If you're like most people, you were fed fairy tales during your childhood and romantic comedies as you grew into adulthood.
These romantic comedies followed the same basic premise: There’s a damsel in distress, she’s in distress because some evil, powerful female figure betrayed or neglected her in some way, and the only person who can save her is a prince on a white horse.
Culturally, we are taught that happiness lies outside of us. We will be happy when we lose 10 pounds, find the perfect job, live in a huge house, drive a fast car, and meet the person who's going to "complete" us.
So, how is all that working out for you? For me, I bought into that myth for most of my childhood and well into my young adulthood. I was a little confounded because my dad seemed to need the attention of many damsels, and my mom was not waiting in a tower for someone to save us. Nonetheless, I believed happiness was something I could attain, as if it were a place where I could sink my flag, if only I worked hard enough and made myself worthy enough to get there.
The reality is, true love and true happiness have to be discovered within us before we can find those people and interests around us that enhance and enrich our joy and before we can offer up the best of ourselves to those we love and to the world at large. When we head into relationships of any kind without a clear sense of who we are, what scares us, where we may have healing to do, and what it is we want to offer this world, we are almost sure to encounter disappointment and confusion.
Of course, we don't control timing and circumstance, and you may find you've met someone amazing before you find that amazingness within yourself. But when at all possible, the best way to avoid the most common trap in any romantic relationship is to work on the one you're having with yourself first.
Here's how you can do that — and how yoga can help.
1. Don't look to anyone else to complete you.
Want someone to complete you? Look in the mirror. In yoga, we have the Yama and Niyama, and they comprise the first and second of the eight limbs of yoga (Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi). Svadhyaya is part of the Niyama, and it means "self-study."
Knowing yourself is the key to your inner peace and your greatest joy. Culturally, we are encouraged to edit our uncomfortable feelings. For example, the princess should not be enraged, and the prince should not be scared.
That's not how it works, though. We are all going to feel everything, whether you're a princess who likes other princesses, a prince who likes other princes, or any combination thereof. We are all going to feel it all. A lot of the time, people develop coping mechanisms as they grow, and there are three main ones — repression, denial, and numbing out.
When we push down our pain, run from it, pretend it doesn't exist, or try to blur the edges with drugs, alcohol, binge-watching Netflix, and even relationships, it doesn't magically disintegrate. In fact, it comes up harder and will keep biting us in the ass until we deal with it.
Yoga and seated meditation give us the tools to breathe through intense sensation. Emotion creates sensation. If you're enraged, you will notice sensation flooding your body — you might feel your blood pressure going up as you become "hotheaded" or notice your jaw is clenching, your heart is racing, or your breath is shallow. All sensations, right?
So if you learn to breathe through the intense sensation that arises in your quadriceps when you hold a lunge for 12 breaths, you are training your nervous system and your mind to stay calm as you feel challenged, to stay curious about your experience so it doesn't send you spinning.
When you're on your meditation cushion, you learn to witness your thoughts without identifying with them so strongly. You don't have to believe everything you think, as the saying goes. Yoga practice gives us the tools to lean in when we might rather take off and to know ourselves well and deeply.
Not knowing yourself is the loneliest thing there is.
2. Don't assume.
Some of our biggest difficulties in any relationship come from our assumptions and projections. We all have our frames of reference, which are shaped by our experiences and the lessons we've gleaned along the way. There's this idea that we're "on the outside looking in," but I think that's backward — we are on the inside, looking out. We are constantly processing data and moving it through our "Information center" (frame of reference) to decipher our experience and categorize it.
We tend to think that what is obvious to us will be obvious to everyone else. We assume if we know something is hurtful, other people should also know that. The thing is, sometimes our frames are really bent, or the window through which we're looking is distorted or foggy.
You might have learned from your experience, for example, that "everyone leaves," or "everyone cheats," or "you can't count on anyone," and your frame of reference is hinged on those ideas.
Sometimes our work is to unlearn things we've learned along the way. Sometimes we're taught that our feelings don't matter and don't have an impact on the people or the world around us. Sometimes we're taught that love is conditional and will be withdrawn if we fail to be perfect.
Sometimes we're taught that our value is measured by what we can do for others. Those are just some possibilities, but if you learned any of those lessons, you'll have to unlearn them if you want to see clearly and love deeply and fully. In yoga, we have a practice of discernment, called Viveka. We use our mind to distinguish what is real from what is not real.
Am I in a 90-degree bend with my front leg, or do I just think I am? We also look to work through the obstacle of Avidya, which translates to "ignorance about ourselves and the world at large," so we can come to a place of vidya or "clear-seeing."
A lot of the yoga practice is about peeling away the layers of ideas we've taken on that aren't ours, or aren't real, so we can discover what is real for us. In the first three months of a relationship, it's hard not to get swept away in the lust and dust.
When the smoke clears, though, reality emerges. Maybe this person you're so enamored with is exactly like the list you made on your vision board, and you really did manifest him or her. But probably not. It is more likely that this person has his or her own history, tendencies, ideas, and beliefs that shape the way he or she moves through the world. It takes time to really get to know a person, and we get ourselves into a lot of trouble when we decide six weeks into a relationship "This is it!"
Try to stay curious about people and allow situations to unfold instead of gripping to an outcome you've written too soon.
3. Don't confuse love with control.
Sometimes when we say "I love you," what we're really saying is, "I love you when you do what I want you to do, feel how I want you to feel, or want what I want you to want."
You may have heard the term "radical acceptance" along your travels, and that's a lot closer to my definition of loving myself, and loving other people. When we reject essential parts of who we are, or who others are, we create a state of dis-ease within us and around us.
If you want people to relax and invite you into their interior worlds, you have to create a safe environment. If you want to be at ease in your own skin, you have to integrate it all. That doesn't mean we don't all have work to do, places where we could step up and be more accountable or pay more attention to our weaknesses so we can strengthen. It just means that if you start with a rigid idea of what is acceptable and what is not, you close the door for real understanding and intimacy, with yourself, and all the people closest to you.
Sometimes life will break your heart; there's no doubt about that. But a lot of the time, our suffering is coming from our own thinking, and our attachment to a picture of "how things should be."
The greater the distance between that picture and our reality, the more we suffer. If we feel powerless to change things, we get depressed or anxious, but a better alternative is to open to circumstances and people, as they are, and to choose the thoughts that are going to strengthen rather than weaken us. In yogic philosophy, there are five Kleshas or poisons that prevent us from being free, and one of them is Raga, or attachment.
Attachment leads to suffering. Of course we are going to be attached to our loved ones and their well-being; this is part of the human condition. When you love people, there's an implicit understanding that heartbreak is inevitable because we don't last forever in these bodies.
People leave because of all kinds of factors, or they leave because they're taken from us, or we leave because we grow in a different direction, or we stay and develop deep and lasting bonds.
Regardless, at some point, we will all leave this earth and everyone we know and love, and that is a painful reality. Sometimes in an effort to feel secure in an insecure world, we try to pin things down, or pin people down, but people are not possessions, and we don't write the story, we just co-create it based on how we respond to what we're given.
Yoga practice gives us the tools to stay present and face reality as it is, which is not always as we'd like it to be. It shows us how to come back to love, even if, and maybe especially if, our hearts are broken.
If you're stuck in a tower and looking for the way down so you can join the world and live life in a way that feels good to you, yoga practice gives you the tools to build the rope, climb down, slay the dragons, and open your heart. You're the hero you've been waiting for.