When people tell their friends to try yoga, they always say, “You’ll feel so good! I’m always so relaxed after yoga.”
What they don’t tell you is that sometimes, yoga makes you feel like shit.
Some yogis say that emotions are stored in the body, that memories linger on in cells stored deep in our muscles. When we go into a yoga pose and open a part of the body that has been mostly left alone until then, we stretch and release muscles that have gone unnoticed for years. We release tension, and in the process release memories and emotions that were stored in childhood, and have quietly slept deep in our bones ever since.
So one minute you may be lying on your back, enjoying happy baby, and the next minute you are flooded with rage and want to punch a baby in the face. You have no idea what triggered it, there is no reason to be feeling this emotion now, but it’s here and it’s real and it has to be worked through.
I’m not sure if I think emotions are stored in our muscles, but it makes perfect sense to me that yoga brings up emotions. In our practice, we learn to control our breath, to calm our minds, to help our bodies unwind. At first, this is great—we sleep better at night, we’re less stressed, and we feel great having released the tension from our shoulders. We learn to cope with our day-to-day stress, to release the muscles we have tensed up with our daily activities.
On the surface, everything is going great. But we are multidimensional beings, with long emotional histories. We have been sad and scared and lonely in the past, and we have suppressed old scars and defeats and humiliations just to be able to function in our everyday lives.
As we learn to connect to our breath, yoga starts working more efficiently.
Stress, anxiety, tension—wiped out! So it starts working on the backlog, trying to sort through some of that old mess, so you can finally unclutter your innermost being. Things you haven’t thought about in years suddenly rise up in Warrior II, and you can’t stop crying in Savasana because you’re infinitely sad and have no idea why.
It’s easy to feel like a lunatic when one of these emotional tidal waves strikes in the middle of yoga class. Nobody warned me about this phenomenon, and the first time I experienced it I was worrying about what other people thought of the tears running down my face instead of being present and feeling.
In Savasana, I lay on the floor, looking up at my teacher with teary eyes, pleading for an explanation. She just smiled and whispered, “It feels good to let it out.” Once she had given me permission to give in to the experience, my muscles immediately relaxed. I closed my eyes and felt the tears running down my face, and I felt all the sadness emptying out of my body. I felt so deeply relieved and peaceful.
I will always be grateful to that yoga instructor. She gave me a place where it was safe to feel all of the stress that had been accumulating in my life, to surrender, and to let it go.
It’s a cathartic process.
In the moment, it sucks. It sucks to feel sad, to feel angry, to feel pain. But at the same time, it feels really good to finally, fully feel. If you can create a safe space for yourself, in your body—to experience these emotions without judging, just accepting whatever comes up, and riding the wave—you, my friend, are really doing yoga. Your practice is far more advanced than the man who can put his feet behind his head.
So don’t try to hold back your tears, and don’t tell yourself that you’re being ridiculous the next time pigeon pose makes you want to bawl your eyes out. Remember, if yoga makes you feel like shit, that just means it’s working
Read the Spanish version here.
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Ed: Thandiwe Ogbonna & Brianna Bemel