Yoga explores the physical body, the emotional body, the spirit, the mind, and how what makes up our own unique beings. Through movements and practices that work within the body to open muscles, send energy to connective tissue, and connect to the breath – the release of physical and emotional tension that is simultaneously stored occurs.
It is common during a yoga asana practice to feel a wave of emotions that seem to come out of nowhere. Discomfort and hatred towards the sensation an asana brings, overwhelming emotion such as sadness, melancholy, or uncertainty. Sometimes it is a surprising joy that can come up, as stagnant emotions are explored and released that can emit a feeling of relief like a weight taken off your shoulders.
Why is it that in pigeon pose you may all of a sudden feel a wave of emotion that you can’t explain? There is recent research revealing reasons and giving scientific backing to why this happens. Here we are exploring three reasons that could all go together in one reason, with different pieces of research that work together.
The Three Reasons:
1. Mind-Body Connection
2. Emotional Storing in the Body
3. Yoga Explores and Integrates Facets of Self
At some point, an experience led you under stress where your body reacted to the stressor, and emotional trauma was stored in your body. It does not have to be a particularly significant event that does this, it could be, but also can be the buildup of chronic tension. For example, when we get stressed or ticked off – our shoulders raise, fists tighten, jaw clenches and the tension in the body grows and accumulates.
So, where this accumulation of tension and emotional trauma is held in the body is explored within the practice of yoga. In yoga asana, the body is explored in postures that creates space, openness, compressed, and twisted that wakes up and wrings out stagnant emotional energy.
As human beings, we each have a complex system of interactions and connections between the mind and body. The mind entails immense emotions, feelings, thoughts, and ideas with the physical body’s immense ocean of physiology. When the two are working together to create a stable internal environment to interact and respond to the external world, and allow connections to be made so that the mind can accurately listen to what the body needs and the body can interact with the mind and emotional needs. These facets of our beings all work together, impacting and interacting together with the positive, negative, and in between. We can positively impact our body with our mind, and our mind with our body. This happens in ways that are physiologically measurable and ways that cannot be measured, like emotions and ideas. In this society that we live in there is an emphasis on the external world and boxes for individuals to fit into. Comparison, money, stress, and fears of inadequacy begin as survival mechanisms wired in our brains but are magnified through those societal pressures and therefore weakening or altogether disconnecting an individual’s own sense of self, leading to chronic distress and illness. This causes an inability to truly recognize what it is they want and need, and also be accepting and find contentment with whatever that may be. Which is why practices that help restore the mind-body connection are so important, and can evoke emotions that we had not recognized due to detachment.
Recent research has explored the way that stress impacts the body. Among altering white blood cell function, affecting digestion, and causing imbalances in the nervous system, stress affects us more deeply and physically than just our mood.
Dr. Candace Pert is neuroscientist and author of the book “Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine”. She declares that the body and mind are intricately linked, influencing each other down to the cellular level. Our bodies also have neurotransmitters not just in the brain, but significantly in the gut, which is often referred to as the “second brain”. Our guts have millions of microbes, more than the amount of cells that our entire body is made of, and is known as the microbiome. The way our gut is reacting to our environment, the food we eat, and the experiences within the body are directly related to the mind. And vice versa.
Emotional Storage in the Body
Emotions are stored in your body. Like muscle memory, when we feel emotion, especially emotions that are strongly experienced (like trauma), those emotions are stored in certain areas of the body. They can feel “stuck” and difficult to work, needing mindful self-awareness and patience. When we experience an emotion that is belittling, we tend to close up to that experience, causing the emotion to latch within the body to still be experienced when shaken.
Common emotions that accumulate in the body:
There are certain areas of the body that are common sites of emotional storage. Generally, these sites coincide with locations of the 7 Chakras, where the ida and pingala nadis meet. The emotional storage can accumulate, build, and become stagnant. It feels quite unsettling or abrupt when those emotions are explored because they had not yet been experienced and instead were built up and the emotion could be emphasized.
Common areas that hold emotion:
1. Pelvic Area/Hips
4. Chest/Heart Area
7. Jaw & Facial muscles
Usually, when we don’t fully experience emotion then that is when it is stored. It happens when we avoid feeling the emotion, numb the emotion, swallow it down, and deny having the emotion. Emotional storge is common with a traumatic experience, a new experience, and when an emotional experience occurs in isolation. This is our emotional body or our feeling body, that is our integrated physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects that are bridged together.
Physiologically, this is represented by the secretion of hormones throughout the body that trigger physical responses to emotion. For example, when we are under emotional stress, we still feel tension and tightness in our bodies. Our jaws clench, our fists tighten, our shoulders tense up. And that tension that is held will continue if we do not bring our attention to relaxing and releasing. As the tension does continue and grow, we can feel pain and discomfort – this can make the emotion worse. The physical and emotional stress feed each other.
When there is an emotional threat or trauma, the body acts just as it does if there is a physical threat present (like an angry mamma bear chasing you). The sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as fight or flight, kicks in and prepares your body with adrenaline and other hormones to fight or flight. And added on also in many situations – freeze. The body cannot tell the difference between emotional or physical danger when the fight or flight system is triggered. Therefore it holds onto emotional trauma similar to as it would physical.
Emotions are felt within the endocrine system and stimulate special peptide compounds to be produced and stored in the body. When emotions go unexpressed, Dr. Pert states, then they become ”literally lodged in the body.” These emotions that come up, need to be felt and acknowledged without judgment to be healed. “I think unexpressed emotions are literally lodged in the body,” Pert has said.
"The real true emotions that need to be expressed are in the body, trying to move up and be expressed and thereby integrated, made whole, and healed." Dr. Pert
As emotions are worked through and explored with the body, while uncomfortable at first, it will benefit your body and mind through the connection and release of what was stagnant.
Yoga Explores and Integrates Facets of the Self
Yoga is a practice that explores the physical body, the mind, emotion, and spirituality in a way that synchronizes, integrates, and connects these different parts of ourselves. Often with trauma, the body and mind become disconnected. Whether it is one traumatic experience or a collection of acute stressors, the storage of emotion and trauma still will exist within the body. In order to work through a stuck emotion, the connection of mind and body and all parts of the self must work together to explore. You cannot simply explore one piece without other pieces being explored. This is why it makes so much sense in a yoga asana practice, to feel waves of emotions, or deeper connections to your spiritual side, your mind, and your emotions. Yoga encourages exploration and to fully feel sensations that arise. Emotions and sensations commonly arise simultaneously. It is important in the moments of exploration to notice and acknowledge what you experience with curiosity and without judgment.
Yoga asana is a somatic exploration. Somatically, the physical body is connected to emotion and the mind through each experience. Dr. Peter Levine is a somatics researcher and trauma expert that dedicates his life to the healing of trauma. He has done research on the ways that yoga heals trauma. “Yoga has been shown extensively to be very effective with trauma because it helps to move emotion out of the body,” Dr. Levine said. “The Latin root of emotion is e-motif—to move through. Yoga is most Westerners’ first access into the felt sense of the body, and staying with strong sensation.”
It is important that when the bubbling up of emotion is beginning during exploration, to stay with the sensation and emotion, to fully experience what is happening. Notice the sensation, where it is, how it is discomforting, thoughts that arise and be sure to move slowly into the experience to not become overwhelmed. Doing so will allow the experience to be digested easily and mindfully.
How to handle emotional waves: 1. Allow the emotions to come, without judgment
2. Don’t force the emotion
3. Don’t avoid or shove the feeling down
4. Come at the feeling/sensation with kindness
5. Focus on your breath
6. Practice tense and release techniques: Inhale as you tense up the muscles of your body, tensing fists, squeezing face muscles, shoulders, torso, pelvic floor, etc. When you are all tensed up, let go with a big exhale while releasing all of the tension. Repeating several times, trying to release more tension each time.
7. Breathing techniques: Bhramari Breath, Cooling Breath, Three-Part Breath, Deep Breathing
It is very common to feel emotional during a yoga practice, and it likely can be out of the blue. Come to the emotion with openness, curiosity, and kindness. Allow the emotion to come. Imagine yourself wrapped in a warm blanket, and know that you are safe to explore the emotion and what comes. As you are open, you will begin to release the emotion that may have been building up for quite some time. Be patient and loving with yourself and remember that feeling is healing.
"Yoga is not merely an athletic system; it is a spiritual system. The asanas are designed to affect the subtle body for the purpose of spiritual transformation." Joan Shivarpita Harrigan