Yoga for conflict
Whether at work, home or even within yourself, it is inevitable that conflict in some form will arise in the course of your daily life. In Western society we are very fortunate that the conflict we experience is not generally the violent, life-threatening type that people in some countries are exposed to. Instead, it commonly manifests as a conflict of egos or a conflict of ideas.
Conflict is impossible to completely avoid, so the key lies in managing it effectively. Here, we will take a look at conflict and how it arises from a yogic point of view. We’ll then discover how yogic tools of breathwork and asanas can help you calm your mind and look within, so you may approach and deal with the situation in a positive and constructive way.
The five afflictions
One of the world’s foremost yoga teachers, BKS Iyengar, refers to five afflictions that are interwoven into the fibre of all beings. When you are in a state of disharmony or imbalance, these patterns of disturbance or afflictions manifest and can exacerbate and run riot in particular circumstances, such as a conflict.
The first of the afflictions, Avidya (ignorance) refers to lack of understanding that prevents us from seeing the truth. This is something we are commonly guilty of in any sort of disagreement. This leads on to Asmita (pride, ego). When you refuse to see the other side of the coin in a conflict or disagreement, your pride can cause you to stick to your guns, to never admit you are wrong and to never back down. The next affliction, Raga, refers to attachment. This attachment might be to physical, material objects or could mean an inability to let go of something, whether it be past experiences or points of view. This causes issues in terms of moving forward toward a positive resolution. Dvesa (aversion) is an emotional repulsion manifesting as prejudice and hatred, which makes it difficult for us to grow and learn from life’s experiences. The final affliction, Abhinivesa, translates to fear of death or clinging to life. Abhinivesa refers to our ambition of self-preservation, which leads us to continually perpetuate the ego. It really underpins all the other afflictions and, by mastering this, you can free yourself from the obstacle fear presents and maintain your presence of the mind.
The five afflictions can help you understand, on a yogic level, the elements and emotions at the source of a disagreement or conflict. When you are in a state of imbalance, the afflictions and the ego dominate. Your ego is your source of pride. It must be heard. It must be right. It must be defended. The limited mindset that comes with this prevents you from moving forward.
BKS Iyengar says that, as you practise yoga, with the ultimate purpose of connecting with a force greater than ourselves, life’s afflictions and obstacles interfere with you less. Yogic practices seek to find balance and allow you to look within and find greater perspective and meaning. The concentration, reflection and inward absorption that come with this can help you master the afflictions and problems of the conflicted, imbalanced self and unlock the inner strength and clarity needed to tackle the issue at hand.
Conflict and ahimsa
Although you may now have an understanding of how conflict arises, it’s inevitable that it will emerge throughout various points in your lifetime. Thankfully, yogic philosophy offers some insights into dealing with conflict constructively.
For many of us, the ego is the most intimate part of us we know. So it makes sense that during a clash of egos or a conflict of opinions you take everything personally, become defensive and often turn to anger. Sometimes, you express anger in the form of a verbal retaliation or repress it and dwell on it with negative thoughts. You may direct these thoughts against the person or issue in question or even at yourself for not handling or saying something as you intended. The anger you express here, in yogic terms, can be considered a form of violence, or himsa, which does not practically manage or find a resolution to the conflict.
When you speak ill of others and harbour negativity, these actions eventually end up hurting you — they’re a form of self-violence. Just think of all the tension, stress, frustration and even depression that build as a result of a conflict. Whether you express it or bottle it up, all that agonising and worrying takes a toll on your body and mind.
Ahimsa refers to the practice of non-violence. This means both physical and non-physical violence toward others and yourself. There are many layers to ahimsa, but essentially it teaches truth, love and understanding and allows us to open our hearts and minds. When you experience conflict, the aspect of non-physical violence is important to remember. All of us have been guilty of saying negative things about someone we have had a disagreement with. These negative thoughts are not constructive and don’t come from a good place. That’s why ahimsa stresses the need to draw on non-violent principles of compassion and love when dealing with the thoughts, actions and expressions of others, as well as ourselves.
One of the best known examples of ahimsa is Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance. Under British rule, Indians were subjected to great injustices. They suffered bloodshed and mental and physical subjugation at the hands of their colonisers. Despite the great cruelty and brutality experienced, Gandhi refused to respond in kind. Instead, he conducted hunger strikes, boycotts, marches and civil disobedience campaigns that empowered the Indian people. Eventually, the acts of non-violent resistance and the principles of ahimsa contributed to disarming the British and saw India gain independence.
People may tend to think of ahimsa as being passive, but it requires great inner strength. It’s not about rolling over and submitting, but it’s not about being self-righteous, either. It’s about letting go of the ego, pride and attachment to these ideals.
In a dispute, even when you are in the right or dealing with someone who is irrational, drawing on the principles of ahimsa can allow you to practise humility and compassion so you gain a better understanding of others and the world. Rather than dismiss one person’s point of view because it does not match with yours, take it on board. Rather than resort to negative and destructive thoughts and actions, look for positive and constructive solutions.
By approaching conflict and other struggles with an open heart and mind, you can learn to rise above the ego and afflictions and gain a much richer understanding of yourself and others. In turn, you can better approach the situation at hand and grow. This can be easier said than done, so first you must cultivate the right kind of mindset.
The power of the breath
Whether you are facing conflict within yourself or with another person, yoga is a wonderful mechanism to help calm your body and mind. The breath plays a crucial role here. In yoga, we often tell students to “take a deep breath” or to focus on the exhale. This is because a deep, full breath produces a deep, full exhalation. This creates a calming sensation and a quieting effect in the body and mind.
Try simply inhaling to the count of four and exhaling to six. Open your chest and take a deep breath so the belly expands. Now, prolong your exhale and allow your stomach to fall. During this exercise we ideally also want to practise pratyahara, or sense withdrawal. This is when we take our awareness, our senses and our feelings inward to allow ourselves to open up and truly experience inner peace.
Focusing on your breath allows you to temporarily take your mind off the issue at hand. In a conflict, we are often faced with questions of how to act or to deal with an issue. In turn, this can create an internal conflict that stirs up all sorts of feelings. It can tear us up emotionally, with thoughts and worries forever rolling in the back of our minds. The clarity that comes with the concentration yoga and breathwork allow lets us keep a presence of the mind. If we can attain a clear, open mind and get past its afflictions, we have a much better chance of finding a resolution that will benefit all.
Taking that negative energy that has arisen as a result of a conflict or that has caused the conflict, and looking within, will help you calm these forces and disturbances. This doesn’t mean they will altogether quell or suppress any feelings you have; instead, it might give you the perspective and clarity to deal with it in a productive manner, one that perhaps involves ahimsa.
The warrior within
Yoga asanas can further help you cultivate a calm and collected mindset. I have chosen the following poses for their combination of restorative, balancing and energising effects. The selection from the warrior series literally releases the spiritual warrior within you, associated with courage, confidence and stamina. I’ve also included some balancing poses so you can find peace in the opposing sides of your body, and restorative poses, which will give you a chance to look within and focus on the breath.
Warrior I (virabhadrasana I)
Begin in tadasana, mountain pose. Step your left foot back so there is a considerable amount of distance between your feet. Rotate your left foot so it is on a 45-degree angle. Bring your hands to the hips and ensure they are square. Bend your right knee so it comes directly above the ankle. Keep your knee pointed slightly toward your right little toe. Then, inhale and lift your arms up to the ceiling. Shoulders should be relaxed, but the stretch should actively continue up the arms. Keep your back leg straight with the left foot firmly on the mat. Hold for up to a minute and repeat on the other side.
Warrior II (virabhadrasana II)
Begin in tadasana in the centre of the mat. Step or jump your legs apart. Raise your hands and bring the fingertips together so they meet at the sternum, then outstretch the arms. Rotate your right foot out 90 degrees and bring the left foot in slightly. Exhale and bend the right knee over the ankle. Do not let your torso move too far right. Keep it centred and lengthen the spine upward. Do not let your arms drop. Keep them in a straight line.
Warrior III (virabhadrasana III)
Lift up your hands and bring them down to the floor in uttanasana, forward bend. Lift your head up, then raise your right leg so it makes a 90-degree angle with the body. Keep the leg straight and in line with the hip. With both hands on the floor, attempt to square your hips so they are centred. Then inhale, keep your arms straight and lift them so they are in line with the extended right leg. Keep the balancing leg strong and straight. Maintain the harmony of the pose.
Forward bend (paschimottanasana)
Sit with legs extended in front of you. Raise both hands on the inhale and exhale bringing your hands towards your feet. On the inhale, lift your head and lengthen the spine forward. On the exhale, soften and lower your head toward your legs. Keep the spine straight and focus on the breath and the lengthening and softening motion.
Child’s pose (balasana)
Begin in vajrasana, sitting on your shins on your mat. Start to lower your forehead to the mat and then outstretch your arms. Walk your fingers as far away as possible so the stretch runs from shoulders to fingertips. Keep your elbows elevated off the mat. Focus on your mind’s eye. For a gentle stretch, walk both hands over to the right side and hold. Then walk them over to the left. This is a pose of surrender where you release the ego, calm the mind and let go of any pent-up emotions.
Eagle’s pose (garudasana)
This pose is about balancing opposing sides to find harmony in the body. Standing upright, cross your left hand underneath the right. Bend the elbows, wrap your arms around each other and bring the palms together. Bend your knees and bring the left leg over the right. Lift your elbows so they are at shoulder height and maintain complete concentration.
Veronica Joseph is a yoga teacher and writer based in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Australia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.