Dealing with Emotions in Yoga
As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I was a practitioner and teacher of Bikram yoga for many years before I started practicing Ashtanga yoga. During my Bikram yoga days, I had often heard mention of people having emotional releases in class, and had witnessed it happening in others several times myself. Personally, I’d had a few times where frustration and exhaustion from the actual difficulty of class brought tears to my eyes, or when something difficult I was presently dealing with in life made me feel weepy. While these types of experiences are valid and important, I had never experienced a release of deep, stored emotion from past experiences until I started practicing Ashtanga yoga.
I’d like to note that I find Bikram yoga to be extremely useful as a way of starting down the path of yoga. When I began the practice, I was a strong-willed athlete in my early twenties. With its intensely physical nature, Bikram yoga was the only kind of yoga I could relate to at all, and even then it was just barely. I really wasn’t ready for any deeper work of self-reflection that yoga can offer. Bikram yoga helped me work with the first layer of the body—the physical layer or annamaya kosha. I give credit to the many years of Bikram yoga for readying me to work deeper into the body-mind complex using the tool of Ashtanga yoga.
I believe one of the aspects of Ashtanga yoga that causes one to work so deeply is that the postures in Ashtanga are quite deep themselves, if you’re comparing Bikram’s Beginning Yoga series to Ashtanga’s Primary Series. With Ashtanga yoga, I found myself approaching movements in the joints and inner body that I had never worked with before.
I’ll never forget the first time I felt a true, deep emotional release with yoga, which happened about a year ago. Having only practiced Ashtanga yoga for about six months, I eagerly attended a workshop in Orlando with Tim Feldmann. During that workshop, he had us working deep into our hip joints with preparatory poses for putting our leg behind our head.
While I worked with these new movements, I started to feel some rather disgusting sensations in my hamstrings, along with a distinct sense of sadness—almost like a feeling of mourning. Right away, I connected these feelings to about a decade earlier, when I had injured my knee so badly during a wakeboarding accident that I had to get reconstructive surgery (the surgery involved severing part of my hamstrings, leaving scar tissue, with which I was now coming into direct contact). At age 20, that was the first time in my life where I felt truly weak, vulnerable, and not in control. I know this falls under the category of “first-world problems,” but to me, it was still pretty impactful.
After that injury had occurred, I wasn’t the same. I constantly felt fear and doubt when practicing my sport at the time, wakeboarding. I was constantly contending with this worry of breaking myself again, which tarnished an activity I had loved so much. In that moment when the emotions came back to me during Tim’s workshop, I realized I had never really resolved this fear and had been clinging to the feeling that I may never be physically as capable or as strong, which made me feel weak and powerless. Indeed, I could recall many, many occasions over the years where I explained my lack of knee flexion and hamstring strength as due to my surgery so many years ago.
I had a few tears over those feelings, and a sense of meeting them head-on as they surfaced… but I did not bury them again. That’s the choice we are allowed when we meet emotions through our yoga practice—a chance to deal with things head-on. This is very valuable, but may be scary at times—especially if you have dealt with something much heavier than my knee injury.
Anyway, since that time of release, I have a different outlook. I now see myself as perfectly capable of regaining strength and range of motion, and not limited by my past injury. I haven't nearly as much fear of “breaking myself” in yoga or in my other hobbies, such as surfing. But that wouldn’t have changed had I not started working deeply with my hamstrings through yoga practice. It’s clear the physical scars there were connected with the emotional ones.
Since then, I have had some brief flashes of stored emotion when working into deep postures like Supta Kurmasana (pictured below), or when a teacher has called to attention some inefficient patterns in my yoga technique and I work to change them. I am not sure what these emotions are about yet, but I know that I will understand with more practice. It can be a little daunting to do the self-examination offered by these emotions coming up, but it is extremely valuable for personal growth.
So if you are faced with some emotional release during your practice, first of all, know that it is completely normal. It’s actually a wonderful sign that the yoga is WORKING for you. I encourage you to acknowledge the emotional scar is there, even if you’re not ready to face it yet. If you keep practicing, you will at some point be ready to work through it and release it for good. What a gift that is!! I am happy thinking about all the emotional pain that yoga has allowed its practitioners to truly get past. It isn’t easy, but be brave enough to continue the work—you can do it!