The yoga of a relationship

How can we maintain our own identity in a relationship, especially a close one, without compromising the integrity of the other? Ram Dass answers


Which do you want to preserve? Your own identity or that of the other? Let me play with the idea a little bit. When I look at relationships—my own and others—I see a wide range of reasons why people want to be together and the ways in which they are together. I see the ways in which a relationship means that something exists between two or more people. Unfortunately for the most part, society or culture or whatever, reinforces people’s separateness as individual entities. It doesn’t just honour individual identity, it treats it as the reality of the relationship.

A marriage consists of three

The image I always have when I am performing a wedding is the image of a triangle, where there are two partners and then there is this third force. This third being emerges out of the interaction of the two individuals. The third one is the shared awareness that lies behind the two of them. The two people in the yoga of the relationship come together to find that shared awareness that exists behind them in order to let them dance as two. So that the ‘twoness’ brings them into one and the oneness dances as two, and that’s a kind of a vibrating relationship between the one and the two. So the people are both separate and yet they are not separate. And they are experiencing the relationship that is feeding both their uniqueness as individuals and their unit of consciousness.

An awareness of needs

Now this is extremely delicate, because it is so easy to get entrenched in your own “I need this,” “I want this,” “You are not fulfilling this for me” and seeing the other as an object. But the delight is of being with somebody where you share an awareness of the predicament you are both in. And you are sharing an awareness of the predicament, even when you argue with each other—there is an awareness that you are both almost delighting in the horrible beauty of it. We hate it and enjoy it—both, because there are different levels we are playing at, all the time. We often come into a relationship with our needs very much identified. “I need security, I need refuge, I need friendship, I need this, I need that.” And all of relationships are symbiotic in that sense. We come together because we fulfil each others’ needs at some level or other.

The problem is that when you identify with those needs, you always stay at the level where the other person is, because she or he is satisfying that need. It really only gets extraordinarily beautiful when it becomes ‘us’, and when it goes beyond ‘us’, it becomes ‘I’. So when I ask you which person are you saving or protecting, or whose integrity you are protecting, I understand that entering into the yoga of a relationship is an extremely difficult thing to do. It’s the hardest yoga that I know of, actually, because your ego is so vulnerable when you start to open up to another human being. You feel so tender and so vulnerable. Before you get strong enough, you get frightened, you pull back, you get entrenched; and that happens all the time in relationships. People come together with the greatest meaning of feeling love and then they get caught in their needs and their frustrations and they separate.

Individuals in a relationship

One of the problems is that we tend to place relationships a little bit on the back burner in life. We get a relationship and then we go out to a job and out to other things. Now that we have a relationship, we go ‘do life’. And for a relationship to be ‘a yoga of a relationship’, it is a fulltime operation for years. One example is the relationship of Nitin and Pooja Kumar. Nitin and Pooja used to be really nice, friendly, sociable people before they met. And then they met and started to be together. But the amount of energy that had to go into staying with a clear mind with each other around was profound. Because what happens is so much goes down so fast in relationships, it’s really hard to process it quickly enough to remain clear-headed. So you keep getting this residual old stuff that isn’t quite digested enough and you end up separate from the person because you didn’t have time to stop and work it through, clear it and so on.

As a couple in a relationship

So what they did was they moved to a place with no telephone and put up a big sign that said ‘No Trespassing’. And they just started to work with one another. During this time you felt like you were cut off as a friend, and it was hard for me, because I counted on Nitin a lot for sharing consciousness. Then, after a while, they began to open up to me and allow me in. Then I began to see what happens when people learn how to really open, trust, meditate together, keep emptying, keep clearing and work until they are a shared awareness. If you watch them when they are teaching together, when they are on the platform, or just when they are together, they have done some really extraordinary work. They still have a lot of work to do but they have done some really good stuff together. And that’s hard and it’s rare.

Ending relationships

I, on the other hand, have gone into relationships and realised that I can’t hear my own truth in the relationship. I’ve had to stop it; because I wasn’t willing to surrender the life games that I was in, for that relationship. It just wasn’t worth the effort. I treasured what I was doing in my life too much, to invest in that relationship that deeply. So I’ve heard it both ways. You hear that?

It’s not fair to say that any relationship that isn’t involved in the yoga of relationship is not useful and fulfilling to people. A lot of people come together because it is just really comfortable to live with another person and there is a wonderful kind of sweet intimacy. And it’s fun to cook with each other and to sleep together and it’s fun to just live life together without trying to get too deep in as a spiritual practice. And many of those people have other spiritual practices. They go off and meditate, and one does something else—T’ai Chi or something else. That is fine to me. I don’t think you should make believe that a relationship is really ‘yoga’ unless you are willing to really put the effort into making it such. And if you are, it really fills all the space for a long time.

Why we don’t differentiate between trees but do between people

When I am in a relationship with somebody else and what they do upsets me, that’s my problem. Because I understand that my life experiences are the gift of my Guru in order to bring me to God, if somebody upsets me, that’s my problem. This is a hard lesson, because we don’t usually think like this in our culture. I see other people as trees in the forest. You go to the woods and you see gnarled trees, live oaks, pines, hemlocks, elms and things like that. You are not inclined to say, “I don’t like you because you are a pine and not an elm”; you appreciate trees the way they are. But when you get near humans, notice how quickly your mindset changes, in a way in which you don’t allow humans to manifest the way they are. You keep taking other people personally. They are just mechanical run-offs of old Karma. That’s all they really are. They look real and they think they are real, but really what they are is mechanical run-off.  So they say, “Grrrh!” and you karmically reply “Grrrh!”. Then one of you says, “We’ve got to work this out” and the other says, “Yes, we must.” And then you start to work it out, it’s all mechanical. It’s all conditioned stuff.

So somebody comes along and gets to me. They get me angry or uptight or they awaken some desire in me; wow, am I delighted! They got me. And that’s my work on myself. If I am angry with you because your behaviour doesn’t fill my model of how you should be, that’s my problem for having models. No expectations, no upset. If you are a liar and a cheat, that’s your karma. If I’m cheated, that’s my work on myself.

Getting me getting you

My attempting to change you—that is a whole other ballgame. What I am saying is: if I will only be happy if you are different than you are then I am really asking for it. Think of how many relationships you have, where you can say, “I really don’t like that person’s this or that. If they would only be this. If I could manipulate them to be this, then I can be happy.” Isn’t that weird? Why can’t I be happy with them the way they are? You are a liar, a cheat and a scoundrel and I love you. I won’t play any games with you, but I love you. It’s interesting to move to the level where you can appreciate, love, and allow in the same way you would in the woods, instead of constantly bringing in that judging component, which is really rooted out of your own feelings of lack of power. Judging comes out of your own fear. Even I fall trap to it all the time. But every time I do, I catch myself.

This was first published in the June 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Ram Dass
Ram Dass (April 6, 1931 - December 22, 2019) was one of America’s most beloved spiritual figures. Born Richard Alpert, he is best known for his book Be Here Now. He dedicated his life to freeing people from their bonds even as he worked his way through his own. For more of his teachings visit