Adelaide Yoga Meditation Centre
The Emotional Side of Yoga

It's natural for emotions to arise during and after class, or in meditation. It's also natural to want to suppress them. A better technique is to embrace them.

The ancient practice of yoga comes with an image of a rail-thin yogi sitting at the side of a river or atop a mountain, with his foot wrapped around his head, determined to sit in the posture until enlightenment strikes. Nowhere does the image conjure sobbing into a yoga mat or flaring into righteous indignation.

Yet, the ancient sages did acknowledge the emotional context of yoga and offered many practices for understanding and balance. Just as yoga invigorates every aspect of the physical body, it helps you investigate the workings of the mind-thought and feeling. An intentional and intelligent practice of yoga can reunite all parts of you, your experiences, your memories and your essence. Yoga so effectively works on the whole person that hidden emotions are brought to the surface and surface emotions are examined with new insights.

The key is to relate to all physical and emotional sensations as they arise, investigate them, and treat them without judgment but with equanimity and acceptance.

Listen to the Voice of the Body

Emotions arise no matter where you are-at work, home, in a difficult situation, with other people or alone. One reason why you can be particularly sensitive to emotions while doing yoga postures or meditating is because you have set aside this personal time for yourself. By its nature, even in rigorous physical sequences, yoga is an integrated practice with no distinction between body, mind and spirit.

For most people it's easy to recognize a charged emotional state. Usually you can readily identify when you feel irritated, flustered, worried or happy, or any of a wide range of emotions that bring on sadness, fear, fury, or even a warm fuzzy feeling. You might have tight muscles, your breathing might be short, you feel tension in your face, your arms or other areas of the body. With intense emotions you might attempt to control the breath or choke back tears.

On a more subtle level you might have energy pulsing from the heart or navel areas. Or, you might have a sensation of tranquility, which might manifest as an overall pleasant feeling. Emotions can also seem to be brewing beneath the surface. Sometimes-and this can happen in the middle of a yoga class-feelings can bubble up from a deep reservoir of past experience. These are known as samskaras, impressions from emotional or physical traumas, memory, unconsciously held tension or imprints left behind by daily experience.

The few minutes of relaxation at the beginning of yoga class are designed specifically to calm agitating emotions. It's also the perfect moment to scan your body and mind to acknowledge an emotional state or mood. Ask yourself: Where in the physical body is the feeling most intense?

Even though emotions can manifest physically, they actually arise from the feeling part of the mind. Just as quality of attention is crucial to physical movement in yoga, quality of attention brings insight, harmony and psychological balance to consistent practice. The slow, intentional movement of yoga postures allows the mind to track sensation and learn to be present to all kinds of feelings and sensations. By concentrating on the body, you expand your ability to concentrate on the feeling. When the movements become vigorous, it's even more important to focus on internal sensations.

The Magic of the Breath

Emotions manifest in an obvious way through the breath. When you are emotionally upset, it's natural to hold the breath, breathe too rapidly, or have shortness of breath.

The breath is the bridge between the physical and the subtle. Carl Jung, the famous twentieth-century psychologist, was fascinated by many aspects of yoga. In his book, The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, he says, ". . . At the diaphragm you cross the threshold from the visible tangible things to the almost invisible intangible things. And these invisible things in anahata (the heart energy centre or chakra) are the psychical things, for this is the region of what is called feeling and mind."

The first yogic antidote to agitation is to breathe. Breath can initiate change and bring about a centred, calm mind. It generates movement, shifts energy and allows more ease in the natural flow of arising and subsiding energy and emotion. Any time you are agitated or filled with any intense emotion, take several deep breaths and observe the results.

In the full yogic breath, the breath is open, relaxed, free. The lungs, diaphragm and muscles are not constricted. With every full, deep breath, you have full access to your internal emotional experience. You also have the ability to release tension or the tendency to hold onto emotion. Long, steady, deep breaths come with feelings of relaxation and contentment. The continual practice of pranayama, yogic breathing exercises, also helps steady the emotions.

Resistance and Release

Any work with the body directly correlates to the physical and subtle energy systems. The yoga postures or movements may consistently be the same day to day or week to week but your experience of them is different every time. This alone may trigger an emotional response: Aha! I was able to hold my balance in this posture longer than I ever did before! Or: I reached farther than this on Tuesday; I'm frustrated I can't do as well today.

When you discover you have a limitation, you might experience it as the body in resistance, not being able to let go, release, relax. Is this resistance physical or emotional? Both, says Laurie Lacey, a physiotherapist and instructor of anatomy and pathology. He uses yoga therapy in the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries as well as back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia and other conditions. As a yoga teacher, Lacey draws from the Satyananda tradition of yoga. He confirms a direct correlation between your emotional state and physical performance.

"Recent research [from the Journal of Neurophysiology] has shown that fear has an inhibiting effect on muscle contraction," he says. "If you're pushed to do something, you worry. That fear means that you won't be able to do that very thing. The fear itself inhibits the action." For that reason, he recommends doing smaller or shorter parts of asanas until you are used to them, then build on them.

Most important is deliberate concentration. He says, "You can't monitor yourself well while you don't have an internal awareness, especially someone in pain. You need to close your eyes and internalise."

Yoga constantly works with the tension built up over a day, a week and years of contracting the muscles. Typically, muscles relax after a stressful event. But when groups of muscles are contracted often, the muscles can become chronically tight. Other muscle groups compensate and the body can go out of alignment. Over time you can lose the ability to actually relax some areas of the body, or forget what it feels like to relax completely. This might occur with any instance of repetitive strain, where there's an abnormal tension.

The antidote? Lacey says, "Tighten and relax, tighten and relax." He recommends this technique with any level of tension in the muscle. "If you have a muscle contracting, it physically constricts the blood vessels. This in turn reduces blood flow and reduces the oxygen, producing a cramp. You want to be able to relax the muscle before you get a cramp."

Yoga postures work on the gentle flow of contraction and expansion, resistance and release. Whether you are new to yoga or have been practicing for awhile, the movements release built-up tension and release the emotions that may be behind the tension. The old feelings and patterns fall away naturally.

Feel the Feeling

Sometimes you can attribute emotional reactions to specific personal encounters or situations-this person or that event. Or, you can identify their source as they arise, such as a specific memory. This might be enough to provide understanding and allow an intense emotion to subside. Another method is to simply say what the feeling is.

In his book on meditation, Happy for No Good Reason, Swami Shankarananda says, "A statement like I am angry,' or I am scared,' already has a great deal of truth-value. Often we do not know or will not admit how we feel. Instead, we allow negativity to become the fuel that spins a web of deluded thoughts. When we make an accurate statement like, I am angry', or I am scared,' it cuts through the illusion and brings us to the present. It is a reality check. Present feeling is always valid and puts us in touch with what is real, while thoughts can lead us away."

If you can't identify a specific emotion you can substitute a general statement, such as, "I feel emotional," or "I'm upset." By saying what your feeling is, you put the focus back on you rather than the emotion.

What happens when you put the focus on yourself in the present moment? You shift your awareness away from the mind, which might be rambling, criticizing, commenting or fueling the emotion. By being present you are in your body doing yoga postures. As you focus internally on a complete state of being-physical as well as in the mind-you move into the awareness of your own creation. You are creating that moment for yourself.

Keep It Simple: Raga and Dvesha

The great yogi Patanjali wrote his classic Yoga Sutras more than fifteen hundred years ago. They are a series of guidelines for a variety of yogic practices. One recommendation is to work with an essential tendency of the mind, the impulse to comment, I like, I dislike, which can escalate into more intense emotion. He says, "Attraction that accompanies pleasure is raga. Aversion that accompanies pain is dvesa." This straightforward approach can help you clarify your emotional state in any given moment. Translate raga, attraction, into I like, and dvesha, aversion, into I don't like. You can apply this as you go through any series of yoga movements. For example, in a simple application such as stretching, your muscles might resist at first and you might say I don't like how this feels. Then, as you relax into the posture, the muscles relax and you might respond, I like this sensation.

By making these simple statements you again place the emphasis on you rather than the feeling. The key is to resist the temptation to place a value on the feeling, whether physical or emotional, that one kind of feeling is "bad" while another is "good."

When you drop judgments about feeling, you open up the possibilities of allowing any feeling to arise for any reason. Judgments themselves create resistance: I shouldn't feel this way. I don't want them to see me cry. Yoga is supposed to be calming. Why do I feel so angry? It helps you to trust and accept your own feelings, whatever they may be.

Laya Yoga: Dissolve the Emotion

Yoga also presents the opportunity to work with emotions until they are dissolved. The ancient text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika says, "Mind is the master of the senses, and the breath is the master of the mind. The breath in its turn is subordinate to laya (absorption).

Laya yoga is the practice of absorbing thoughts and emotions until they dissolve into contentment and satisfaction. When you are focused on your body in a yoga posture, for example, you might be concentrating on a group of muscles or the alignment of your body. Focus your mind on where you might be feeling the emotion, such as the heart, or focus on the resistance in your muscles. Feel the physical feeling. If you have an emotional context, identify it, or just feel it. Pull your attention inwards, past the thoughts of the mind into a meditative state. Imagine dissolving the resistance.

At any moment in a yoga class-or any time in daily life-you can practice withdrawing from the external and physical while being entirely present and having your muscles completely engaged. You might want to focus on the physical, such as how a part of your body feels in a certain position. You can also concentrate on the mind by using a mantra or reaching the stillness between thoughts. Emotions themselves can be the vehicle as you consciously imagine one feeling dissolving and being replaced with another, more pleasant sensation.

Move into Balance

Simply bringing in awareness counteracts tension. How wonderful when you move into a posture and your muscles relax. Your body seems to melt into the floor. You feel comfortable, calm and gentle. As instruction is given, you move without strain, doing postures consciously and deliberately.

When you give yourself permission to get to know what your emotions are and how they feel, you are in a state of forgiveness and acceptance. The result is a positive influence on biochemistry and an improvement in overall condition of health. Balance has a deeply restorative impact on the entire system.

Yoga asanas are designed not only for physical health but also for spiritual transformation. The practice of yoga binds together the seemingly separate aspects of countless thoughts, fluctuating emotions and an onslaught of sensory experiences. As you deepen your practice, you deepen your experience of your strengths within. Feelings can turn into expanded experiences, thoughts into insights, physical movement to connecting to universal consciousness.

As in all practices of yoga, the exercises are adapted to individual abilities. Everyone starts from where he or she is. Everyone can participate. Everyone can study how the body, animated by yoga movements, holds and releases emotion. And everybody can experience how the body has a role in serving our inherent need for harmony.

Abhinavagupta, a great yogi of tenth-century Kashmir, wrote many texts on the practice and philosophy of yoga. He says, "A yogi attains freedom from the effects of all passions. Even if such emotions appear in a yogi, these cannot touch his inner self shining beyond all diversity of mental and physical existence."

For Further Reading

  •  Jung, C.G., The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1996.
  • Moseley, L., P. Hodges, M. Nicholas, "Fear of Low Back Pain Changes Anticipatory Postural adjustments," Journal of Physiology, 2002
  • Pandit, B.N., transs and notes by, Essence of the Exact Reality or Paramarthasara of Abhinavagupta, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Dehli, 1991
  • Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood, trans. with commentary, How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, New American Library, New York, 1969.
  • Shankarananda, Swami, Happy for No Good Reason, Shaktipat Press, Mt. Eliza, Victoria, 2004.
  • Sinh, Pancham, trans., The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, , Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Dehli, 1975.
  • Yue, G. and K. Cole, "Strength Increases from the Motor Programs Comparison of Training with Maximal Voluntary and Imagined Muscle Contractions," Journal of Neurophysiology, No. 67, 1992


Contemplate the opposite

The ancient yogi Patanjali states, "When the mind is disturbed by improper thoughts, constant pondering over the opposites is the remedy." For example, contemplate plentitude to counteract jealousy (desire), contemplate serenity to calm irritation, or contemplate strength to overcome feeling powerless. To shift the feeling physically, try yoga postures that stimulate the opposite of how you might be feeling.


Yoga Asana

To Develop

Warrior Pose, Virabhadrasana

Courage (opposite of fear)

Tree Pose, Vrksasana

Harmony (opposite of feeling off-balance)

Sun Salute, Surya Namaskar

Energy (opposite of depletion, depression)

Triangle Pose, Trikonasana

Openness (opposite of being judgmental, stubborn)

Seated Pose, Siddhasana

Stability (opposite of restlessness, nervousness)

Boat Pose, Navasana

Strength, (opposite of melancholy, self-pity)

Lion Pose, Simhasana

Honesty, joy (opposite of resistance to speak)

Downward-Facing Dog, Adho Mukha Svanasana

Submission (opposite of anger)

Cobra Pose, Bhujangasana

Determination (opposite of worry)

Legs-up-the-Wall Pose, Viparita Karani

Acceptance, relief (opposite of outrage, exasperation)

  Copyright 2005 Nancy Jackson (Swami Dayananda)