Issues in our Tissues: Looking at the Emotions We Store in Our Bodies. ~ Bernie Clark

Via on Dec 20, 2012
Photo: Porschelinn on Flickr
Photo: Anguish by Porschelinn on Flickr

Just as it is inappropriate and unhealthy to push past our physical edges, it is also unskillful and unhelpful to push past our emotional edges.

The first thing to recognize when strong emotions arise in our yoga practice is: “I am not alone!” Many people experience discomforting emotions and even elating emotions while doing their practice. Just being aware that others have gone through the same experience—and survived very nicely, thank you very much—helps to take the edge off the anxiety of the moment.

The second thing to be aware of is taking advice over the Internet on matters of personal health: I am not a doctor and cannot diagnose you or prescribe what you should do for your physical health, nor am I a psychotherapist and cannot give you the personal counseling you may need to help you through an emotional or mental crises; and even if I were, taking advice over the web is fraught with dangers of distance, missing key facts pertinent to your situation and misunderstanding what is really going on, thus giving you unhelpful guidance. Given all that, however, I can provide some thoughts for your consideration, that you can take to your chosen health care provider, to help you understand what is going on, and decide how to approach dealing with whatever your situation is.

We all have issues in our tissues, which is to say, we store emotions in our bodies. Where else could they possible be?

Emotions are not stored out there in some cloud server on the Internet: they are not on a Google computer in hyperspace. They are within you, close at hand and ready at a moment’s notice to manifest.

The dance of yoga is one of playing our edges: we approach the point of being too deep, never actually arriving at this point, and then we back off to see if we can approach that edge again, safely. This is the art: never actually going too deep, but moving constantly towards that edge where the sensations are juicy, where there is definitely something happening, but it is not too much sensation and we are never in danger of ripping the body open.

Photo: Elation by andrew_byrne on Flickr
Photo: Elation by andrew_byrne on Flickr

When we think about our edges we often think in physical terms, and you may well have had such an image in your mind when you read the above words, but we have edges emotionally, mentally and spiritually as well. Just as it is inappropriate and unhealthy to push past our physical edges it is also unskillful and unhelpful to push past our emotional edges. Just as we may have scar tissue in our body that prevents our full range of movement, we often have emotional scar tissue as well that can restrict our interpersonal and lifestyle ranges of movement. These stuck, contracted areas can be painful when worked into and we can only go so far in our yoga practice to really open up; often professional guidance is needed to make sure that we successfully remove the scar tissue.

Physiotherapists are licensed to hurt you because that is what may be necessary to break the living tissues that are scar tissue, and psychotherapists may similarly have to take you into painful areas to exorcise any existing psychic damage. Yoga teachers are not trained to this degree so all we can do, or even should do in our yoga practice is to work to the edges of the blockages.

For some, that will be all they actually need, so assuming that this is the case, what can we do in yoga to help?

Once again the answer is to play your edge, but with enhanced awareness.

Our basic emotions exist within us to provide protection, healing and growth—they are not inherently bad: they are in fact very necessary for a whole life well lived. But sometimes emotions are evoked unskillfully and it is in these cases that we need to evaluate the raw experience of the emotion unemotionally, with dispassion.

Let’s take a real life example: let’s say that recently you have begun to experience a strong feeling of fear, desperately wanting to get out of the posture, wanting to scream like crazy, “A pressure on my chest!” as one student recently noted when she went into Straddle (Dragonfly) pose during a Yin Yoga class. She had been practicing Yin Yoga for over a year so this sudden arising of fear was surprising, perplexing and worrying. What does it mean and what should she do?

First, realize that you are not the only one. Emotions will arise at some point in your yoga journey. That is quite natural when you consider that yoga works the full body, not just the physical tissues. Next, consider the depth of the emotions and whether these feelings are limited only to your yoga practice or also arise at other times in life, because if they do, you may want to seek some professional assistance in determining what it means and how to work through the challenge. Finally, know that this is a wonderful opportunity to deepen your yoga practice, to go beyond the mere postures and into the depths of your own being.

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Photo: raganmd on Flickr

David Williams, one of the first two Americans to practice Ashtanga Yoga, once observed that the real yoga is what you can’t see. He means that the real process of yoga unfolds beneath the obvious shapes that we contort our bodies into, it involves the breath and the way we pay attention to what is happening within. This is the invitation your strong emotional response is offering you. Rather than blindly or automatically react to the emotion, cultivate an attitude of acceptance and curiosity. Ask yourself what is really going on: “What is this?”

Both the Indian yogis and the Daoist yogis in China noticed a correlation between particular emotions and certain areas of the body: fear is centered in the kidneys, anger in the liver, worry in the stomach, fright in the heart and grief in the lungs. These associations make a lot of intuitive sense even to us Westerners. When we grieve our lungs go into spasm (called crying); when we are frightened suddenly our heart skips a beat (or we suffer a heart attack and become “frightened to death!”); when we fret the rate of ulcers rises;[1] when our liver becomes damaged we may subject our loved ones to bouts of extreme rage (as most families of alcoholics are only too aware); and when we are afraid our adrenal glands activate readying us to run away or fight that which confronts us. Fortunately, we are also beneficiaries of positive emotions as well: the home for beauty is in the lungs; joy in the heart; creativity in the stomach; kindness in the liver; and wisdom in the kidneys.

Poses in yoga work the body physically and energetically, stimulating the meridian lines that correspond to the major organs of the body and sometimes eliciting strong emotional responses. In the example of the woman who experienced fear while she was in Straddle Pose, she may have created a deep stress along the inner thighs, the adductor muscle group, through which the liver and kidney meridians run. This stress may be sufficient to trigger an emotional response if there is some blockage psychically or emotionally in the pertaining organs of the liver and kidneys.

Regardless of the cause of the emotional response, the prescription is the same: awareness with dispassion. Watch what is occurring without trying to change it, without running away from it, without giving into it in despair or resignation. Of course, as we have already discussed, if you really feel you are past your edge and are too deeply into an emotional state, then back off! But if the emotions are just challenging, not dangerous, stay and observe the raw experience that is occurring. This is when something interesting is about to happen. Don’t miss it!

Ask yourself constantly, “What is this?”

Note the emotions and the associated physical sensations in detail to yourself: what are you feeling, what is your breath like, your heart rate, is there increased tension in your jaw, shoulders, neck? For example, if you are feeling fear, notice what fear feels like: “my breath is shorter and choppy; my shoulders are tense; my thoughts are foggy and I can’t focus.”

Don’t judge these sensations as good or bad and don’t try to change them; just observe them as they are. If you would like to work more deeply with these feelings check out the exercise described in YinSights called A.W.A.K.E.N. It is based on cognitive behavioral therapy where a similar program is offered to help people cope with anxieties, phobias, and debilitating fears.

To sum up, when a strong emotion arises in the middle of a yoga practice pay attention to it. If it is too strong, back off and perhaps even stop the practice for that day. If this continues to happen to the degree that you can no longer practice skillfully, then seek help from a qualified yoga teacher or counseling. However, if the emotions are challenging but not dangerous, use this opportunity to take your yoga practice to a new level: play the edge of the emotion without going over the edge. Start to observe what is actually occurring, without adding anything to the experience and without taking anything away from it.

One last thought, and for this I will quote Rod Stryker: “If you have never laughed or cried in a yoga class, what are you waiting for?”

 

 

 

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About Bernie Clark

Bernie Clark has been teaching yoga and meditation since 1998. He has a bachelor degree in Science from the University of Waterloo and combines his intense interest in yoga with an understanding of the scientific approach to investigating the nature of things. His ongoing studies have taken him deeply inside mythology, comparative religions and psychology. All of these avenues of exploration have clarified his understanding of the ancient Eastern practices of yoga and meditation. His teaching, workshops and books have helped many students broaden their own understanding of health, life and the source of true joy. Bernie’s yoga practice encompasses the hard, yang-styles, such as Ashtanga and Power Yoga, and the softer, yin-styles, as exemplified in Yin Yoga. His meditation experience goes back to the early 80s when he first began to explore the practice of Zen meditation. He manages the Yin Yoga website and he’s the author of Yinsights, The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, and of the recently released From the Gita to the Grail: Exploring Yoga Stories & Western Myths.

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14 Responses to “Issues in our Tissues: Looking at the Emotions We Store in Our Bodies. ~ Bernie Clark”

  1. Neil Pearson says:

    Hmmmm … I didn't know that being licensed as a PT was a licence to hurt?! Don't get me wrong. I don't find that offensive, just surprising because I never thought of it that way. We could say that this is one of the huge factors that separates my PT training from my yoga therapy training. I have to point out that as much as we physical therapists have the knowledge and skill to take the body to places that are safe, but don't necessarily feel safe, we are also in the business of teaching people to find comfort and peace. On top of that, those of us who prescribe in the tenant that the greatest power to heal comes from within combine our unique skills with the suggestions you have eloquently described as playing with the edge. As an aside, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy also provides an amazing training ground for yogis and health professionals to learn how to play with this edge.
    Bernie, I want to thank you for the statement – "Our basic emotions exist within us to provide protection, healing and growth". As much as this is true for emotional pain, it is the same for the pain we have with tissue injury and disease. I hope those who read this excellent post of yours can understand that although there are differences in what we call physical versus emotional pain, our systems, including the nervous systems and brain, do not fully respond differently based on the source of our pain or suffering. If this doesn't make sense, then just play with these same ideas that Bernie has described here next time you have pain from something that happened to your body. (don't believe these words … give them a try because you have nothing to lose in doing so)
    To be more specific, let's make the simple edit of exchanging 'emotions' for "pain' in the second last paragraph – "To sum up, when a pain/strong emotion arises in the middle of a yoga practice pay attention to it. If it is too strong, back off and perhaps even stop the practice for that day. If this continues to happen to the degree that you can no longer practice skillfully, then seek help from a qualified yoga teacher or counseling. However, if the pain/emotions are challenging but not dangerous, use this opportunity to take your yoga practice to a new level: play the edge of the pain/emotion without going over the edge. Start to observe what is actually occurring, without adding anything to the experience and without taking anything away from it."
    This post is a wonderful Christmas gift!
    neil

    • Bernie says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Neil. My comment that PT's are licenced to hurt was not meant in any derogatory fashion: sometimes, to break scar tissue that has congealed and tightened up our body for example, we do need to break tissues and that hurts. Yoga teachers, however, are not trained to know how to do this safely (unless they are both a physiotherapist and a yoga teacher) and to be safe our yoga practice should not move us into pain. By the same logic, sometimes psychotherapists also have to take us to a dark painful place in order to allow new growth, but again, yoga teachers are not trained in this art, so whether the pain is physical or psychic, in your yoga practice edges are best honored.

  2. Gabriela says:

    Wonderful post and additional comment. If they could only dedicate 1 hour/day to teach these perspectives to our children in schools…wouldn't our world be a different place? My yoga practice, breath awareness and meditation have changed my life. I came face-to-face with myself and I befriended this self of mine.

  3. [...] Part of the problem was that I had immersed myself in a yoga community and tradition where asana was approached with a “one size fits all” mentality. It took me several years and injuries to realize that “one size” was not fitting me. I was born with dodgy hips and I was rapidly making them more dodgy through yoga. One person’s yoga medicine is another person’s cartilage tearing trauma. [...]

  4. [...] By all counts, ancient people had it far worse. During the winter months, dark days meant the threat of starvation, disease, wild animals and marauding hordes. December 21—the shortest day of the year—was a joyous occasion meant to honor the return of the sun god. Enjoy a few good sun salutes today. Relax the feet into the earth, synchronize body and mind, and breath while moving through the sequence. Open the joints, stretch the muscles and release toxins. Treat your own body to its own sense of rebirth. [...]

  5. [...] Pay close attention to your wrists and low back: there’s a difference between them feeling some challenge and just plain hurting. If they don’t like up-dog on steroids, my guess is they won’t like the regular up-dog either, and cobra (both knees on the ground, belly down, far less pressure on your hands and far gentler upward slope through the spine) might be better suited to your body’s needs than either version of upward dog. [...]

  6. [...] come to a head during a full moon; I suspect it’s because the wisdom of the body takes the reins. Suppressed feelings burst out. Tension makes us snap like twigs. Our body has had [...]

  7. Daniel Speed says:

    Hello Bernie,

    An interesting article thank you. I have attended many yoga and body working workshops where the practitioners use this same idea of 'Issues in our Tissues'. I do also agree that this may be the case however, I have asked many of the teachers at various workshops the below question and I would like to ask you it as well:

    What is the scientific theory behind this statement and, to your knowledge, has there been any clinical trials or observations to discover what causes muscles and Fascia to hold on to trauma?

    I ask this as surely there must be a chemical or neurological trace / pathway created by emotional trauma but to this day no one I have spoken too has any scientific information. I ask this out of utmost respect and, as a scholar of yoga, I know how many of the techniques described in the Hathayogapradipika and other texts have been proved to have scientific merit.

    Any information you can offer will help me in continuing my mission to write a concise paper on this theory.

    many Thanks foryour time

    • Bernie Clark Bernie says:

      Hi Daniel

      Sorry that it has taken so long to respond to you – I didn’t know you posted your question until just now! I will try to give you some thoughts, but unfortunately, there is not a lot of “science” right now supporting the idea that our emotions are embodied, in fact most Western doctors would probably snicker at the idea, save for the fact that, as I mentioned in the article, we intuitively agree with many of these ancient Eastern observations: we know grief and sadness affect the lungs (called crying) and that anger management issues are more frequent in people who have damaged their livers (through alcohol abuse). These correlations are quite obvious, but the question is – why? What scientific map can we create to explain these connections of emotions and certain tissues and locations? I have not heard of such a map, but I can offer some speculations as to what such a map may include.

      Recent work, cited by Robert Schleip and others, have shown that our fascia is highly enervated: there are proprioceptors (which measures where the body is in space and how it is orientated), nociceptors (which create sensations of pain), chemoreceptors (which measure various things like the body’s ph levels), thermoreceptors (measuring temperature), as well as nerves that can contract the fascia, and nerves that can relax the body, dilate blood vessels and help us feel calmer. All this wonderful complexity exists in our fascia and affects our nervous system as well as our immune system. Of course our emotional body is also affected by what happens to our nervous system (think of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems which control our rest and digest responses as well as our flight or fight responses: these are intimately tied into our emotions.) We also know, from the work of Ida Rolf and others, that trauma, emotional or physical, can alter our fascia, by altering our habitual posture and how we related to gravity. Contraction of parts of the body are common after an injury, but this contraction pulls us out of our normal, healthy alignment to gravity, which results in stresses building up within our tissues. As these stresses persist they create a permanent rearrangement within us, affecting the stresses on our fascia as well, which we have just seen affects the autonomous nervous system and immune system.

      It is really not surprising that physical changes result in mental and emotional changes because the reverse is so obviously true. Look at someone who is depressed: you will see a slumped posture. As the Daoist long ago noticed, these relationships are circular and work both ways: put someone into a slumped posture and soon their energy levels drop and they don’t feel so happy. But, have them stand up straight and tall, with their hands on their hips and their blood chemistry changes, they become more confident and even a bit aggressive. [See the article I wrote on Power Posing for more on this topic: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/10/power-posi… It is clear that we all have issues in our tissues, but the detailed maps working out exactly how this works are still being drawn up.

      I hope this helps a little. Cheers, Bernie

    • eva says:

      dear daniel,
      heard in my massagetraining about neuronal plasticity. nerves (motor and sensual) connect our nervous system (brain and spinal cord) with our tissues (muscles, organs …) which react and vice versa. each experience will have an effect on this connection. the more often we repeat an experience the more stable this connection will be (small pathway vs. superhighway).

      for example: your mother shouted at you as a child, you made yourself small (head down, shoulders to front)… this becomes a pattern. Later on someone talking loud – even not to you – your nerves and your body respond the same way.

      yoga and asanas can help to make this connection visible without knowing something about the reason. maybe I feel suddenly very uncomfortable the teacher speaking loudly when I'm doing a backbend. But now – I hope so – I practice in a space, which my mind rates as safe. I can deal with my arousing emotions in a new way: hold the pose with head up and shoulders back and experience my arousal passing by, nothing "bad" happened to me.

      making this new experience over and over again a new pattern can establish.

      all the best,
      eva

  8. Andrew says:

    Bernie,
    Thank you for shining a light on a very important but surprisingly little understood topic. Nothing happens in the mind without it happening in the body. There is no boundary separating one from the other, hence bodymind. Nor does anything in the bodymind happen in isolation.

    I am another one of those, ahem, "licensed to hurt". Please let me share that emotions (experiences) being stored in our tissues is a reality I see daily. My experience is that breath and movement are key to finding, and then integrating, these stored emotions (or 'retained stresses' as I also call them).

    Practicing yoga can help us use the physically stored information to evolve – many of my patients have yoga prescribed. Yoga's breathing and movement can fully integrate emotion/information, or it may simply give the practitioner an awareness of its presence. Either way it is helping with the process of reconnecting, freeing up the stored information and giving an opportunity to grow.

    I urge people not to 'force a stretch', but instead 'allow a release'. I see better results if the release is NOT initiated from a position of tension. Sure take out the slack but don't create tension, just let the body move so it feels 'safe' to integrate that which has, up to now, been deemed unsafe to express.

    One challenge with patients is they become 'stuck in their head' during the process of integrating the stored emotion. You don't need to figure it out mentally, so much as feel it. Just feel into the emotion, re-connect with the underlying tone and express it with movement, Noticing how the physical dissonance (tension, pain, etc) begins to melt.

    Your second paragraph in response to Daniel carries a lot of how I describe this process to patients in terms of the physiology of the process. Thank you again for shining a light on the concepts in your article. An understanding of this can help people gain a deeper resolution and a more rewarding journey.

    Namaste,
    Dr Andrew Maher.

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