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Emotional Yoga: Why Flexibility Is Good for Relationships

There's a big difference between stretching and straining

A few years ago, I was dating a man who was constantly late. On one such occasion, he left me shivering outside his apartment, waiting for him to come home.I knew he cared for me, yet I was growing tired of his lack of consideration, and told him so.

"What do you want me to do?" he said in exasperation

His question hung in the air for several seconds. Then I spotted his yoga mat, and the answer slipped off my tongue.

"Emotional yoga," I said.

"Emotional what?" he replied, perplexed.

"Emotional yoga," I repeated. "I want you to mindfully stretch a little for the sake of our relationship and see what that does for you...and for us."

Yoga, after all, is all about relationships. According to Wikipedia, the word "yoga" is derived from the Sanskrit word for "unite." An asana is a pose that helps "restore and maintain a practitioner's well-being, improve the body's flexibility and vitality, and promote the ability to remain in seated meditation for extended periods." Asanas include "Child's Pose," a simple relaxation posture where the body faces the floor in fetal position, and "Downward Facing Dog," a position that mimics a dog stretch by requiring a person to kneel with hands and knees on the floor, and push his hips toward the ceiling to form an inverted V-shape. These positions must be done with proper body alignment in order to reap the benefits and avoid injury.

Like an asana, a healthy relationship requires flexibility, commitment, and alignment with our internal sources of vitality and well-being - loving ourselves unconditionally, for example - even while enduring periods of discomfort. I am always grateful when my yoga teachers push me to stretch beyond my comfort zone, but stop if I encounter pain.

This is an important lesson for relationships. Many people confuse discomfort and pain and, consequently, their relationships suffer.

Those who mistake pain for discomfort are often unwilling to do things for or with their partner that are unfamiliar, not to their liking, or personally inconvenient. In refusing to put themselves into a moderately uncomfortable position, they miss out on an opportunity to experience the pleasure that comes with overcoming perceived limitations, and giving of oneself for the benefit of the relationship.

In this way, yoga is aligned with the premise of cognitive-behavioral psychology, which holds that one's internal state can change by manipulating his or her environment. An example of this might be the husband who begrudgingly accepts a dinner invitation at his in-laws, only to discover that the benefits of making his wife happy outweigh the discomfort of eating over-cooked steak and listening to his mother-in-laws incessant nagging about having more grandchildren.

The positive reinforcement he receives from pleasing his wife, especially if it occurs more than once, may ultimately alter his attitude about visiting the in-laws the next time he is asked. The less tension there is around planning a trip to the in-laws, the better they're relationship will be. At the same time, his ability to experience himself as a giving, flexible person will enhance his own self image, and such an improvement in his self esteem will ultimately be good for their marriage.

It's reminds me of something a dance teacher once told me. "Sometimes, when you begin to stretch, your muscles scream "no, no, no" - they don't think they can handle the tension because it's never been asked of them before," she explained. "But as you gradually ease into the pose, they relax and discover an untapped capacity for elasticity."

The danger, of course, is pushing beyond one's limits and straining a muscle, especially if the alignment is off. Unable to perceive or accept their own limitations, some people push themselves to assume postures that are too advanced, or continue to hold asanas that are causing them pain, either because they haven't learned the correct alignment, or because their own ego equates personal limitations with failure.

This describes the predicament of those who mistake pain for discomfort. In the language of relationships, this might explain the woman who stays in an abusive relationship, telling herself that it really isn't all that bad, or the man who endures constant criticism from his wife because he believes he deserves it, or he is too afraid to leave.

Constant pain is a sign that something is amiss. However, discomfort, if experienced in proper alignment, can eventually give way to flexibility and even pleasure. That's why making yourself a little uncomfortable for someone you love from time to time will stretch the relationship into new levels of health and vitality. Such is the yogic way.

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