You’d be surprised by the things people ask a yoga teacher. Other than the usual questions about what pose is good for x or I have this funny thing… I get a lot of questions about anger. It seems more and more people are coming face to face with their anger on the mat and they’re seeking advice because they think it’s un-yogic and they need to stop.

I remember the first time it happened to me. It took me by surprise. I thought yoga was meant to relax me. It was supposed to chill me out. So why was I getting so angry and pissed off in my class? It started with getting hot and bothered. Then I lost the connection to my breath. Everything was annoying me, including the sound of someone else’s breath and the sounds outside of the room. I wanted to punch someone. This inner rage was burning to the surface, and I had no idea why.

And then there were other times where the confluence of the poses, the music and the teacher’s words created a feeling of overwhelming sadness, and I cried in yoga.

Where was all this coming from? What was wrong with me? Yoga was supposed to feel good.

I’d often heard yoga teachers talk about trapped emotions in the body and thought it was a load of crap. Now I know better, I think that maybe they didn’t explain it well or perhaps I didn’t want to hear it.

So now that I have a better understanding of the effects of yoga, coupled with my own experience, I’m in a better position to explain the phenomenon of getting emotional in yoga.

Feelings and emotions

They aren’t the same thing. They are similar but have a difference. Emotions occur in the body; feelings occur in the brain. Feelings arise after the emotion is sensed, and feelings are the mental story we wrap around our emotion. According to Neuroscientist Damasio, emotion is a physical response in the body (heart rate, posture, muscle tensing, facial expression). In contrast, feelings are the mental representation of the physiological changes that occur during an emotion.

Emotions as energy

Emotions aren’t out there; they’re inside. In your tissue, in your cells. Pretty much every thought we have has an emotional charge to it, either positive or negative. There are few neutral thoughts. When thoughts trigger an emotion in the body, it is via our brain chemistry, our hormones and our nervous system. A physical change occurs in the body. Psychologists know that our posture can influence our emotional state  (Riskind & Gotay). Yogis believe that the physical body reflects what’s going on in the mind and vice versa and those emotions are energetic changes in the body. Energy in motion. Yoga is based heavily on the concept of energy, specifically prana or life force energy. The word yoga means to unite mind and body and the ultimate goal of yoga, achieving Samadhi, is the experience of enlightenment and oneness when our consciousness merges with the divine.

How does yoga stir up emotions?

The practice of yoga is one of purification. Purification of the body, purification of the mind and purification of the spirit. As you undertake the process of yoga, you will notice your body respond. Once the body is clear, then yoga deals with the emotional and mental stuff that was lurking behind your physical stuff.

This clearing or unravelling occurs in stages – maybe you’ve noticed this happening to you?

Initially, we practise yoga because it feels good, and our body responds with fewer aches and pains, more energy and feelings of wellness. This is just the start.

Then we inevitably reach a point in our practice where we get angry or bored, we want more, or we feel our practice isn’t giving us enough of the feel-good stuff that we’re seeking. This is when most people stop or stagnate. They think it’s the teacher and go looking for another class. They feel that maybe yoga isn’t the magic fix it’s slated to be and stop. THIS IS WHERE THE REAL YOGA BEGINS. This is where yoga becomes personal. It gets into you. And that may be confronting.

When I reached this stage, it was like hitting a wall. WTF? How come I don’t feel good anymore? I’d enjoyed releasing tension and stress from my body and freeing up energy, and I was comfortable with not dealing with my issues. Paradoxically, the more I tried to hide from my dissatisfaction, the more it came up. The more I suppressed my frustrations with life, the more frustrated I became. Anger, sadness, grief, disappointment, shame – you name it – it was rising out of nowhere. What happened to my beloved yoga? It used to be my refuge, my escape. Now it was making me feel like shit.

At this point, I shifted from practising exercise yoga to practising authentic yoga. I found a wise teacher who had experienced all this. She said it was ok. She said all was well. She encouraged me to let myself have these emotions instead of continually stuffing them away. She talked about the yoga mat being a sacred space. She talked about surrender and letting go of control. It was then that my focus shifted to what was happening inside my body, rather than the shape I was making. Then the penny finally dropped, and it all made sense (I love it when people have this realisation after years of practice. They finally get it.)

The process of yoga works from the periphery to the core, from the physical body to the innermost core of our essence. Yogis describe this map in terms of the five Koshas or bodily sheaths that must be peeled back for us to experience supreme bliss. The five koshas are:

  1. The physical body
  2. The breath body
  3. The emotional body
  4. The mental body
  5. The bliss body.

The initial focus of yoga is the physical body (this is what I term exercise yoga, just going through the motions), then we learn to harness the breath, then we release emotional patterns, then we develop insight and awareness into the workings of the mind. Finally, we experience that inner sense of bliss, when our consciousness that arises from beyond the mind merges with the universal/supreme/divine consciousness.

What happens in the mind is felt in the body, and what happens in the body is reflected in the mind. Releasing blocked energy can be like a surge or a flood of emotions. It may arise out of nowhere and seemingly overcome you. This is energy being released from your cells. The body has holding patterns or bracing patterns which are coping mechanisms for dealing with emotional pain. We clench the jaw when we’re angry, our shoulders hunch up to our ears when we’re stressed, our posture shrinks when we’re depressed, our pulse increases when we’re anxious. All of that emotional memory is stored in the body, so when we open up the chest or release the shoulders, we’re letting go of these holding patterns and releasing blocked energy. And in releasing the energy, we release the accumulated emotions with that energy. Just like when you take the kink out of the hose, water comes rushing out.

If you give enough space for your emotions to rise up, they pass. They aren’t permanent. They aren’t bad. You don’t need to direct your rage at the teacher, the person next to you or yourself, you need to let it come to the surface and dissolve. That anger or sadness isn’t happening to you, it is in you. You are not anger, you have anger. Feel anger rather than be anger. Watch the anger rise up and dissipate.

Another explanation of emotional release in yoga relates to our acupuncture or meridian lines. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, each of our major organs is associated with an emotion. Each of these organs has an associated meridian or energy line. Yoga poses that stimulate these meridians are known to elicit a certain emotional response. Poses that trigger a strong emotional release are Dragonfly and Frog which stimulate the liver meridian which is associated with anger; and Pigeon pose which stimulates the gall bladder which, when out of balance, is associated with anger, frustration and resentment.

Also, it’s natural for challenging poses like headstand to induce fear. Backbends release fear and can make us feel vulnerable. Twists are good for releasing a blocked solar plexus, hence great for releasing anxiety and boosting confidence. Forward folds are calming.

Your yoga mat is a mirror for the soul

When strong emotions strike in yoga it can be easy to blame the teacher but it’s not me, it’s you. I may joke about this in class, but it’s true. You’ve got issues in your tissues.  It also means that your yoga practice is working. Ask yourself “what is this?” Stay present to the sensations as you continue the process of self-inquiry.

As for me, I was numbing out and avoiding a lot of stuff in my life and wasn’t really feeling anything. Then yoga kind of opened the flood gates to all my trapped emotions.  I feel stuff now instead of just being stuck in my head. And even though the emotions can be strong, uncomfortable and unpredictable, it’s better to come out in the safe environment of the yoga room instead of taking it out on your boss (trust me on that one…)

Yoga has also helped me regulate my emotions. If I woke up in a bad mood, I would carry that bad mood all day and let it influence all my interactions. Now I can see my emotions, how they influence my feelings and I question it. What is this? Where did this come from? Is this real? And I can honestly say that this ability to regulate my emotions has been a godsend when dealing with emotional crises.

Inner Space – the final frontier

Once the emotional baggage is cleared from the body, then we’re better positioned to work on the mind through meditation. Most people tell me they can’t meditate. If you’ve been to one of my Yin classes, then guess what? You’ve been secretly meditating. Meditation is like a vacuum cleaner for the mind. Sucking up all the debris and leaving the mind clear and spacious.

There is a real and perceptive shift that occurs in people once they learn to make the distinction between themselves and their thoughts. And once this happens, there’s no going back. It’s like you’ve switched the light on. I had no idea about the constant narrative in my head, the constant storytelling and justification. But who was I talking to?

It turns out that I was wasting so much mental energy on irrelevant and unnecessary stuff. I would narrate my day. I would explain things to myself. I would replay conversations. I would make up stories. Why?

This was my first experience of my ego. Ego in yoga means the separate entity, the internal ‘I’, the inner voice that never shuts up. The ego is what we must overcome to experience Samadhi, the highest goal in yoga. Overcoming the ego requires awareness. Maintaining vigilance over the inner critic or inner judge. This is the real work in yoga and meditation is the best tool to avail yourself of in your dealings with ego. Overcoming ego is a life journey. It’s not something we do once. I’m still working on this one…

Yoga has the potential to transform our lives. But let me be clear, the change won’t be your bendy body, it will be internal. It will be how you feel about yourself and others. It will be in your relationship with yourself. It will be in your mind and your attitude to life. It will be a shift in perspective, which may just be a miracle (Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love).

So when you notice the gloss of your practice wearing off that’s the call to go deeper. It’s a sign that you’re ready for the next step.

Are you ready to go deeper into the emotional and mental realms of yoga? The doors to Yoga Alchemy are closing soon.