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.
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.
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; 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?”
The art and practice of Focusing: