Practicing Co-operative Opposition

Practicing Co-operative Opposition


“The aim of yoga is to calm the chaos of conflicting impulses.”

B.K.S. Iyengar (the most influential yogi of modern times)

What if your yoga practice could help heal distress and resolve interpersonal conflict?

It can. Cooperation between opposing forces is the key to reaching peace. It’s not about erasing differences but balancing both sides. This is true on the yoga mat and at the negotiation table. Tensions in your body and conflict between bodies can’t be realistically resolved by getting rid of differences. We don’t want dark and light to blend into grey. Best results follow from maintaining yet balancing our differences.

Research confirms that balancing opposite forces on the yoga mat has a dramatic power to calm the mind. Calm minds solve interpersonal problems more creatively.

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A Book Is Born

On a winter evening not long ago I was having a beer with some friends after my weekly game of outdoor hockey.  I was at a table with Jason and Pete, middle-aged men who, like me, had separated from their wives.  Jason began to describe his divorce battle.

 “She’s trying to take it all.  She’s in a fury, won’t talk to me, and her lawyer just eggs her on,” he said through clenched teeth. “But there’s no way I’m giving in.  My lawyer says her claims are bogus.  She won’t let me into the house but I’ve been told I can force her to sell it.”

 “Don’t your kids still live there?” I asked.

 “Well that’s just it.” Jason said.  “I care about them but I’ve also got to get my share.  I don’t want to force my kids to move, and look like a jerk, but no way I’m going to pay and pay while she lives like a queen in the house I bought.”

 “Can’t you find a compromise?” I asked.

 “I tell you, she’s gone nuts.  There’s no middle ground.  We only talk through lawyers.”  Jason went on.  “I’ve already paid thousands of dollars.  So has she, or even more, I bet.  It’s been going on for close to two years and we’re farther than ever from a solution.”

 Pete had been nursing his brew across from us in silence.  “Same with me,” he said, “for two years going on three.  I’m self-employed and hardly make any money.  She’s got a big job.  Just up and walked out on me.  Now I’m looking after my son and have to fight her for alimony.  How am I supposed to do that?   I don’t even know what she wants.”

 I had just signed the legal documents finalizing my own divorce which, from beginning to end, had taken under five months and 3.2 hours of legal bills.   

 “Listen guys.  It doesn’t have to be like that,” I said.  “There is a simpler way.”

 “Yeah, right.  Good luck trying that with my ex,” Jason growled. 

 “Have you tried talking with her calmly?”

 “Dude, you jest.  Sure I’ve tried.  But I open my mouth and we end up screaming at each other.”

 “Then shift your reactions.  Let me describe the strategy I used.” I said, and began to outline how co-operative opposition works on yoga poses and at the negotiation table.

 I explained that the key was to “park ego at the door” and to seek the best for both sides.  I described how a mindfulness practice could strengthen the body and help resolve conflict by respectfully balancing opposite forces.

 Pete in particular was intrigued and wanted to know more.  I realized from this conversation that many couples could benefit from putting these simple strategies into practice. 

 Simple they are. But not easy.  We most urgently need to make calm decisions at those times when being calm is most difficult – in the midst of emotional crisis.  When stakes are highest we feel most triggered to attack. For the sake of our children, our wealth and our personal well-being, it’s worth the effort to work past negative emotions, and put ego in its place.  

 I decided then and there to put these suggestions into a book.  The Yoga Of Divorce is being published by Friesen Press in the winter of 2016.

Stress Lessons Taught By My Body

I was at a stormy period of my life with my business in trouble and my marriage a minefield.  On a stool in my garage I sat rocking back and forth with my jaw in my hand, suffering from an excruciating toothache.  Almost absentmindedly, as if to distract myself from the pain, I began to massage under the ear, around the jawline, even under the tongue.  The pain was electrifying.  Then suddenly it vanished.  It completely disappeared, and never returned.

That marked a turning point.  I realized my toothache was not a dental problem, but a mental problem.  Stress. MY BODY WAS SPEAKING AND I DIDN’T KNOW THE LANGUAGE.

I vowed to learn it. 

I began to read up on recent research in alternative health and to take classes in body work.  Discoveries I made changed my life.

I learned that my tendency to freeze under stress is a well-documented phenomenon, called a neural hijacking.  It happens when the thinking part of the brain shuts down because the ancient, emotional brain, is on hyper-alert.  Under sustained stress the emotional brain, on survival mode, effectively short-circuits the slow, thinking part of the brain. 

Thus, learning to reduce and manage stress is essential to remaining clear-headed and alert, particularly during times of trouble.

Happily, there is a positive flip-side to this body-brain connection. Research proves you can “rewire” your brain to change the mental, emotional and physical habits of a lifetime. It's called "neuro-plasticity" - and it is very good news.

But positive rewiring of old habits isn't easy.  It requires sustained, mindful intention.  By “mindful” I simply mean being aware of whatever it is you are doing, while you are doing it.  This can include paying attention to your internal thought-loops and emotional states as well as your physical posture, depending on what it is you are trying to improve.

The first lesson I learned from my body, on the day of the toothache, was the intimate connection between body and mind: the brain can cause physical pain.

That led to the second lesson – which I learned later from yoga class – that intentional, mindful physical activity can help manage emotional stress. I was lucky to discover Iyengar yoga, a practice that focuses on slow, precise alignment within each pose.  The teacher provides detailed, individualized corrections as students learn to send precise intentions (that is – to rewire) each part of the body.

I can personally vouch for the benefits.  The daily practice on my living room floor not only gave me greater strength, flexibility and vitality, it calmed my mind.   When I attempt a pose, sending a precise intention to each part of my body, my mind is completely absorbed. My brain is too busy to be anxious.  I don’t think about dinner or financial problems or conflict at work.  Without realizing it I was doing meditation-in-action.

The mindful yoga practice did not fix my problems at home or work.  But I was no longer frozen.  I was able to respond decisively as issues arose, and from that, to feel strong. 

You can’t control life’s storms or calm the ocean waves.  But you can take your board out on the water and learn to surf.

Conflict Not Quite Triggered

Conflict Not Quite Triggered

 I was riding my bicycle down Christie Street with the wind at my back, late for work and pushing hard when a woman in a parked car suddenly opened her driver’s door. I swerved, barely missed hitting her, and braked to a stop.  Adrenaline soared.  I was aware of my heart pounding as I turned to unleash a stream of insults.    

 Then I saw myself.  In a flash of insight I was looking down at the furious cyclist confronting the shocked driver.  I knew exactly what would happen.  I would shout – she would get defensive.  I would insult her and she would respond by giving me, this crazy cyclist, the finger.  She would get on with her day feeling that she was the victim.  So I shifted the script.

“I doubt you were intending to harm me,” I said as softly as I could manage.  “You probably just forgot to check your mirror, but that isn’t an innocent error.  If I had been injured he cops would have charged you.  Not checking your mirror is actually a crime.”

“You’re right,” she replied.  “I’m terribly sorry. I’m just glad you aren’t hurt.  I really will be more careful from now on.”

I climbed back on my bike and rode on, still shaken, but feeling resolved.  As a cyclist, I had been in altercations before, but this was the first time I came away with anything approaching a sense of satisfaction.

When you are upset with someone, whether in a brief encounter like this, or even more when a long term relationship goes sour, your mind obsesses with every fault of the other, running a self-justifying story loop that goes around and around in your head.

Even when every crime you recite is true, you only tell yourself half the story. Your side.  A similar loop of half-truths is going around in the other person’s mind.

It’s a great way to prepare for battle.  A terrible way to resolve conflict.

It helps to remind yourself of your goal.  Is revenge your objective?  If so then go ahead, keep demonizing your enemy.  But if you want to end the conflict and move on, try mindfulness.

Let’s be clear about that term.  Mindfulness isn’t an elevated or exotic state.  It’s the simple practice of observing yourself doing whatever you’re doing.  You breathe all the time.  Chances are, however, you weren’t aware of the last breath you took. 

The same is true of the emotions you feel and the stories you rehearse in your head.  They usually happen automatically.  You’re barely aware of the loop.  Mindful awareness simply entails slowing down to observe what you’re thinking and feeling.  Then time seems to expand slightly, permitting a pause between impulse and response.

The next time you’re in conflict it might not erupt.  You may become aware, instead, that the gap is not so great between you and your opponent.