Our practice has the potential to bring up and release an array of feelings – from grief to joy and everything in between. Jessica Humphries explores what’s happening beneath the surface of this yoga phenomena.
I remember my first yoga meltdown. As a fairly new student, hip openers were unexplored territory, and half pigeon left me feeling constricted and angry.
The teacher’s soothing voice echoed in my mind. “You’re ok. It’s ok. Whatever you feel is ok.” I allowed the feelings to emerge fully, and it wasn’t long before hot tears streamed down my cheeks as I delved into a place I hadn’t been before. A place that, when touched, opened a new door to a deeper level of self-enquiry and, ultimately, acceptance.
This cathartic release is familiar to many practitioners, but few of us actually understand what’s happening during this process.
Emotions as messengers – Connecting body and mind
Dr Lauren Tober is a Clinical Psychologist, Life Coach and Yoga Teacher who explains that simply having the space to be with ourselves and feel is often what leads to these emotional releases. She says, “for many of us, we were taught to supress or deny our emotions from a very young age, and we’ve spent a lifetime doing this.” But emotions don’t simply disappear when we supress them. Instead, Tober says, they wait to be re-met. If we’re in the habit of continually supressing our emotions, “we tend to get an accumulated build up of them…so when we do get around to feeling what we’re feeling, it can be pretty intense,” Tober explains.
As the yogis have known for many years, there is no difference between the body and mind, and the practice of yoga allows us to understand this experientially.
Carrie-Anne Fields is a Psychologist, Yoga Teacher and owner of My Health Yoga, a yoga school incorporating yoga, psychology and healing. Carrie explains that mindful movement combined with releasing different parts of the body, “brings awareness to stuck, rigid and painful areas within our body/mind” enhancing our understanding of this connection and ultimately releasing the patterns that prevent us from living joyfully.
Emotions and the physical body
And so we begin to see how yoga and the mind are intimately connected, relating to and reflecting one another in every aspect of our lives. Erin Bourne holds a Bachelors of Exercise Science as well as extensive training in yoga and myofascial release. She teaches the anatomy of yin yoga on teacher trainings and is writing a book about yoga and fascia. Bourne explains that, as a result of stress and trauma, our bodies brace or tense. Over time these patterns become stuck in the body, along with the emotions that cause them, changing the hormones circulating to the blood and impacting the whole body.
Bourne explains, “It is thought that the fascia [web-like connective tissue running throughout our body] becomes a store of memories. Collagen is deposited along the lines of tension imposed or expressed in [the fascia] at the molecular and macroscopic level.” When we experience strong emotions, this has a physical or postural response. Our postures and movements dictate where collagen is deposited and so a tensional memory is created which can lead to “modulation of gene expression patterns, inflammatory and tissue remodel”, says Bourne. She explains that if we do not release emotions, we literally remodel the internal structure of the body. “The release of a substance from nerve endings driven by the hypothalamus following emotional trauma, may alter the collagen structure into a specific hexagonal shape, referred to as “emotional scar.”
When we practice yoga, particularly the longer holds of yin, we release the fascia, stretch it out, and change the way tension is held, both physically and emotionally. “When we release the physical, we access the emotion behind it. This is why sometimes in a practice we suddenly burst into tears, face old memories or rage that we hadn’t realised was still there”, says Bourne.
Emotions and the Nervous System
Russell Young is an Exercise Physiologist and Yoga Teacher of 20 years who lectures at university in anatomy, functional anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology and biomechanics. He is also the co-owner of Younga Yoga Studio in Wollongong. Young remembers a class at the beginning of his yoga career with a room full of students in frog pose having intense emotional reactions to the asana. Young’s curiosity of these emotional outpours inspired him to explore the topic further during his academic studies. He discovered that, “there are a large amount of nerves running through this [the hips] area and it is very closely linked to the spine which has an expressway to the brain”. He says, “Here enters the Autonomic nervous system.”
In frog pose, the students who were having strong emotional reactions were probably operating in a sympathetic capacity (fight or flight). When this happens (i.e. when we are very stressed), Young explains, our frontal lobe (the thinking brain) shuts down, and our brain stem takes over, creating reaction rather than contemplation. “As the brain stem is the site of raw emotions, it takes us into a state of raw emotions and can expose things that may be deep seated.” Yoga allows us to move through these emotions, however, he says, it’s important that students have choice, only delving deeply if they feel safe to do so.
Yoga’s impact on trauma
Sarah Ball is a yoga teacher specialising in trauma sensitive yoga, a counsellor, social worker and a huge advocate for yoga as therapy to heal trauma. She says the practice, “can support us to re-learn ways of self-regulating and integrating experiences of trauma.” From a trauma-sensitive yoga perspective, Ball explains, “a return to equilibrium can happen in this very moment, by attending to the body in the present in a safe context, and using the body as a way of reconnecting with a sense of agency, empowerment and choice – all of which may have been lost or disconnected from at the time of the traumatic event/s.”
Bessell van der Kolk is a psychiatrist, researcher, teacher on post traumatic stress and the author of The body keeps the score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma.Van der Kolk explains that while stress hormones may have a bad wrap, they are actually good for us, helping to give us the energy needed to cope under extreme situations. What can sometimes go wrong, however, is that we are prevented from using our stress hormones (if being held down, for example). He says, “your stress hormones keep going up but you can’t discharge it with action – so the hormones start wreaking havoc with your whole internal system. But as long as you move, you are going to be fine.” Van der kolk’s perspective that movement is a key aspect of healing trauma is anecdotally supported by the deep calm we so often experience at the end of an emotionally cathartic yoga class.
Emotions and the Koshas
Nikola Ellis is a certified yoga therapist, psychotherapist, and counsellor who has been immersed in yoga for 25 years. She explains how we can look at the connection between yoga and our emotions from a traditional yogic viewpoint.
Ellis explains that our emotions are how we consciously experience our subjective interpretation of interoceptive sensation (the sense of the physiological condition of the body). She says, “we feel an ‘emotion’ based on the information coming from the body. How we read that information is often based on deep-seated patterns of belief (samkaras), meaning we ‘read’ the information coming from the body incorrectly. For example, a physical sensation that you or I may consider ‘hunger’, may be interpreted as a ‘threat’ by someone with anorexia nervosa.” Through yoga, she says, we can rest the stories of our samskaras and experience the messages of our body more sincerely. “We let go of that ingrained patterning and experience the body, thinking mind, intuition and ‘spirit’ (koshas) as being all on the same page, rather than being in conflict with one another all the time”, she says.
The experience of catharsis or emotional release that we experience in our yoga practice comes as we move towards an understanding of our innate whole-ness.
“We’re letting go of the ingrained thoughts, feelings and behaviours that keep us feeling separate, in conflict with ourselves and out of synchrony with the universe- what a relief!”, Ellis says.
In the Tattiriya Upanishad, an ancient Tantric yoga text, a human being is described as having sheaths or layers, known as the koshas. Like an onion, these five koshas interpenetrate each other, encasing the soul and covering every layer of our being, from the gross (physical) to the subtle (spiritual). Through yogic practices, we release blockages in these layers, which often hide fears and unexpressed emotions. By working through these layers, strong emotions can arise as we move towards a greater understanding of our true self.
Emotions and the Chakras
According to ancient yogic philosophy, the chakras are the seven main energy centres that exist within our subtle/energetic body. These chakras, explains Carrie-Anne Fields, create a “bio-feedback system to the state of our emotional health, as well as physical, mental and spiritual health.” When we learn to tune into the feeling within each chakra, she says, “we become aware of any areas within our emotional life that need attention, balance or healing.” Chakras can be blocked or flowing, unhealthy or healthy, and the state of our chakras is reflected in both our physical and emotional health. The fifth chakra, vishuddha(throat chakra), for example, is associated with expression. A blockage in this chakra could manifest as a sore throat or in issues communicating with others. Practicing a chest opening asana can impact the associated, heart chakra, leading to feelings of compassion and love. However, during the process of bringing awareness to and healing this chakra, we may experience grief and hurt (symptoms of a blockage in this chakra).
It’s been seven years since that first emotional release in my yoga practice. Since then, I’ve come to intimately observe how my body and mind interact, exploring corners of my psyche that, without yoga, may have stayed dormant forever. There’s no doubt that our body and mind interact in miraculous ways that can, when explored, invite emotional awareness, release and ultimately healing. As both eastern and western philosophies continue to understand the ways in which this happens, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. As always, I encourage you to keep diving in – both on and off the mat.
Words by Jessica Humphries for Australian Yoga Journal.