing ahimsa may not immediately pay off in dates, it will attract good and kind people into our lives and help our romances flourish. Moreover, research published in the Journal of Social Psychology shows that, independent of its external results, kindness makes us happy.
Being full of truth (satya) requires courage and isn’t always comfortable. But the alternative harms both the victim of our dishonesty and our own moral integrity. This results in low self-esteem and guilt, rendering us less attractive to ourselves and to future mates. One way to apply satya is to be frank. If there’s no spark after a few dates, standard practice is often to just ignore the other person, but if we want to treat our dates humanely and honestly, we should explain our gratitude for getting to know them as well as our feelings that the relationship isn't going anywhere. We can affirm our dates while being truthful. The dating game dies when just one person steps out of the arena. Refusing to skirt around the heart of an issue saves everyone time and heartache.
Being full of truth (satya) requires courage and isn’t always comfortable. But the alternative harms both the victim of our dishonesty and our own moral integrity.
Stealing (the opposite of asteya) is rooted in the fear that we don’t have and cannot create what we need. Asteya is trusting that there are infinite potential mates and the right ones will come at the right time. Practicing asteya demands that we drop our idols—when we relinquish our attachment to fantasies of a particular partner, we harvest the universe’s abundance of companions without greed or hoarding. Upon recognizing someone’s replaceability, we become free to be ourselves, unencumbered by trying to make them like us and consequently becoming more attractive. A byproduct of trusting abundance is play. While the strategy in the dating game is problematic, the playfulness that accompanies it is still important. Zen Buddhists link childlikeness with “beginner’s mind," a state of awe, spontaneity, and personal freedom. Play is good for us, and it’s good for our relationships. Plato said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” In asana practice, when we detach from the outcome and feel our way through a pose with lightheartedness, curiosity, and optimism, we begin to bear fruit. The same is true of our relationships. Following asteya allows us to play with abandon.
Practicing continence reminds us that foreplay is always in. Self-restraint in our relationships is critical to maintaining vitality and a strong sense of self. One important aspect of continence is patience. Patience is a positive echo of the scarcity principle: people place higher value on what they wait for. While technology has rendered waiting nearly obsolete, the humans behind the technology can always choose to postpone gratification. Waiting can become a practice. We can ask ourselves how it feels to go without constant communication, or without complete physical intimacy. By waiting, we gain perspective. And research from the University of Chicago has found that waiting actually increases our ability to be patient. Patience also curbs impulsive decisions. By momentarily stepping away and exercising self-control, we can see the difference between mindless indulgence and consciously giving ourselves permission.
Practicing aparigraha means avoiding jealousy rooted in the fear that we are not enough. It means that we know our unique power and covet nothing. It encourages authenticity. Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” Aparigraha operates from comfort with the paradox that we are flawed but perfect and inimitable. Instead of building ego and false confidence, we build self-love and dignity by practicing the above yamas. The result of self-reliance is that both we and those we date recognize that we don’t need someone else to complete us. We approach our relationships from a place of strength, not dependency. Instead of playing the wait-to-text game, for example, we don’t have our phones glued to our hands; we’re at work on other passions independent of our relationships.
Practicing aparigraha, avoiding jealousy and fear that we are not enough, means that we know our unique power and covet nothing. It encourages authenticity.
My experience applying the yamas to dating is that they are most effective when used together. For example, if I practiced only truthfulness around my feelings for someone, this might cause me to prematurely confess my romantic feelings and scare him off. But if I practiced continence and self-reliance in addition to truthfulness, I would have both the patience and self-assuredness to wait until the time was right. However, I can still be honest with myself about my feelings and adjust my actions to align with that truth regardless of his knowledge of it.
But how do we get around the fact that even though we may practice honorable, honest dating, we’re still enticed by those who don’t? The game-changer is this: the more we cultivate these qualities in ourselves, the more we’re attracted to those same qualities in others.
Nevertheless, when it comes to using tactics that maintain shallow relationships or using the yamas to yield bonds based on authenticity and love, the latter is by far the scarier option. It is also the less common. But when we wholeheartedly practice compassion, honesty, non-possessiveness, patience, and self-sufficiency in our relationships, we will receive it back in abundance. Our ethical actions will ultimately make us better people with better relationships. And they will have a wide impact. The Dalai Lama said, “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” Spread this seed!
Caroline is a yoga teacher, artist and writer based in Denver, Colorado. She draws on her background in yoga, art and psychoanalysis to paint plans for living our best selves through articles that challenge, inform and inspire. Learn more about Caroline or get in touch with her at www.carolinebeaton.com.