Emotional Release in Yoga

Tears on the Yoga Mat –Yes!                 By Denise LaBarre

The word yoga comes from the Sandskrit word for ‘connection’ or ‘union.’ A yoga practice connects awareness of the breath with specific poses (asanas), whose energetic effects bring harmony and union to the whole being. That includes body, mind, spirit, and emotions.

Because it has been around so long (roughly 1500 years) and involved so many people and cultures, yoga has evolved in many different ways. The yogic spectrum runs from an approach that treats the process primarily as physical exercise, to an approach that focuses on breathwork and chanting as the gateway for spiritual transformation. You can easily find classes in hot yoga, partnered yoga; yoga with continual movement or long-held poses; laughing yoga; yoga with chanting or without; by yourself; in a room with many others; online… There are hundreds of variations.

In some practices, the form is emphasized, in others, the effect or result is emphasized, but all include breath, positioning of the body, and awareness of the transitional connections between poses or movements, i.e. the how is generally as or more important than the what.

In my 40+ years of bodywork practice, I have seen that those with more ectomorphic bodies – those with long, slender bones and bodies and relatively little muscle or fat – need stretching, over massage or vigorous movement. They tend to accumulate tension and stiffness in their tendons and ligaments rather than in their muscles. I think of such bodies as “yoga bodies.” By contrast, those whose bodies tend toward the mesomorphic pole – those with shorter bones and bigger, heavier muscles – need movement even more than stretching. So tai chi, massage, and movement-oriented yoga practices may be a better fit for them. As a mesomorph, I am not built to do an elegant, locked eagle pose, ever and I do both yoga and qi gong for their respective benefits. Finding a practice that fits your body’s needs makes all the difference for what you stick with. The practice becomes a gift to yourself as well as those around you as it builds your centeredness.

What I’m saying here also applies to tai chi, qi gong, and other practices that bring body, mind, awareness, and breath into alignment. Breathing while moving or holding poses – especially challenging poses held for a long time – moves energy through the physical stuck spots that often hold buried emotional energy. For example, yoga’s “camel pose”, where you kneel and stretch your chest open, bend backwards and reach for your heels, is a known tear jerker as it literally opens the chest and exposes the heart.

If your practice triggers emotional release, consider yourself lucky. It’s generally healthier to release stuck emotion than carry it around because it tends to leak out unconsciously in your behavior and cause problems. The trick is to create a safe space so that release can happen gracefully.

When the Tears Start to Flow

While emotional release in a yoga class is generally acknowledged as normal, it doesn’t always feel safe and not every yoga instructor has the skill set to hold emotional release effectively. Our culture tends to characterize emotional outbursts of any intensity as unpleasant and embarrassing so it takes out-of-the-ordinary kindness and understanding to create emotional safety in a room full of people such that tears or laughter waiting for release can flow out.

It’s best if the instructor sets up the practice with a few words about emotions being welcome and how she (or he) will handle emotional release if it arises. She doesn’t need a degree in psychology or to be a high-level intuitive to facilitate this emotional healing. To hold space for potentially uncomfortable emotions, the instructor simply deepens her breath and encourages her student(s) to do the same. The idea is to bring a child-like wonder and curiosity to what’s happening. She models this by letting go of any pre-conceived ideas, agenda and judgment she might have, and expanding into the present moment.

She then gently observes and allows the body that is releasing emotions to lead the way. If she doesn’t understand something she notices, she might ask directly, “What’s going on in your body?” or “If your shoulder could speak, what would it say?” It is amazing how willing most bodies are to “speak” when given a sincere and willing ear. She creates the opening with an attitude of acceptance far more than with any particular technique.

Whether you are teaching a yoga class, doing asanas on your own, or doing another meditative practice, the thing to do when an emotion arises is to deepen the breath and sink into it even further. Adding permission for emotions to surface in your practice(s) will expand the healing possibilities immensely.

For information about Workshops on facilitating emotional release in a yoga or other healing practice, please call 808-575-2244 or go to www.healingcatalyst.com/services/workshops/. For more about this subject, see my blog post on Facilitating Emotional Release: www.healingcatalyst.com/when-the-tears-start-to-flow-emotions-on-the-yoga-mat

* This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Living Aloha Magazine

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