A clinical psychologist shares how yoga might help your marriage

By Morton Kissen

Marriage is difficult, and my yoga practice has turned out to be a different kind of therapy

I’ve taught an Adelphi University class in couples psychology for over 10 years and have had the opportunity to review much of the research on this topic. The fact that at best 50% of first marriages and only 60% of second marriages survive is a testament to how difficult marriage can be for many of us.

My own first marriage ended in divorce, but thankfully my second—despite numerous conflicts and challenges—has been more successful and we are soon to celebrate our 30th anniversary. I’ve learned a great deal from my own psychoanalytic experiences, from my wife Judy, and from the less-expected aid of my yoga practice. Here’s a bit of my own story.

Thou shalt honor and . . . obey?

Although my wife is more openly assertive and comfortable with her anger, I have tended toward more subtle displays of annoyance—particularly when expected to cooperate and do something we need to do. But I’ve become more and more aware that this almost never occurs in my yoga classes! When expected to follow the creative and clearly articulated asana and pranayama exercises designed by my instructor, I greatly enjoy doing so. Why is obedience and cooperativeness so easy with my instructor and so difficult with Judy?

My discomfort with cooperativeness in the context of marriage has its roots in a difficult relationship with my mother. These challenging feelings transferred into subtly (and not-so-subtly) resistant attitudes toward marriage. Thanks to many years spent in personal therapy, I have gained much insight into the impact of my childhood relationship with my mother on my two marriages. This has not really changed, however, my basic struggles over being a fully cooperative partner to my wife.

A practice off the mat

Unbelievably, at my current ripe old age, I have begun to explore the discrepancy between my very cooperative attitude in yoga classes and my less consistently cooperative feelings in the context of marriage.

Aligned with the yogic practice of svadhyaya, or self-study, I have been consciously trying to respond to the multiple daily tasks required of both of us in the exact same way I so easily respond to my yoga instructor and her recommendations for specific body postures and stretches. Interestingly, this approach has been working very well and has noticeably improved my relationship with Judy. I have finally been able to apply the many insights from my lengthy personal therapeutic experiences in my marriage relationship.

Becoming a team player

On a basic level, marriage requires a certain degree of personal maturity. Even more important for me, it also requires the ability to avoid viewing shared and solo tasks as somehow meeting Judy’s needs exclusively.

Mindfulness and a more present-moment focus can meditatively occur during yoga practice. This allows many of us to shake loose of past traumatic experiences and the self-impediments stemming from them.

These experiences have definitely happened as a result of my consistent yoga practice. I take classes with a number of older individuals and a few younger folks. The basic approach is a gentle one. We all practice stretches and breathing exercises together, and I try mightily not to compare myself unfavorably to a number of the women who seem much more flexible.

My instructor frequently reminds me of my posture and tendency to look down rather than forward. I have been cooperating with her reminders, despite the difficulty in keeping my head, neck, and spine properly erect.

Interestingly, I have been more open to Judy’s observations about me as well, and less likely to take them as criticisms or negative judgments. Yoga classes, when they work well, tend to be relatively free from self-judgments or judgments of others. I have been able to transfer some of that ease to my marriage relationship.

In sum, it seems that it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. My yoga practice has become a much-needed addition to my previous personal therapy. For me, the practice has gone beyond stress reduction and the traditional autonomic nervous system shifts from sympathetic (fight-flight) to parasympathetic (relaxation response). Those have certainly occurred as well, but my practice has allowed me to move beyond childhood-based psychological impediments to become a cooperative marriage partner.

Morton Kissen, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at the Derner Institute for Advanced Psychological Studies in Garden City, N.Y. He is the author of numerous publications and works in private practice in both Huntington and Forest Hills, N.Y.