Yoga teaches us that our true nature is ultimately free. So why then, even despite a heartfelt yoga practice, can we still be locked in struggle with one another? And during these struggles have so many complicated and uncomfortable emotions? Is it because we aren’t doing our yoga “hard enough”?
I’ve begun to wonder in my own experience, maybe the trouble isn’t the struggle itself, or all the emotions that inevitably arise, but the way I view conflict?
In January I began studying Non-Violent Communication, or NVC, as a way to learn to advocate for my own feelings and needs and navigate conflicts more effectively. I had experienced a rift in a relationship that penetrated through every facet of my life and in the process brought me face to face with my own deep aversion to confrontation and conflict. While my yoga practice has helped me to understand what I truly want in my life and bolstered my self-confidence, when it came time to confront someone close to me and ask for a change in our relationship, I realized I had no training in how to actually advocate for myself. I felt very lost and confused.
You see, just because I am free and able to change my own behavior, doesn’t mean that all of my wishes will just magically be fulfilled. There are many factors that I do not have control over in my life, one if which is other people- because everyone else is free too!
I don’t think I’m alone in the yoga community being conflict averse. I would guess that many people are drawn to yoga because they value peace and love. But just because we are doing yoga doesn’t make us perfect beings and solve all of the problems in our life. In fact, for me my yoga practice continues to bring all of my troubles to the surface.
Anusara is an alignment-based yoga, which means that there is something to align to. This something is called by many names: the truth, light, love, consciousness, source… And it is our freedom that allows us to align and misalign to this source that we all have in common. It is through this yoga that I have begun to understand unpleasant feelings and physical sensations as my very intelligent body letting me know that something in my life is misaligned. And knowing that ultimately I am free, I can use the discomfort as a catalyst to make changes in how I move, act and think.
However, even though I might want or need a change doesn’t guarantee that others in my life will be supportive or understanding, no matter how deeply rooted my spiritual process is. One of the things I have learned from NVC is that all behavior is a result of needs, either met or unmet. And while these needs are universal, for example safety, clarity, connection and understanding are all things that all humans need, at any given moment what I need in particular might not be the same as what someone else needs.
When we are in a situation where 2 individuals (or more) need different things in order to be happy or healthy it’s easy to take on a defensive stance. To see the other as being against you, or even to imagine that not everyone can have his or her needs met and only one of you can win. It’s this type of attitude towards conflict that has led me to avoid it at all costs. However, if a need goes unmet for too long a period of time, it surfaces, usually in our body, and demands our attention. And so learning to surface conflicts is one of the most healing things we can do in our life.
Easier said than done… Confronting loved ones with unpleasant emotions can be scary and challenging. And you may have also noticed it’s not always well received. This is where NVC comes in and gives us a framework within which to first self empathize and understand the root of our feelings in an unmet need. If we can navigate our own inner terrain down to these universal experiences there is the potential to make a connection with other people, even if we are currently not the best of friends.
This is why it’s so important to have time and space to self-empathize, which means getting to the root of our own true feelings and the unmet needs these feelings point to. By feelings I mean both physical sensations and raw emotions. Some examples of feeling words are mad, sad, glad, concerned, satisfied, warm, cold… These sensations and emotions are also universal but people experience them in different proportions. Some people are more prone to anger for example, and some more to sadness or anxiety.
It’s natural after beginning a self-empathy process to see where the misalignments are in our lives. For example, I realized after starting my yoga practice in college that I was buying shoes that were too small for me and actually went up a whole shoe size after a year of practice. But it’s one thing to buy all new shoes for yourself, and it’s a totally other thing to confront another person in your life that the way they are treating you or talking to you is not meeting your needs, and then to ASK for what you would prefer, especially because the other person can always refuse your request.
Our job in these situations is then to continue to self empathize. How can I get my needs met? It’s easy when our needs are unmet to blame others or to feel victimized, or if we’ve asked and been refused to give up or become aggressive. It’s also almost impossible to empathize with someone else if your needs are unmet, and this can taint the way we see others in tense situations.
All of this combined with a temperament that prefers soft music and quiet introspection can yield to the avoidance of conflict, or even an opinion that conflict in our life is a bad thing, or points to some sort of failure on our part. But I would suggest the exact opposite. To be on the path of yoga means to look within and witness our true nature not only as a divine being but also a human being. Part of being human is having a body. It is in our bodies that we experience discomfort and it is this discomfort that helps us to navigate our life more gracefully. What does this particular human need in order to be at their fullest and highest potential?
The presence of discomfort or even conflict in relationship then is TOTALLY NORMAL. It happens to everyone. But surfacing it usually doesn’t make it magically resolve or go away. Often surfacing conflict means bringing our uncomfortable feelings up to the light and actually feeling them, which initially can be a much worse experience then suppressing or avoiding them. And so if this process of surfacing conflict can actually make you feel worse before you feel better you need to ask yourself a very important question- what is the point?
One of my teachers once said there are two types of pain, pain that is a warning and pain that is the release of something that is causing you the first type of pain. It’s like getting a rotten tooth extracted- no fun, but totally necessary for the over-all health of your body. That’s the second type of pain. If you are acclimated to avoiding conflict, being vulnerable about negative feelings can feel like that second type of pain and be very scary.
My advice- be brave. Suppressing negative feelings only makes them more powerful. I worry that in the yoga community many of us are prone to “wanting to be nice”, or “not wanting to rock the boat”. But take it from me, if I learned anything in the last 2 years it’s this: it is much more costly to hold negative feelings about unmet needs in than it is to go through the confusion and pain of change and transformation. And THAT is the point. Yoga is not only a path of freedom, but also a path of healing and transformation.
It is through the process of misalignment and sometimes even through conflict in relationships that we learn how to be more whole and happy human beings. And NVC is a tool that can support us to be more effective in this process.
How then can we actually welcome conflict into our life more whole-heartedly? Embrace our troubles with excitement and enthusiasm? It is my practice now to see the potential of deepening in relationship and greater self-awareness every time a conflict is revealed. And it is my ultimate freedom that allows this simple shift in perspective- where conflict in relationship can transform from a scary, challenging stressful thing to a treasure trove brimming with possibility.
For more information about NVC, please visit www.cnvc.org, or look up nonviolent communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Also stay tuned for upcoming workshops and events at Mosaic.