Yoga & Relationships, Part 1

If you’ve studied the major texts of Yoga, you’ve probably noticed there isn’t a great deal of guidance when it comes to relationships.  This actually makes considerable sense when we take into account the audience for which these works were written, but it can lead us to a mistaken view that relationships aren’t an important part of the Yogic path.

As discussed in previous articles, the primary works of the Yoga tradition were directed either toward monastic practitioners – who of course had renounced issues such as marriage and family – or to lay practitioners who were already in stable home situations from which they were moving into a deepened examination of the spiritual part of their lives.  For this reason, it’s natural that these works focus their on topics other than love, marriage, and family.

That much said, we would be mistaken to assume from this absence that relationships do not have a valuable place in Yoga, or that the Yoga tradition does not have constructive insights regarding how we might build a healthy relationship.  In fact, relationships are considered to be every bit as valid and constructive a part of the Yogic path as celibacy and renunciation – another common misunderstanding we’ll discuss.

In today’s article here at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we’ll look at the classic Yogic understanding of partnership, including how it compares with and complements the monastic tradition.  More importantly, we’ll look at how a better understanding of the principles of Yoga can support a healthier and more joyous relationship, both with our spouse or loved one and with our family.

Yoga & the Validity of the Lay Path

Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about the Yogic view of relationships is the belief that the path of the lay practitioner – those of us with families, homes, and careers – is somehow less spiritually advanced than the path of the swami or renunciate.  In fact, the Yogis expressly believed that both paths are every bit as valid and of equal spiritual merit.

To clarify, the monastic path developed for the simple reason that, for some, full-time dedication to study, meditation, and service is the surest way to speed our spiritual growth.  By setting aside worldly issues, such as possession of property or how marriage and family can often come to “define” us, we free up both energy and time to focus on our spiritual development.

That much said, the Yogis realized it is equally true that many of us find marriage, development of a socially-responsible career, and raising a devoted and mindful family can be an even more effective means for spiritual development.  Essentially, depending on our temperament, certain issues may distract us from our inner growth while others enhance it.

For example, one person might find that the renunciation of material concerns allows them to focus on the spiritual, while for another it might in fact provide a means of avoidance of coming to terms with personal issues such a self-sufficiency.  Similarly, while some might find the material world to be a distraction from self-study and maturation, for others it can be the very means and motivation for conscious growth.

In this sense, the path of the lay practitioner is considered to be every bit as powerful and genuine as the path of the monastic, provided we approach the issues of our lives from a perspective of spiritual growth.  Thus, in the Yogic view, the key is to find the right approach for us.  At heart, the path of the renunciate and householder are equally spiritual, provided we have found the proper path for us and are in turn using that path for mindful growth.

Viewed this way, for the Yogic lay-practitioner, our marriage, family, and work all become integral parts of our growth and evolution rather than distractions from it.  Now that we have a better understanding of this issue, let’s now take a closer look at how, according to the Yogis, a committed relationship can serve to deepen our spiritual development.

Relationships, Prakriti & Purusha 

In previous articles, we’ve talked about the principles of prakriti and purusha.  Again, prakriti refers to the conditional and ever-changing parts of ourselves and of life – our bodies, circumstances, and even our thoughts and feelings.  These are all constantly impacted by the world around us and in turn constantly changing.  Purusha, on the other hand, refers to the unchanging spirit or soul within us – the pure Witness consciousness that observes these constant changes.

Part of the spiritual process in life can be thought of as a cycle in terms of our relationship to prakriti and purusha.  In the beginning, we build up our identification with the conditional parts of ourselves – our possessions or skills or life challenges.  This brings us certain pleasures along with a great deal of challenge.  In the second part of the cycle, we reverse this – we learn to see the conditional and ephemeral parts of our lives for what they are, while also becoming increasingly aware of the unchanging essence or Being underneath that endless activity.

In a relationship, both sides of this process are obviously intensified.  At the start, our natural tendency is to be attracted to and fall in love with the superficial parts of our partner – how they look or dress, their mannerisms, how clever or how kind they are.  The process is of course intensified by the fact that they are doing the same thing with us – that is, falling in love with the conditional and mutable parts of us.

Ideally, in a true relationship, the parts we are drawn to are the more meaningful and stable parts of our prakriti – things like character and integrity – but it is important to understand that, from a Yogic view, even these are conditional (i.e., are based on events from our lives) and are also subject to change.  For this reason, even in a deeper relationship, in order for our love to last, we need to go through the same evolution with respect to prakriti and purusha in our partner that, as individuals, we need to go through regarding ourselves – in other words, we need to evolve from caring about our partner as prakriti and loving the purusha within.

Obviously, this is a challenging process for a few reasons.  First, it is often easier to be compassionate regarding our own issues and baggage than those of others, for the simple reason that we usually know at least a bit about where they come from.  “Sure, I am this way, but there’s a good reason….”  It is harder to say this about others, even a loved one – at least until we come to know them well enough that we can understand their history (their samskaras) as well as we do our own.

Second, and equally important, while we are doing our best to deal with their prakriti, they are wrestling with ours.  This obviously intensifies the process.  We all know that being compassionate is hard, but it becomes even harder when we are feeling judged by the person for whom we are trying to have compassion, and harder still when that judgment is coming from the one person we think of as our closest advocate.

From Falling in Love to Falling Due to Love…. 

The next challenge of a relationship is another complicated one, but again a potential opportunity for growth if we can rise to it, and that is how a relationship can actually encourage us to identify with prakriti instead of purusha.  This challenge – again, one present in even the most genuine of relationships – often presents a major stumbling block for one or both partners.  Simply put, just as many of us as individuals never make it past the first part of the prakriti/purusha cycle referred to above, it is common to get stuck here – either separately or together – in our relationships.

Sometimes, this comes from attachment – for example, our pride in and dependence on our looks or career can carry over to our spouse.  Even if we are not deeply happy about our careers or what we have built as a couple, the amount of energy we have put into them might make it hard to let go of identification with that part of our lives.  Even if we are not fulfilled, we might still be attached to what other people see in us as “successful.”

Sometimes, the situation is precisely the opposite.  Sometimes there are parts of ourselves we are not ready to face, let alone to change, and often we find a partner who – consciously or unconsciously – is willing to validate or at least accept our avoidance.  It is easy to fall into patterns – again, often entirely without awareness – in which we excuse or simply ignore our partner’s blind-spots or areas in which they are stuck, while they do the same for us.

This, of course, is referred to as co-dependency in the world of addictive behavior, but it is important to understand that, in the Yogic view, it is a phenomenon that is found in a wide variety of situations – including many that conventional society would not label as “addiction.”  Yogically speaking, whether our attachment is to drugs or shopping or something as benign as the accomplishments of our children, if we let that thing define our happiness, it all presents the same challenge.

In turn, when it comes to our relationships, it is very easy to fall into a pattern of “reciprocal allowance” – we ignore or validate the issues faced by our partner in exchange for his or her indulgence of our own short-comings.  When this takes place, our relationship not only no longer serves as a tool for growth, but in fact becomes grounds for our arrested development.

Of course, the exact same thing can happen outside of marriage or partnership – we can do it with family or friends or colleagues.  We can even do it at an ashram, using the issues and challenges of others to validate our choice not to tackle our own.  For this reason, the risk of co-dependency is by no means reason to abandon the idea of relationships on the whole, but it is an important issue to keep in mind if we’re going to make sure our relationship is a conscious and constructive one.

Relationships & Karma 

Another challenge that occurs in relationships – and can make them either intensely difficult or intensely rewarding – is the issue of shared karma.  Of course, karma itself is a very complex issue (see our previous articles for some elucidation), but it’s clear, when we link our lives with another person, we also link karma – that is, if our baggage and issues are going to follow us through life, then anyone who chooses to truly commit to us is going to need to deal with them, and we’re going to need to do the same.

Of course, this sharing of karma is even more complex than our individual issues.  Simply put, most of us have a hard time seeing and accepting responsibility for our own challenges, let alone those of the people around us.  We might know someone well, but understanding their foibles and challenges is hard, and taking them on harder still.  We might accept many factors of their lives, but accepting the repercussions of those issues is another thing.

Further, while we are struggling to understand and accept the issues faced by our partner, we’re also dealing with the fact that they are struggling to come to terms with our karma – karma we didn’t mean to bring into their world, but which they cannot avoid if they’re going to truly connect with us.  To offer a simple analogy, it’s one thing to deal with our own financial debt – perhaps in part legitimate, and in part due to more frivolous activity – but what happens when we compound that?  What if our partner has a similar debt?  Now as a couple we need to accept and deal with both – not always an easy proposition.

Obviously, this is not necessarily insurmountable, especially if we realize in advance that it is a natural part of any real relationship.  The challenging part is that most of us don’t take the time to think of both sides of this dynamic.  Before we commit to a serious relationship, we need to ask ourselves: “How am I going to feel taking on his or her ‘karmic debt?’” and also: “How am I going to feel with him or her taking on mine?”  Importantly, one of these might be quite easy for us while the other might be hard – for that reason, thinking about both is crucial for a loving and lasting relationship.

In Our Next Article… 

As always, we hope that this introduction to the Yogic view of relationships has given you some food for thought in your own relationship.  In our next article, we’ll continue our discussion, including a look at some of the practical matters that are heightened in a true partnership, as well as the Yogic view of the spiritual role of family connections.  Until then, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”

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