Yoga and Conflict Resolution

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Artio Services uses the integrative arts to support conflict resolution education. Many may ask, “How can practices like yoga actually help and relate to conflict resolution?” Ironically, but not surprisingly, in times of conflict we have neuromuscular (mind-body) responses that coincide with our conflict resolution strategies. In 1915, Dr. Walter Cannon coined the term “fight/flight,” which is also known as the stress response. Wellness expert and author, Mary NurrieStearns, explains, “Specifically, under stress: your heart beats faster and your muscles tense, your breathing becomes shallow and you start to perspire, the flow of blood to your internal organs and extremities decreases, the functioning of your immune and digestive systems is inhibited." In regard to conflict resolution strategies, during fight mode we contend - in flight mode, we withdraw. Both are valid responses and strategies, we just need to gain healthy understandings of both. If we are truly in a state of danger, these responses can prove useful. However, our daily lives aren’t generally filled with saber tooth tiger attacks or catastrophic events. Unfortunately, we can use these responses in unproductive ways, while in traffic or with co-workers, when we’re not aware of our neuromuscular state and its purpose.

The fight/flight response is commonly felt and understood, but a neuromuscular response not generally promoted is our “relaxation response.” We have an innate counteraction to fight/flight, which is good news to us all. “The relaxation response reduces the stress response, and, like the stress response, is initiated in the brain. Specifically, the relaxation response includes the following: your heart rate slows down and your blood pressure stabilizes, your immune system is boosted, your brain waves slow down, your digestive processes normalize, your quality of sleep improves, you experience a sense of well-being," NurrieStearns writes. Breathing deep into the belly can trigger this relaxation response, and all it takes is the awareness and willingness to practice different breathing techniques.

Many people might say, “I can’t calm down - I immediately go into fight and/or flight mode.” We do have our conflict “defaults,” and it is a practice to tap into new responses. I compare our relaxation response to problem solving in the conflict world. It takes a commitment to new strategies and methods to help calm down the body and mind, and it may not come easy at first. However, just like in conflict resolution – we can prioritize and understand how strategies and situations relate. Roger Fisher and William Ury, from the Harvard Negotiation Project, promote "Principled Negotiation" steps that helps us reach mutually beneficial and harmonious agreements. In other words, the negotiation process is the problem solving we need to mitigate conflict. In negotiation pursuits, cooperation is always the goal. When solving inner and outer conflicts, how do we develop peaceful agreements with ourselves and others? It can start with pausing and breathing, two simple steps that confirm your commitment to a peaceful approach. When we are kind with ourselves, and understand our innate stress response systems, it translates into our relationships with others. Can you imagine if everyone integrated personal peace practices? A large ripple effect would be inevitable.

With yoga, we practice on our mats what we want to practice in our outer world. Artio teaches the process of conflict resolution and peaceful agreements (a.k.a. “negotiation” practices in the outer world) through yoga techniques. As we go through various movements and breathing models, we can practice detaching from our emotions (a fuel for fight/flight), take an inner inventory of what we truly want, get creative in solutions, solidify agreements, and understand larger contexts of our agreements. These are all components of Fisher and Ury’s Principled Negotiation model. Yoga gives us the slow, mindful, creative ability to apply these principles to inner and outer conflicts. It is indeed a practice, and through movement and breathing, we are able to deeply resonate with conflict resolution techniques and concepts. This is where change can truly happen.

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