Holding onto a lot of anger, stress or anxiety? Then it might be time to unroll your mat. Yoga can help to release pent-up emotion stored in the body, as one writer has been finding out.
They say that it’s common to cry in yoga. If you’ve ever been to a class and felt totally dry-eyed, that might be hard to imagine. And if you’re not an overly emotional character, then the idea of letting it all go in front of other people while in downward dog probably sounds like a mercifully unlikely nightmare.
But it really does happen.
After eight unsuccessful attempts to have a baby through IVF, I threw myself into building my career instead of dealing with emotional fall-out of such a sad situation. Imagine my surprise then, 14 years after our first IVF attempt, when I found myself quite literally moved to tears during and after multiple yoga classes. Sometimes these tears even fell when, on the surface, I was feeling quite happy and relaxed.
I’d spent many hours hiking and training in the gym before trying out yoga and I’d never experienced a well of emotion like this. At times the tears would fall silently – for around a minute – and then I’d be fine again. While I’d used emotions like anger to propel me to hike further or lift heavier weights, I wasn’t prepared for the shock of feeling such intense emotion while practising yoga, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for it to happen regularly. So, I decided to try to find out why.
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“Why does yoga make me feel all emotional?”
The scientific research and the conversations I had with a range of professionals regarding my emotional outbursts shared one common theme: our body’s ability to store emotions.
As I tried to make sense of this, I recognised that all too often we spend our time trying to get rid of difficult emotions like anger, sadness and anxiety, instead of questioning why they are there. In our efforts to overcome these emotions, they end up being pushed aside, and according to some, if they aren’t properly expressed, they can remain trapped in our bodies.
We store more emotion in our bodies than you might think
Holistic chiropractor Dr Bradley Nelson claims in his book The Emotion Code that emotionally charged events from our past can haunt us years down the track. He believes that these ‘trapped emotions’ can create physical aches and pains in the body.
Norwich-based health kinesiologist Monique Thapar explains that the body can store positive and negative energy from our day-to-day experiences, which can lead to us feeling physically and mentally well – or not.
“Using indicator muscle testing as a communication tool, we can allow the body to guide us on where and how to release tightness at a cellular and tissue level,” Thapar tells Stylist. “While we may have a very good idea consciously where there is an issue, things like muscle memory helps to guide us on a subconscious level where there may be concerns.”
There is a school of thought among some yoga teachers that some asanas (or yoga postures) and sequences can help to release stored emotions. These yoga teachers refer to tight hips, jaws, shoulders and the neck as potentially being an indicator of not only stress but also trapped emotions.
While we can easily blame the tension in our bodies on activities such as sitting at a desk, scrolling through our mobile phones and driving, sometimes it feels as though the tension comes from carrying the weight of the world.
If we think about how we can feel guarded when experiencing difficult emotions, it makes sense that we contract different parts of the body to protect ourselves from being hurt further. According to yoga teacher Jay Johal Davies, it is these constant contractions that can cause the body to store emotions.
“Research suggests that our emotions are electrochemical signals that carry messages throughout the body and are then either expressed, experienced or stored in the body and mind, where they can influence the cells in our bodies,” Davies tells Stylist.
“The symptoms of traumatic stress, for example, can manifest physically because the brain associates an area of the body with a particular memory – often on a subconscious level.
The hips and back are the key areas for pent-up emotion
In my case, there were specific movements in yoga that released deep emotions that I didn’t even know I was holding onto in my body.
Take the backbend, for example. The movement is counter-intuitive to our typical posture of sitting forward when typing, texting or driving. In yoga, backbends are often referred to as “heart openers” – an apt name when we consider that emotions may have remained dormant around our hearts simply because of our lifestyle choices. The same can be said of hip-opening postures that move the hip in a range of motions that far exceed those of simply sitting.
After 45 minutes of bending, stretching, tightening and tensing muscles in new ways, it’s unsurprising when we come to relax that our emotions are more likely to show up. For yogis, this is usually during savasana (corpse pose) at the end of the class.
You might feel nothing. Or you could start crying, feel angry or experience the urge to laugh. The workout lowers our guard and we become both physically and emotionally vulnerable. This doesn’t just occur in yoga, of course; whenever we are deeply immersed in doing physical activity (such as running, for example), we might feel intense emotion.
Running for an emotional release
Scottish-born ultramarathon runner Thomas Watson tells Stylist that once you get into runs that are longer than 40 minutes, which is also around the time when the so-called “runners high” kicks in, releasing emotions is particularly common.
“We so often carry our emotions and anxieties in the form of chronic tightness, which can be worsened if we sit for most of the day,” Watson said.
“Getting our bodies moving is a definitive state change which can be a break from the postures that trap us and are a release from the tension we’ve accumulated in our daily routines.”
The power of yoga in releasing emotions
But why was it yoga and not, say, all of my strength training that caused this outpouring of emotions? The answer perhaps lies in the environment that yoga offers rather than the yoga postures themselves.
“Yoga offers time and space to reconnect with our bodies; moments where participants pause throughout the class to set intentions – to feel, think and reflect,” Davies adds. “Students are encouraged to not only bring their bodies to their mats but their mind and hearts also; to pay attention to feelings in the body and mind, labelling these and then reflecting on them afterwards.”
“Breathwork should also be considered,” Thapar contributes, “as when you breathe into those areas of tightness and tension, that’s really powerful and can involve an emotional release and shifts in energy.”
Additionally, yoga offers its participants a sense of community whereby the activity isn’t focused on competition but on being in unity with others and the self. This environment provides a feeling of safety that can be conducive to emotions being easily expressed.
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Having realised that my tears were a result of both my environment and the movements that yoga provides – and that this isn’t anything abnormal – I felt a sense of relief. Somehow, I’d found an outlet for the anger and grief around my failed IVF attempts, which went deeper than traditional talk therapy allowed. Movement had finally helped me to release the last vestiges of grief.
It looks like I may be practising yoga for some time though, with life throwing a curveball recently with the passing of my grandfather, auntie, a close friend and my 14-year-old dog. While in the space of six weeks I have moved from crying to laughing in yoga, most of the time I’m simply moved to the point of pure exhaustion or relaxation, depending on the class. Even on those days when no emotions arise, I am extremely grateful for the range of physical and mental health benefits that movement provides.
For more wellbeing and yoga stories, visit the Strong Women Training Club.
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