Yoga is known to help with emotional regulation, resiliency, and stress management. However, we avoid discussing distressful reactions that take us by surprise. These types of situations are similar to sleepless nights, when we are simply too distracted to relax. Other times, an ordinary movement or breathing technique triggers muscle spasms, discomfort, heart palpitations, shallow breathing or tears. Complex emotions abruptly surface as anger, agitation, grief, sadness, uncertainty or fear. Those tough moments buried in our minds suddenly scream for acknowledgment. Meanwhile, the inner judge nags:

Why now? 

Where did this come from?

What am I doing wrong? 

This is embarrassing!

What’s wrong with me?

Get control of yourself!

Difficult emotions and self-flagellation collide. The “monkey mind” is messing with your practice.

Chronic stress, loss or trauma challenge our capacity to cope. While we normally relish challenges as learning opportunities, arduous circumstances may leave us feeling overwhelmed. So we do what we need to survive the rough patches. We might develop suppressive techniques, like:

  • Make ourselves busy so we “don’t have to think about it.”
  • Shut down.
  • Develop distractive or self-destructive habits.

Consciously or unconsciously, our minds literally “run away” using avoidance tactics. When the body can’t “run,” the primitive brain finds symbolic ways to do so. If left unresolved, these thoughts can seep out as moodiness, irritability, insomnia or body pains. For others, they progress into chronic body pain, addictions or impromptu, overpowering emotions.

Difficult emotions and self-flagellation collide. The “monkey mind” is messing with your practice.

This reminds me of a time I was practicing yoga at home. While working with an energy throwing technique, I felt a swift surge of emotions. Forced breaths morphed into colorful language that would make my mother blush (not something I’d recommend in a class). The feelings were urgent and overwhelming. I needed to expel these emotions out of my body and the deepest parts of myself. I shook, tensed, released, threw, and twisted. The thoughts, “relax, trust, let go,” popped in my head. Words, tears, and gasps shifted into silence, flowing movements, and deep, soothing breaths. I surrendered into “dancing warrior,” repeatedly bowing and releasing.  I didn’t stop until my body and being felt “enough.” What started like a storm surge shifted into waves of poetry in motion.

These emotional discharges aren’t that surprising. As we ease into mindful movements, our minds and bodies relax. We cast aside that harsh inner judge for self-acceptance. When we are subconsciously ready, these trapped emotions stored in the body may subtly seep out – or erupt to the surface. The body and mind proclaim, “Let it go.” When words fail, the body exquisitely expresses itself through movement and breath. We’re taming the monkey mind, freeing ourselves from self-appointed prisons of shame, guilt, anger, and pain.

If you experience emotions during your practice, let them flow without judgment. Notice your breathing. Are you holding your breath? If your breath is shallow, shift it into relaxing, deep breaths. Replace negative inner dialogue with positive affirmations. Notice your bodily sensations. Where are you tense? Can you relax? It’s okay if you struggle — this is part of a process. Move. Throw energy, find a pose or dynamic movement that allows creative self-expression, cry. Embrace your vulnerabilities and the courage it’s taken to reach this moment.

When words fail, the body exquisitely expresses itself through movement and breath. 

Yoga, the merging of mind and body, lacks judgment. Through our breath, movement and intention, we celebrate our abilities and strengths. Once we relinquish old inner dialogues, we experience more joy, happiness, gratitude, and peace. It’s all a part of the yogic guidelines we start to live by: Nonviolence toward self (ahimsa), non-possessiveness/letting go (aparigraha) and training our senses (tapas). We discover our inner-warrior — free, brave and strong.

Post Note:

If you experience strong emotions during your practice, notice if you’re trying to hold them back. How? Are you tensing your body, holding your breath? Let them flow. If you’re too tense to relax, focus on your breathing. Take long, deep, breaths. If you’re in a class, it’s okay to say “I need help” or “I need space.” Yoga teachers with this type of experience will honor your privacy. Give yourself time to process and appreciate this experience. When you are ready to center yourself, meditate. Use soothing breath or centering techniques. Do not drive until you feel centered.

If you need further emotional assistance, check with your mental health provider.

Further Reading:

Hunsberger, Maren. 3 Scientific Reasons You Get Emotional During Yoga Practice. DoYouYoga.

Little, Tias. 20 July 2017. Working with Difficult Emotions in Yoga. Yoga International.

Walton, Alice G. New Studies Support Yoga’s Potential Role in Treating Depression. Forbes.

van der Kolk, Bessel, PhD. 2015. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

Weintraub, Amy. Crying on the Mat. Life Force Yoga.

Yoga’s Ethical Guide to Living: The Yamas and Niyamas. Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.