Emotions in Yoga: Feel it to Heal it

Yoga can be really intimidating for some people, then add in the fact that you might burst into tears during a class and it’s not surprising many people are put off. 

I am talking about emotions and yoga. This takes me back to a workshop I attended a few years ago when I was living in Shanghai. During the class I remember a Pranayama (breathing) exercise and I could hear someone in the class sniffling. My first thought was the poor girl was probably struggling with a nasty cold and blocked up nose, but it wasn’t until the end of the class when we were all chatting did she mention that she had in fact been crying and couldn’t stop. The yoga workshop itself had actually brought her emotions to the surface and once they were there she couldn’t stop them. It turned out she had actually recently broken up with her boyfriend and quite openly told us that she hadn’t really been dealing with it emotionally. That ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ attitude seemed to infiltrate her system and before she knew it she hadn’t even cried about it – until now.

emoji, emotions, happy, sad, afraid, prayer, confusedThis was the first time I had ever seen anyone get ‘upset’ during a yoga class and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t the teeniest bit jealous. You might say I had a touch of ‘FOMO’ – ‘Fear Of Missing Out’. I know this sounds bizarre and the very thought of crying in public is not something I would ever want to do in a hurry but I wondered what it would be like to have that level of connection and a part of me felt like I must be doing something wrong if I didn’t have that in my practice.

What I didn’t realise was that I did already have that in my practice. While I wasn’t crying I would sometimes have feelings of anger, frustration, happiness or fear to name just a few. I was still experiencing emotion only they were personal to me. These feelings made total sense to how I was feeling at the time. I am an open person when it comes to discussing anything painful or upsetting but when it comes to other emotions I do tend to have a habit of shutting them out.

supported-balasana-childs--pose-restorative-yogaQuite recently, I experienced one of my students getting emotional during one of my Restorative Yoga classes for the very first time. We were in a supported Balasana (Child’s Pose) which is a beautiful pose for opening up the lower back and massaging the abdominal organs. It is also a great pose to do to connect to the breath. I had only really seen students get emotional during intense hip openers so for me this was quite new. As a teacher it is very important that the students feel that they are in a supportive environment and not at all embarrassed about anything they might be experiencing. My lovely student was a very open person and wanted to speak to me about it. For her, Balasana (Child’s Pose) brought back vivid memories of how she used to lie with her ex husband and understandably this was a very emotional experience for her, particularly when we hold restorative poses for as long as 10-15 minutes sometimes. I was very proud of my student. She felt comfortable enough to share that part of her life with me, but it also showed me how any pose can trigger memories or stir up something inside of us and she was so focused on the class that her emotions came right to the surface.

distractions, tv, facebook, phoneWhen we go to a yoga class we spend that time completely focused on ourselves. No outside distractions of our phones, television, work or social media. If we allow ourselves to become completely devoted to that time on the mat, our awareness is increased and it is possible to feel things we usually ignore. If you look at it another way it has the potential to be free therapy. A path where we can completely feel how we want to feel without any judgement or criticism. 

I can understand completely why this might put people off from trying a class. Yoga by its very nature forces you to feel your emotions no matter how hard you push them down and for many people this can be a very unappealing prospect. The UK is very much associated with the phrase ‘stiff upper lip’ where great restraint is shown when it comes to expressing your feelings. I also found this to be the case when I was living in China where public emotion was quite rare.

Surely then what presents itself is an opportunity? A chance to have an experience without being directly in control of it. Scary for all those control freaks out there (including myself) but what’s the worse that can happen? So a few tears might roll out during the third minute of Pigeon pose so what? Your yoga practice is about you being in the here and now and by actively working to release tension this can only be a good thing.

When we come to class no one is feeling exactly the same so we begin our practice from very different positions emotionally speaking. The person to your left may have just had an argument with his girlfriend, the lady to your right may have just lost her cat or the person in front of you may have just won the lottery. Their starting point is different from yours and what will come to the surface will vary from student to student.

yoga, zen, sida yoga, Your mind, body and spirit are united and what happens to one happens to another. A yoga class that is well sequenced and well balanced will push you to your mindful limits and with outside distractions temporarily shelved a release is perfectly normal.

The physical sensations of the asanas will twist and bend anything that is stored up in our bodies – kind of like wringing out a wet towel. Moving and breathing creates more space allowing the energy to move more freely – almost like a mindful detox. 

This isn’t a quick process, the key to unlocking your emotions takes time if you are open to doing so. Be curious about what you are feeling during your practice. It can be absolutely fascinating as well as healing. Don’t be put off about the possibility of shedding a tear or two it’s actually a good thing. Accept yourself and remember that it is perfectly normal to feel however you feel and there is nothing embarrassing about that. 

I have included a few poses here to help with emotional connection, so if the prospect of a busy class doesn’t quite appeal just yet, you can do these poses in the comfort and privacy of your own home and not be at all worried what may come to the surface. Enjoy :)

Sun Salutations

sun-salutation-surya-namaskar-aBegin by doing a few rounds of Surya Namaskara (sun salutations) to warm up the body.

The forward folds during this short sequence will loosen the hamstrings. Forward folds are linked to letting go of anything negative or stressful you are holding on to – in particular any feelings of worry or concern. If you are new to sun salutations the diagram to the left shows the different steps. Remember to move while following the breath to get the full benefit of the sequence.

During this warm up, take the time to hold the forward folds for a couple of extra breaths and allow the release of any tightness in the hamstrings – just let go. 

Lizard Pose and Pigeon

Both of these poses are deep stretches for the hips, hamstrings and thighs and help to relax and calm the mind. If you have a knee or hip inflammation you may want to avoid this pose.

lizard, pose, sidayoga, yoga, utahan pristhasanaFor Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose) start in Downward Dog, exhale and step the right foot in between the hands making sure that your knee is directly above the ankle. Lower your left knee to the mat. If you have any discomfort in your knee you can either fold your mat to make a more padded surface or use a folded towel or blanket. Move your right foot to the right a few inches and bring your elbows down to the floor inside the right leg on an exhale. If you are having difficulty, place your elbows on a block or remain up on your hands. For a deeper challenge tuck the back toes under and lift the left knee off the floor straightening the leg and extending through the heel. Stay here for 5-10 breaths and then switch sides.

Our hips store emotions such as anger, sadness and frustration and are often tight because we tend to hold on to these feelings. To soften this tightness try softening into the pose. Do not to clench and try to allow yourself to relax and breathe into the sensations. This pose also helps to release tension in the lower back and I have to admit is one of my favourites.

pigeon, fold forward, aka raja kapotasanaFor Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose) begin in Downward Dog and lift the right leg and then on an exhale, bring the right knee to the back of your right wrist and place the shin on the front of the mat. How parallel your shin is to the front of your mat will depend on how open your hips are and how deep you want to go.

The further the heel from the groin the more intense the pose. Extend the left leg behind you and lower your hips to the floor. Keep the right foot flexed to protect the knee. Inhale and press your hands to the floor send your tailbone down and the crown of your head up to the ceiling and lift out of the lower back.

To go deeper, exhale and slowly walk your hands forward to a fold as shown in the picture. Stay here for as long as you are comfortable. I have been known to stay here in my Yin practice for at least five minutes but 5-10 breaths is a great starting point. To come out of the pose inhale and slowly walk the hands back to come up, gently lean towards the right hip as you bring the right leg to the front and give your legs a little shake before repeating on the other side. If this pose is too intense, try using a folded blanket or block underneath the hip on the side where the leg is bent as this will add support.

Seated Forward Fold and Double Seated Pigeon/Fire Log Pose

dandasana, staff pose, yogaAfter finishing Pigeon Pose on the left side your legs should be out in front of you after you have given them a little shake after the intensity of the deep stretching. Take a moment in Dandasana (Staff Pose) to centre yourself. Feel grounded in the sit bones and try not to slump the body. Sit as straight as possible using the core muscles, press the hands into the floor and reach the crown of the head to the ceiling. Hold for a few breaths. This isn’t a relaxing pose and does take a fair amount of core strength to sit up straight and not slouch.

paschimottanasana, seated, forward, foldThen, when you are ready, on an inhale raise your arms overhead and on an exhale hinge forward from the hips and take a hold of the big toes. Inhale and lengthen the spine and exhale and fold deeper to wherever is comfortable. This is your Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold). You may grab your shins, ankles or toes or use a strap to help with the lengthening of the spine. This pose is great for the lower back muscles and also stretches the hamstrings. Surrender to any feelings of worry and allow yourself to reap the benefits of this truly wonderful pose. To go deeper and if you are really flexible, you can use a yoga block placed in front of the feet and instead of grabbing the foot you can grab the yoga block, but make sure you maintain the integrity of the pose. Stay here for as long as you are comfortable and when you are ready inhale to come back to Dandasana (Staff Pose).

agnistambhasana, yoga, sida yta, fire log poseNext come to Double Seated Pigeon Pose also known as Agnistambhasana (Fire Log Pose). From Dandasana (Staff Pose) place your right foot on top of the left knee and move your left foot so it is just below your right knee and keep both feet flexed. This is a deep hip opener and can already feel too much of a challenge. If you are feeling any discomfort just stay with the legs crossed and you can also use a yoga block or folded blanket underneath your hips. Press the fingertips down and inhale to expand the chest then walk the hands coming to a forward fold. Listen to your body and do not go deeper beyond your limit. Stay here for as long as possible and then repeat on the other side with the left foot on top of the right knee and the right foot underneath the left knee.

Half Spinal Twist

After Fire Log pose take a moment to take the feet to the width of the mat and gently move the knees from side to side much like a wiper blade action. 

half, spinal twist, arch, matsyendrasana, sida yogaWe now come to Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Spinal Twist). Feel free to take your favourite twist here.  Twisting is great for digestion but also brings the focus to the liver. The liver cleans the blood and stores energy but is also linked to emotions of anger. By twisting, this action of wringing out a wet towel also squeezes and massages away anger.

From Dandasana (Staff Pose) bend your right leg and place the right foot on the floor outside your left knee or thigh. Place the left fingertips on the floor behind you, inhale and reach the left arm up while lengthening the spine. Exhale and bring the left elbow against the outside of your right knee. Inhale and lengthen the spine, exhale and twist turning the abdomen, ribs and chest whilst still keeping the length in the spine. There should be no tension in the shoulders and keep grounding through the sit bones. Remember lengthen on the inhalation, twist deeper on the exhalation. Stay here for 5-10 breaths, release in reverse order, head, shoulders and then abdomen to the front of the space, then repeat on the other side. If you find that your back rounds in this pose, place a blanket underneath your hips. You can also hug the knee rather than placing the elbow on the outside of the knee if the original twist is too intense.

There are of course other poses you can try to help find your emotional connection. You may want to try the Finishing Sequence from the Ashtanga Primary Series. Only attempt this if you are familiar with the sequence or you can try a modified version of each of the poses.

Back bends open the heart and give us energy and courage, while inversions allow us to see the world upside down offering us a different perspective and insight – a great way to purify the mind and and help calm us when life can be too much sometimes. In my own experience with inversions, I have found them to be extremely overwhelming emotionally. At first I had fear, terrified of falling flat on my face, but then I felt empowered at my ability to balance on a part of my body that was something other than my feet. A great way to build confidence if you just keep practising. Remember, it’s all about the journey not the destination :)


Vic xox

The information provided on this website is for educational purposes only and in no way represents any form of medical or physical advice. By making use of this content, you are participating at your own risk. You should consult a doctor or physician before attempting any form of exercise or poses to ensure you do not injure yourself as a result. By making use of this website, you agree that Sida Yoga accepts no liability whatsoever for any damages or injuries howsoever caused.

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