Twist. Inhale. Stretch. Exhale. Contort. Sweat. Inhale. Stretch deeper. Exhale.
For many people who come to yoga, they come because they want a workout. They want to be more physically fit. Perhaps they were recommended to take yoga by their child, or a friend. Maybe they might even find a cute yoga partner, who may ask him or her on a date? The reasons are endless why yoga brings people to its ancient asanas.
In honor of International Day of Yoga (or, World Yoga Day, June 21st), a proclamation of the United Nations to “raise awareness worldwide of the many benefits of practicing yoga,” I want to focus on strongest among the benefits from yoga–the effects on our emotional well-being. By deepening your understanding of the mechanisms in place, you will hopefully gain a greater appreciation for the boundless ability to strengthen the body and mind, together.
Yoga and Emotions: Body and Emotions Are Connected
As you are likely aware, your body’s and emotional well-beings are connected. If you hurt yourself physically, you will feel a flood of negative emotions. If you heal and engage your body, you will have a surge of positive emotions. In this way, yoga is for the body and through the body, yoga affects emotions. This is the case with almost any physical exercise routine, since the body floods the brain with all kinds of chemicals to trigger these responses.
However, it is with the yoga that body toning, prayanama (or breathing techniques), and mindfulness training come together. You manage not only what the body is doing, but what the mind and emotions are thinking and feeling along the way.
Yoga and Emotions: Building Emotional Resilience
As your body stretches and you breathe, you’re training yourself for resilience. Have you ever been in a yoga class and your yoga instructor calls out the next pose? You bend into position, and you struggle to maintain it. A question pops into your mind: when will she end this position so I can relax? And, yet, nothing. She continues to leave you in that pose. It feels like an eternity. (It was only 30 seconds.) She directs you to inhale and exhale once more. And, finally, she calls the next pose, you release into the next pose, and sigh from relief.
That was an exercise in building resilience. Each time you’re putting into a micro-stress moment and you endure and then triumph, you’re teaching your emotions that you’re in command. Over time, this breaks its way into parts of your life in remarkable ways. When your boss yells, when the kids cry from being denied candy, or when that cab driver cuts you off on the road, you turn to your yoga training. You take a pause, breathe in deeply, exhale deeply, and weather the emotional storm. You stay in control.
Yoga and Emotions: Emotions Talking to the Body
This brings us to a greater point about yoga, emotions, and the body. In essence, you teach yourself through yoga to feel the emotions that arise in your body. And, by doing so, your awareness grows to learn what emotions feel like. Every emotion has a physical response. We are so frequently rapt in day-to-day activities, that we rarely know what we’re feeling more than a vague sense of good, or not.
For instance, right now, is your stomach tight? How are your shoulders? If you tense them and then relax them at this moment, do you feel a sense of change in yourself? There was an emotion there. What emotion was that? Do you know how you were feeling, be it anxious, excited, upset, or another emotion?
Through yoga, we start to overhear the conversation our body is having with our emotions. With that dialog, we can then identify what those emotions are and be present with them. Many times, simply acknowledging an emotion allows us to enjoy it if it’s positive more deeply, or let the emotion go if it’s negative.
If you haven’t experienced this level of emotional connection with your body, that’s quite alright. You’re not alone. And, even at the start, every little bit can make a profound effect on your overall well-being. All it takes is starting!
If you think you might enjoy having greater connectedness with your emotions and body, I invite you to take the next week as an opportunity and a challenge to take a yoga class at one of many area events. And, if you do, let me know how the experience was; I’d enjoy hearing from you about your experiences with yoga!