Think of yoga and the poses likely come to mind. But the ancient yoga literature actually focuses more on how we can control our mind and how we relate to the larger world. In fact, the very first chapter of Patanjali’s famous Yoga Sutras (400 CE) offers amazing advice on how to best interact with people to maintain our inner peace. How should we respond when other people—partners, friends, work colleagues, our kids, other people’s kids—are happy? Sad? Fortunate? Mean?
Alanna Kaivalya, Ph.D., a well-known yogi and expert in the deep teachings and mythology of yoga, has thought a lot about this. In the last chapter of her new book, Yoga Beyond the Mat (a book I adore, since it examines the spiritual aims of yoga), she explores these 4 ways of relating.
I recently spoke with Alanna to elaborate on these teachings. Trying to bring Patanjali’s approach into your daily life as much as possible (it’s not going to happen all the time) is great for what Patanjali calls chitta prasadanam—sweetness or blessed mind. Here is an edited excerpt of our conversation:
Meryl: Why do you think Patanjali included this information about relationships at the beginning of his classic text?
Alanna: Patanjali is such a great teacher, he anticipates what his students are thinking before they even ask the question. And I’m sure he knows that what they are thinking is, “Enlightenment sounds great, but how do I deal with my family and my life?”
Meryl: It’s basically a 4-part plan?
Alanna: Right. It doesn’t matter who you’re dealing with; it’s about how you respond to the emotion they are feeling.
Meryl: So the first one is Be happy for those you perceive as happy. That sounds easy.
Alanna: And often it is. But this is real life, and you’re not always going to be happy for the source of someone else’s happiness. Say your teenage daughter is dating a biker boyfriend or someone else you don’t approve of, so you have judgment about why she is happy. But your job is to be delighted for her—and for everyone you see who is happy. One exercise I have in my book involves sitting with our emotionally charged thought of judgment—observing the physical sensations the thought brings to our body and noting all the ways our body responds to the feeling’s power over us—then imagining your life without this trigger and noticing how the body responds. Finally, create a new story that shifts your perception.
Meryl: So it’s not about changing the situation—you’re not trying to convince your daughter, say, that her taste in guys is bad, lol.
Alanna: Right. I always say yoga does not make your life better; yoga makes you better at your life. Yoga gives you tools to deal with things as they are.
Meryl: Number 2: Be compassionate toward those you perceive as sad.
Alanna: We’re not trying to change their sadness because repressing emotions isn’t healthy. And we don’t want to be joyful in the face of their sadness—such as when the daughter breaks up with the guy you didn’t like. Compassion is about touching the place in your own heart so you experience the same pain—which lets you connect deeply with the sad person. But remember that you’re doing this for yourself, so you can’t be attached to their reaction, which may involve storming and raging, maybe even at you, before they get beyond their sadness.
Meryl: The third seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve noticed that it’s especially challenging for parents watching other people’s kids: Be delighted for those you perceive as fortunate.
Alanna: This is where jealousy rears its ugly head, which can disallow compassion and connection. When you think, “Why isn’t this good thing happening to me, or to my child,” you need to work on this trigger of lack. In my book, I propose invocations you can say to help you recognize you always have everything you need in every moment, spiritually speaking. [“Blissful Self, connect me to awakening to the extent that it serves highest good,” is one such invocation. “Blissful Self, now expand my awareness to include all of life’s experience while awakened, to the extent that it serves highest good,” is another.]
Meryl: Why do you think parents so easily get jealous of other kids’ successes?
Alanna: We’re all human; not every child is sparkles, rainbows and sunshine all the time. But when you’re jealous of how much “better” someone else’s child is doing, that’s not only going to hurt your peace of mind. Your child is going to notice, so he or she will internalize that feeling of lack.
Meryl: Last is Behave in opposition toward those you perceive as wicked. What does he mean by that?
Alanna: There’s a difference between putting your attention on what you don’t want versus fueling the opposite of that thing. Whatever you put your attention on grows—inside of you as well as in the world. One of the most beautiful examples of this was once when I was teaching, a woman told me her son was killed by a drunk driver. She’d spent years trying to get drunk drivers behind bars, which was draining her. Then she founded a nonprofit that promoted sobriety and helped to rehab alcoholics. She stopped perceiving drunk drivers as wicked, and was able to have compassion for them. Fighting fire with fire just makes more fire.
Meryl: As you’ve implemented these practices into your life, has it changed anything?
Alanna: This practice is life changing. It has fundamentally changed how I deal with family members and friends. I’ve also heard from students who didn’t want to go home for holidays, and now they can. These teachings provide a really simple framework to navigate the challenges that can affect your relationships, including with your children. And as a bonus it changes how other people view you.
Learn more about Alanna Kaivalya’s online courses, yoga teacher trainings, certifications, lectures and books at her website http://alannak.com/
Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the new book Enlightened Parenting: A Mom Reflects on Living Spiritually With Kids. Her previous book is the spiritual women’s novel Downward Dog, Upward Fog. She’s also been published in numerous women’s magazines, including O: The Oprah Magazine, Parents, Glamour, Redbook, and more.