If you continually practice yoga, there’s a reason you keep returning to your mat; whether yoga has helped you reduce anxiety, deal with stress, or feel better in your body, you are likely getting something out of this practice that helps you.
Unfortunately, despite the service this practice provides, we tend to overlook the ways we can apply what we learn from class into our day-to-day life challenges. Yoga doesn’t just offer the opportunity to choose how we show up during our yoga class, but to live what we learn.
When a conflict arises, we may start to navigate from our instinctive default setting, we may behave re-actively, and forget certain foundations from our yoga practice. Although reacting instinctively and in an emotionally-charged way can be momentarily satisfying, we might be better off if we can continue integrating the insight found within the foundation of our yoga practice and let that support us instead of falling back on less useful behaviors.
In this article I outline key ways that we can serve ourselves and others better, by being able to take our practice of yoga off of our mats and into our relationships.
Let’s start with the central component of the practice that supports us, the breath.
In a yoga class, we are reminded to breathe deeply and fully, and especially when we are in positions that make it harder to do so, like during core work, or a complicated pose like Bird Of Paradise.
By keeping the breath steady, we are engaging our parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest responses. We’re communicating to our bodies and brains that we are okay, that we are safe, that we can stay at ease in this situation.
When we are in a stressful situation, we tend to start chest breathing, or perhaps hold our breathe, or let it become rapid and short. In those moments, we are engaging our sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight or freeze response pattern.
This can lead us to behave differently, more defensively, and lose a grounded sense of the situation. Our bodies and brains are trying to protect us with this response. There is a sense of danger or alarm and we long to avoid or push back on that situation. It’s a survival response that we don’t always need to engage, and in fact it can often make a situation worse.
It’s a common occurrence; you have a heated argument and realize later that you said things you didn’t exactly mean or things that escalated the conflict. When you’ve had a moment to breathe and pause, you’ll probably behave in a way that you feel better about afterwards.
Become more of an observer
During our yoga classes, we are invited to move our bodies in many ways, find our edges, explore sensations, and notice how we respond throughout class.
It’s common for the instructor to cue the students to try to stay interested in what’s coming up without becoming judgmental towards it. For example, in pigeon prep, which is an intense hip opener, it’s common for emotions or resistance to arise. A students’ automatic response might be to get out of the pose to avoid experiencing difficult feelings. By staying more detached from that initial instinct and rather more simply interested in what’s happening, we may be less reactive and more able to stay, notice, and relax into the experience.
Hypothetically, let’s say you’re having a disagreement with a colleague about something important to you. In addition to saying what we might not mean, we may also tend towards a reactive response, like defensiveness if we feel wronged. What we say becomes more of a personal attempt to protect ourselves and our emotions, rather than an attempt to communicate greater clarity and understanding in the situation.
Again, on an instinctual level, this reactive response makes sense. We may be sensing a subtle danger of not being understood or our opinion being threatened so we put up barriers of defensiveness to push back against what is bringing up emotions.
While being defensive might provide momentary relief in a stressful conversation, it can actually do more to escalate the situation and push the possibility of mutual understanding farther away from being attained.
If you can mentally step back from the situation, much like you might in a yoga class when you are watching your breath and your body, it can help create some distance between yourself and the grip of the emotional state. We can untangle from the conflict and see more clearly simply by observing it.
For example, asking yourself things like: “what am I feeling?” and “where am I feeling it?” “What am I wanting from this situation?”
Perhaps try to notice where in your body you feel the emotion most and what you would identify the emotion as. Being able to see and claim your emotion without putting the blame or fault on the other person can be a powerful way to gain stronger emotional awareness, take responsibility for yourself, and also create a greater sense of spaciousness and clarity in the situation.
Hold compassion for the experience
Building on our observations, it’s also useful to connect to an innate sense of compassion for what’s going on. This can be especially challenging if the communication conflict is with someone very close to you because then it’s usually harder to untangle and take things less personally.
Hypothetically, let’s say you’re practicing a difficult yoga pose, like full split. You’re wanting to be able to stretch more deeply but notice you’re at your edge and can’t move further. This might be very frustrating and not what you want but that’s where you’re at.
We might start to feel like we’re not as advanced as we want to be, or begin comparing ourselves to others, or allow these sorts of thoughts lead to other discouraging beliefs about ourselves, rather than recognize that where we are is already enough for right now.
At a certain point, it’s more effective to simply accept that current experience, and be kind with yourself.
There will likely always be a next level to get to, a deeper stretch, a higher salary, etc. But until we can accept where we are now, we will always be grabbing for the next thing. Observe where you’re at, find kindness and compassion for yourself, and ease into that experience.
While this can be challenging to do on the mat, it can even more challenging during a conflict with another person. For example, you’re having an argument with a close family member, they keep interrupting you, and you don’t feel like they’re listening at all to what you are trying to express.
Compassion might be the exact opposite of what you’re feeling towards someone in a conflict. It can be a lot harder to access these softer, more vulnerable emotions especially when we disagree, or feel wronged or misunderstood by someone.
It’s important in these moments to remember that we all want to feel seen, understood, recognized, and appreciated.
If we look deeply enough at this situation, we might land at the realization that based on the way they are behaving, your family member is also experiencing exactly what you are: a need to be listened to, heard, seen, considered, and appreciated.
The more we can observe, detach from the situation and find compassion for both yours’ and the other person’s needs, the less likely we are going to react, defend and act passive aggressively in an attempt to meet our own needs.
Find softness within strength
One of my favorite things to teach in class is strengthening, things like core work, chair pose, and well-aligned chaturanga push-ups. I like teaching poses that require physical engagement and then, what can be even more difficult in those moments, I ask students to try and relax there.
I ask students to let go of what is not serving them in that moment. I them to notice what they are holding onto that isn’t helping them or being effective.
I remember many moments when I was younger of acting stubborn and apathetic when I didn’t feel understood that way I wanted to be.
Because I didn’t feel I was heard, I clung to my opinion even more tightly. I became more rigid and closed off, much like the way we might stop breathing or unnecessarily tense our entire body when we are strengthening the core.
My desire to feel seen and understood accurately was completely valid, but my automatic reaction to not receiving that wasn’t serving me well.
This action wan’t helpful because it not only decreased my trust of those around me but closed me off to being able to listen to their opinion.
In conflict, we can toughen, get defensive, start to get hateful, and close our hearts to the experience as a instinctual automatic response.
We can be soft and strong at the same time. We can still believe what we believe and feel what we feel without gripping onto those experiences.
This doesn’t mean that you’re agreeing with the other person, it doesn’t mean you are weak, or that you are giving up what you really feel, think, and believe.
It means that you’re not letting your emotions get the best of you. You’re able to notice and respond, rather than react to whats happening.
While remembering this can help keep us stay calm and access our breath in a challenging sequence or a two-minute plank, it can also help when a conflict is asking us to show up.
Natalie Mazur is a bilingual (English/Spanish) yoga instructor based in San Diego, California. She teaches private clients in their homes and offers weekly group classes. Natalie has nine years of study and teaching experience combined, and has taught in the U.S. and internationally.
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