Yoga & Relationships, Part 2

12-couples-retreatLast week at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we began our exploration of another often-overlooked aspect of the Yogic path, which is how relationships contribute to our spiritual growth.  In today’s article, we’ll continue our discussion, offering further examples of why the Yogis considered conscious relationships to be such powerful avenues for self-awareness and why the role of householder was considered to be every bit as “spiritually valid” as the path of renunciation.

Material Interdependence & the Kleshas

We concluded our previous article with a discussion of how a committed relationship requires us to both understand and also take on the karma of our partner.  Of course, this is just one of many issues that the Yogis realized make a true relationship both challenging and rewarding.  Simply put, when we choose to genuinely link with another person, all the issues we face on the spiritual path are effectively doubled.

Of course, even thinking about this can be a bit overwhelming, particularly since our spiritual challenges are as varied as any other aspect of life, which means our partner is likely to expose us to challenges we’ve yet to encounter or even consider.  That much said, there are some common issues that tend to arise, and being aware of them can be very helpful as we enter genuine commitment.

For example, in earlier articles, we’ve discussed the five primary obstacles between us and our inherent peace, or what the Yogis referred to as the kleshas.  As you’ll recall, these obstacles are misunderstanding, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear.  We also discussed the fact that, while we all wrestle with each of these to some degree, we tend to have one or two that are our primary challenges.

In terms of a relationship, it can be helpful to realize that, just as we take on the karma of our partner, we also open ourselves to their areas of challenge with regard to these five obstacles.  This is especially relevant because our challenges and those of our partner tend to combine in interesting ways, whether they are the same or different.

For example, if we share kleshas, we benefit from empathy and compassion because we can relate to and understand each other’s challenges.  At the same time, because we are challenged by the same issues, there is a great likelihood of “compounded crises” – times when we are both disrupted by the same issue – at which times it might be hard to turn to one another for strength and stability.  Further, if we have yet to acknowledge our issues, when they arise, we might be tempted to criticize our partner instead of looking at our own shortcomings, leading to even greater friction.

On the other side of the equation, if we and our partners struggle with different kleshas, we might have a hard time being compassionate toward one another – that is, if we have never wrestled with a particular issue, we may not understand or relate to our partner’s difficulties.  At the same time, the fact that we are not triggered by the same issues means that we may be able to stay calm while they are in distress, offering support and perhaps even insights on how they might overcome their difficulty.

Thinking positively, from the Yogic perspective, this effective doubling of obstacles means that every relationship dramatically amplifies our opportunities for growth.  In a true partnership, we need to not only overcome our own challenges but also stay compassionate with and supportive toward our partners as they wrestle with theirs.  In this way, as the Yogis considered all life challenges to be powerful opportunities for spiritual development, a truly committed relationship significantly amplifies that process of “inner evolution.”

Family, Part One: In-Laws

As many stand-up comedians have reminded us, another inherent challenge in relationships – and another way in which they can fuel our growth – is the fact that our partner generally brings with him or her a whole new family.  Of course, this would be sufficiently challenging if we were simply adding a few more people to our “emotional world.”  However, relating to in-laws is far more complicated than that, for several reasons.

The members of our partner’s family not only have their own distinct personalities, but also a family dynamic that has evolved over many years, and to which our partner has had time to acclimate.  While we take time dating our partner and getting to know him or her, our relationship with our in-laws is often quite sudden.  Not only that, but our relationship with our in-laws is far from consensual – that is, we choose our partners, but we don’t choose our in-laws.  Of course, we don’t choose our own family, either, but the difference is that we grow into our family over time, while our relationship with our family-in-law is entered mid-stream … and with all the baggage we (and they) carry as adults.

In addition, just as we are trying to adapt to this sudden relationship with our partner’s family, our partner is adjusting to ours.  This is further amplified when we consider the contexts in which we most often interact with our in-laws.  Holidays are certainly the most common times, which are of course packed with tradition – often highly distinct and deeply charged – as well as expectations.  We also interact during highly-charged occasions, from birthdays to anniversaries to funerals.  And we often interact in times of need – from something as simple as child-care to more charged areas such as financial assistance.  Obviously, such situations amplify the challenges for both partners as they adapt to their new “extended family.”

Family, Part Two: Children

Of course, the challenges inherent in dealing with in-laws pale when compared with raising a child.  Obviously, bringing a child into the world – especially in a mindful and loving way – requires an incredible amount of time, energy, and resources.  But perhaps even more important, from the Yogic perspective, raising a child has a tendency to bring many of our unconscious assumptions and attachments to the forefront.

Obviously, both members of a loving relationship care deeply about the welfare of their child, however they may find they have very different ideas of what will assure that welfare.  Sometimes these differences can be anticipated and discussed, but most of the time they are hard to fully anticipate until decisions are being made.

Parents might find themselves asking: Should the child be encouraged to pursue sports or other areas of talent, or should he or she be encouraged to put more focus on school?  Should his or her activities be guided by skills, by interest, or by what’s “practical?”  Should a child who is shy be pushed into more social activity for his or her well-being?  Or, on the other side of the equation, should a more socially-oriented child be required to also spend time reading or being “comfortable” being alone?   Should a child be introduced to the spiritual beliefs of his or her parents, or should initiation and choice be left to him or her?  Obviously, these are just a fraction of the issues parents face – issues that can test their ability to communicate, especially given how important the topic is to both of them.

And, of course, these issues tend to be compounded when combined with previous issues, such as extended family.  When two people are raised in different ways, it is natural for each to unconsciously revert to their unique family principles.  And, if tension builds between the couple around these differences, it is natural to consciously or unconsciously draw family into the debate to validate our side.  Naturally, this becomes even more challenging if the couple is dependent on one or both families for financial or practical support – obviously, if we feel dependent on our family, we’re going to feel even more of a responsibility to honor their traditions and opinions.

But again, on the positive side, if we can stay aware of these challenges as we enter parenthood, they can be a wonderful opportunity and powerful motivation for greater self-awareness and compassion.  By becoming more aware of our own assumptions and attachments and by having greater empathy for and patience with those of our partner, we can grow together through our love of both each other and our child.

Relationships, Transience & Permanence

Coming full circle, one more major challenge inherent in relationships is the issue of transience.  Of course, we all know that everything in life changes, including ourselves.  Whether it’s our circumstances, our bodies, or even our beliefs, we know that all things vary over time – some subtly, and some dramatically.

In terms of a relationship, this transience is again “doubly” challenging, because we are drawn to our partner based on things that we know may prove to be transient, while they do the same with us.  Can we really commit to someone while accepting the fact that the very things we enjoy the most about them may change?  This challenge is also often amplified by our own struggles with impermanence – for example, if we struggle with the transient nature of our looks or health or prosperity, that dismay is likely to be heightened as we observe the same transience of those things in our partner.

In short, just as a relationship multiplies the tangles of karma and social connection, so it amplifies our struggles with impermanence.  But again, like any challenge, this has its good side as well as its bad.  Simply put, if we can navigate this in our relationship, we can approach the rest of our life with an even broader perspective.  If we can see past the ephemeral parts of our partner and learn to see the unchanging essence beneath, we are placed in a powerful position to do the exact same thing with others in our world, which brings us to our next and final topic.

From One to All…

A final aspect of relationships that is especially important in terms of our spiritual growth is how marriage and family can serve as a bridge from our individual perspective to the world as a whole.  The Yogis realized that, in a committed relationship, we learn to move beyond egoism and our narrow perspective on the world, learning to see through the eyes of our partner and children.  We also learn to see beyond the material, to see and cherish the divine in our partner, in spite of superficial differences between us on the level of prakriti.  Even when we don’t share proclivities or passions, we learn to appreciate the common essence that lies beneath them.

Over time, this awareness gradually expands – we learn to see this in our children and in our partner’s family and friends.  Gradually, this circle broadens, especially if we stay connected with our children, as well as the children of family and friends, as they move into the world and their adult lives.  In this way, a relationship that might initially have appeared to be an “inward moving” act, ultimately becomes an expansive one – one that connects us with the world and with the divine in all….

In Our Next Article…

We hope that this exploration of relationships has given you a greater understanding of their validity and importance on the Yogic path.  In our next article, we’ll switch gears, reviewing several different versions of The Yoga Sutras for those of you interested in exploring this seminal text.  Until then, as ever, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”


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