Sarah Willis

Custom Yoga Fitness

Modern Problems, Ancient Remedies, Looking at Conflict Resolution through a Yogic Lens

By Sarah Willis, (originally published in Organic Hudson Valley Magazine, 2014)

They say the Universe holds up a mirror for us to learn through example. In other words, we will project certain qualities outwardly, and then we will attract and be more apt to recognize those qualities radiating back from other sources. If we feel healthy, positive, profitable, effective, then we will see these qualities being reflected back in a way that can almost seem magnetic. If a person or a situation presents itself that engenders a sense of negativity in us, then the most sage advice, be it from Yoga or another school of thought, tells us to gaze internally and to resolve what negative things are going on in our own lives, as like attracts like. 

What does it mean from a Yogic perspective to gaze internally? There is a practice in the teachings of Ashtanga Yoga called Svadyaya, or self-analysis. The self-analysis of Svadyaya can in some ways be comparable to the Freudian sense, in that we definitely want to include the examination of our past and our dreams to shed light on the subconscious mind. Where the Freudian approach breaks down for me, is that it somehow seeks to place blame. Freud wrote about how base, instinctive behavior is a function of the pesky id, or the inner animalistic nature, and how many neuroses stem from having sexualized our parents when we were young. In my view, our past and our sexuality, like all other movements of the mind and longings of the body, only make up a sliver of our entire psychological experience. 

The teachings of Yoga aim to initiate the student in a technique of concentration, which will illuminate how to harness the mind and the sense organs under his or her conscious control. When the organs and energies of the body are balanced and well aligned, then remembered events, sexual impulses, cravings and aversions won’t necessarily be the driving force of our behavior. Svadyaya is also defined as reading scriptures, myths and legends, which can be road maps to subtle realms of consciousness; or if you don’t buy into subtle realms jargon, then at least go out on a Jungian limb with me and consider that such a practice could tap us into our collective unconscious. 

Applied to problem solving. If we adopt Ashtanga Yoga as a lifestyle, we can see how some tenets are very similar to the way most world religions teach us to be observant: “thou shalt not” harm / kill, steal, covet another’s spouse, cover a few of the observances, called Yamas & Niyamas. If we can stick to the observances of the Yamas and Niyamas, it will create smoother sailing for us by virtue of having less drama in our lives. Clearly, if we don’t lie, steal or commit indiscretions, then we won’t have to look over our shoulder. For a peaceful life, “heyam dukham anagatam,” say the Yoga Sutras, meaning “future suffering is to be avoided.” Often when people ask me what Yoga teacher they should go practice with, I have said, “Just find one who sticks to the Yamas and Niyamas!” It’s one way to be sure they are not causing unnecessary confusion or suffering, and beyond being able to teach a triangle pose, that, to me, is a priority. 

What happens when we lock horns with someone over an issue and there’s just no way to bring them around to your viewpoint? What do we do with feelings of frustration? Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam…is another aphorism from the Yoga Sutras. It translates as: when disturbed by negative thought waves, think their opposite-positive. This verse delivers its point simply and instantaneously, and if meditated upon and internalized, it tricks the mind into finding the middle. Most philosophies and modern science would agree that the function of the mind is to see in pairs of opposites. In fact, the Sanskrit word for mind is manas, which means to compute. Before we act on a thought or emotion, there is a moment of equivocation where we are assessing what mood to run with. If we landed on a negative emotion, like jealousy, anger, thoughts of revenge, etc., and we could put the above aphorism to use, we would experience a moment of reprieve from the habit pattern of fomenting negative emotions. Feeling happiness, whether it’s for yourself or another, feels like the same thing. It feels better than feeling not happy. So logically, if we feel centered, calm, happier, we have already effectively solved a lot of problems.

We could look at the issue with a modern twist: Fake-it-till-you-make-it is a valid means of learning. In a 2012 TED Talk (Technology, Entertainment, Design), Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, talks about how posturing as assertive and dominant, even if someone doesn’t naturally feel that way, can bring about a shift from weak to powerful within minutes. In her words, “Our bodies change our minds, and our minds change our behavior, and our behavior changes our outcomes.” Something as simple as body language can change the power dynamic of a relationship. If you are negotiating a salary and you have a bottom line, sit forward in your chair with your feet apart, chest out and maintain eye contact, and you’ll likely achieve your goal. Shrinking in your posture, rounding the shoulders or crossing your arms or legs communicates vulnerability or passivity and might communicate that you are not really sure you are worth it.

Yoga teachings also highlight the importance of posturing. Patanjali affirms that in addition to leading a sound moral life, it is very important to work towards steadying your body in Yoga postures. He instructs students to practice being still and fixed to the earth while engendering this act with a sense of sweetness and joy. 

What would Buddha do? Conflict resolution from a Buddhist perspective. Buddhist teachings, grossly summed up, advise us to approach all situations with emptiness or nonattachment. The practical approach to guiding the mind in this direction is to sit for long periods of time and observe the breath, and to observe sensations as they arise and pass away within the framework of the body. Over time, the meditator comes to find that all emotions, and even the subtlest thought-waves, are usually accompanied by a physical sensation, which is either pleasant or unpleasant. We will tend to move away from unpleasant sensations, and try to repeat the pleasurable ones. To simply observe these thoughts and accompanying sensations without reacting to them is nonattachment. We come to witness, to see that all phenomena is arising and passing away with great rapidity. Everything around us is in a state of aggregating or entropy, so trying to hold on to anything is futile. According to a Croatian Buddhist practitioner, Zarko Andricevic, when posed a question about his perspective on how Buddha’s teachings might apply to the Serbo-Croatian conflict: 

“Impartiality requires the wisdom of nonattachment, which comes with freedom from judgment and the clarity to discern the causes, development and effects of specific events… The causes of any conflict lie in strong attachment to certain views, and the core of Buddha’s teaching is of great help here. All phenomena, in addition to being transient, arise and disappear according to a complex set of conditions. When we apply this truth to conflict, we give up the simplistic, black-and-white picture through which conflict is usually described and perpetuated. Views about the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ simply do not correspond to the reality.”

Every mediator and politician should read that quote. Most situations are pretty multifaceted. So whether we are talking about civil war or a landlord/tenant dispute, when we put on a spiritual lens, the idea of right and wrong just dissolves. 

Just the same, being in an uncomfortable not-knowing-what’s-going to-happen situation can be stressful. Learning how to manage that stress is akin to holding a difficult Yoga pose. I have instructed students for years about how to breathe properly in an awkward and sometimes borderline painful Yoga posture. If you have practiced Yoga, then you are likely familiar with the experience of breathing through discomfort. If you have practiced well, then you have seen firsthand how breathing can control the mind and subsequently have an effect on tension patterns in the body. What your mother told you about taking 10 deep breaths when you’re mad or hysterical is true. If as Yoga students we can remember to stay focused on breathing evenly and deeply in a challenging posture, systematically training muscles and nerves to relax, then we can do the same in a confrontation. By drawing on the experience of breathing through a difficult moment, I can recreate it in other scenarios. This kind of sensitivity requires repeating the practice of Yoga, conscious breathing and/or meditation daily. 

In the end, the body doesn’t care if we call the exercise Yoga, Pranayama or calisthenics. Through the repetition of a ritual where body and mind are being united and exercised together, there is a possibility that somewhere along the way, we will encounter that inner Buddha. The name Buddha, in Sanskrit, translates to awakened one. If the idea of a Buddha or any figure of worship makes you uncomfortable, think about it as your awake-nature.

How ancient wisdom can help with modern problems. Whether your approach to conflict resolution is intellectual, physical or spiritual, or a combination of the three, there’s an impartiality that’s necessary when going into a dispute. It’s not an apathetic impartiality, but rather alert and open. If you find yourself embroiled in a conflict, which even saints and holy beings do sometimes, you can use Yoga practice and Buddhist teachings to give you perspective. These teachings will always point you back to yourself, so the need to understand the conflict at the core level, with all of its sides, is equal to understanding inner conflict. 

According to Alan Watts, a marvelous modern philosopher, “We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described and measured with the world, which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.”

With Yoga and meditation practice, we can reinforce finding the middle. We find and feel balance first in our nervous system, and then the body and its actions flow forward from there. I am fortunate to be in a line of work that aims to awaken us to the experience of being fully present and aware of what is manifesting in the here and now, rather than what we might wish were happening. Staying aligned with a way of life that reinforces the witnessing consciousness doesn’t mean we will always succeed in remaining alert, nonreactive and impartial, and sometimes the high road is hard to find. When we are committed to living with self-awareness, it does get easier, however. Who knew that approaching life’s situations with emptiness could make for such a full life?