Last summer, Danielle Pagano hurried to her favorite yoga class feeling rushed but happy. Everything was fine until it came time to relax into Balasana (Child’s Pose) just before the end of class. With her head bowed and attention focused inward, Pagano, a 33-year-old vice president of an international investment company, began to cry. She spent the next few minutes struggling to contain herself, and wrote the experience off to exhaustion. When it happened again the following week—this time earlier in the asana progression—she was stunned.
What had at first been a relaxing hour for Pagano had become a stressful obligation. She realized that something significant had happened, but she refused to return to class until she felt confident that an emotional upheaval wouldn’t occur again. Not comfortable talking with her yoga teacher about it, Pagano skipped class for a couple of weeks, choosing instead to discuss the incident with her therapist.
Though Pagano didn’t know it, her experience is a common one, as are the concerns it raised for her: Was something wrong with her? When would she be able to stop crying? What did the people around her think? And why did this happen in yoga class and not, say, while she was eating lunch or taking a walk?
It’s a Good Thing
“The holistic system of yoga was designed so that these emotional breakthroughs can occur safely,” says Joan Shivarpita Harrigan, Ph.D., a psychologist and the director of Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care in Knoxville, Tennessee, which provides guidance to spiritual seekers. “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. People enter into the practice of yoga asana for physical fitness or physical health, or even because they’ve heard it’s good for relaxation, but ultimately the purpose of yoga practice is spiritual development.”
This development depends on breaking through places in the subtle body that are blocked with unresolved issues and energy. “Anytime you work with the body, you are also working with the mind and the energy system—which is the bridge between body and mind,” Harrigan explains. And since that means working with emotions, emotional breakthroughs can be seen as markers of progress on the road to personal and spiritual growth.
That was certainly the case for Hilary Lindsay, founder of Active Yoga in Nashville, Tennessee. As a teacher, Lindsay has witnessed many emotional breakthroughs; as a student, she’s experienced several herself. One of the most significant occurred during a hip-opening class. She left the class feeling normal, but during the drive home became extremely upset and emotional. She also felt she’d experienced a significant shift in her psyche—something akin to a clearing of her spirit. Lindsay felt, as she puts it, released. “There is no question that the emotion came out of my past,” she says.
By the next day, her opinion of herself had taken a 180-degree turn. She realized she was a person who needed to constantly prove herself to be strong and capable, and saw that this was partly the result of an image instilled by her parents. Her spirit actually needed to recognize and accept that she was a proficient person and ease off the internal pressure. This realization, Lindsay says, was life-changing.
Not every spontaneous emotional event is quite so clear-cut, however. Difficult and stressful breakthroughs occur most often when the release involves long-held feelings of sadness, grief, confusion, or another strong emotion that a person has carried unconsciously throughout his or her life.
“Whenever something happens to us as a kid, our body is involved,” says Michael Lee, founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, which is headquartered in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts (see “Therapy on the Mat,” below). “This is particularly true of trauma. The body comes to the defense of the whole being. In defending it, the body does things to stop the pain from being fully experienced.
“Emotional pain is overwhelming for small children, because they don’t have the resources to deal with it,” he continues. “So the body shuts it off; if it didn’t, the body would die from emotional pain. But then the body keeps doing the physical protection even long after the situation has ended.”
Painful experiences, Lee adds, can range from small, acute ones to intense, chronic problems. Still, the mechanism at play is unclear: “We really don’t understand the body-memory thing,” he says, “at least in Western terms.”
The Body-Mind Connection
In yogic terms, however, there is no separation between mind, body, and spirit. The three exist as a union (one definition of the word yoga); what happens to the mind also happens to the body and spirit, and so on. In other words, if something is bothering you spiritually, emotionally, or mentally, it is likely to show up in your body. And as you work deeply with your body in yoga, emotional issues will likely come to the fore.
In the yogic view, we all hold within our bodies emotions and misguided thoughts that keep us from reaching samadhi, defined by some as “conscious enlightenment.” Any sense of unease or dis-ease in the body keeps us from reaching and experiencing this state. Asanas are one path to blissful contentment, working to bring us closer by focusing our minds and releasing any emotional or inner tension in our bodies.
Though the ancient yogis understood that emotional turmoil is carried in the mind, the body, and the spirit, Western medicine has been slow to accept this. But new research has verified empirically that mental and emotional condition can affect the state of the physical body, and that the mind-body connection is real.
Many doctors, psychotherapists, and chiropractors are embracing these findings, and are now recommending yoga to help patients deal with problems that only a few years ago would have been viewed and treated solely in biomechanical terms.
Hilary Lindsay recently experienced this firsthand. “I woke up one morning with my body completely distorted,” she remembers. “I went to see a chiropractor, who told me plainly, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you physically.’” The doctor suggested she try a Phoenix Rising session, which she did. The practitioner put Lindsay into some supported yogalike positions on the floor. “He did not focus on anything more than, ‘Here’s this pose and how does it feel?’ I would say something; he would repeat my word and say, ‘What else?’ until I would say there was finally nothing else.” The therapist never analyzed or discussed what Lindsay said, but still, she felt he helped her to see her problem.
“When I drove off on my own, I realized my words had just painted a clear picture of my approach to life,” she says. “I saw a power-driven maniac who was probably in the process of driving herself nuts.”
As the day went on, she felt physically healed, and attributes that to the emotional outcome of the session, which the asanas helped her access. In other words, she was able to release the distortion in her body only by releasing her inner tension.
“I did not have any repeat of the symptoms,” Lindsay adds, “and I felt the calm that comes with knowing yourself a little more than you did before. The awareness does not occur like the lightbulb over the cartoon guy’s head. It doesn’t come ahead of its time. The student has to be ready to receive it.”
Forcing the Issue
Teachers are divided as to whether it’s productive to actually try to raise difficult emotions on the mat. “One shouldn’t really try to have an emotional release during asana, but if it happens, that’s fine,” Harrigan says, voicing what seems to be the majority opinion.
Ana Forrest, founder of the Forrest Yoga Circle studio in Santa Monica, California, is an experienced yoga teacher who has had her own emotional breakthroughs both on and off the mat. She is proud of her intention to push her students toward—and through—their own emotional blockages (see “Poses That Push You,” below). “It’s not that I push with my hands,” Forrest explains. “But when I work with people, I really ask them to go deep, and I educate them along the way. I tell them, ‘You’re going to hit what’s stored in there. Let it come up and be cleansed out of your cell tissue. It’s a gift of the yoga.’”
At the beginning of each class, Forrest asks her students to “pick a spot that needs extra attention, so you can connect to that spot and then feel what emotion is connected to it.” For example, when a student tells Forrest she’s just had her heart broken, Forrest offers this advice: “Challenge yourself to make every pose about moving energy into your heart.”
Her approach has worked well for many students, she says, but it’s not without controversy. “People challenge me on this all the time,” Forrest says.
Richard Miller, Ph.D., a yogi and licensed psychologist, says trying to cause an emotional release is a subtle form of violence, because it suggests that “you need to be other than you are.” A true yogic view focuses not on change, he argues, but on self-acceptance on the student’s part. “In that way, change and spiritual growth will unfold naturally,” he says.
Miller, who is also a contributor to The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy, a collection of essays by meditation practitioners and psychotherapists, stresses that it’s important for teachers to neither comment on nor try to “help” a student through any release. “The moment we become helpers, we become hinderers,” he says.
Forrest, however, believes that “most people need help with this, as our culture doesn’t educate us on how to work in a healthy way with our emotions,” and that without assistance, many people will remain stuck. Students trust her, she says, because of her own traumatic past (which includes sexual abuse, she openly shares) and her experiences working through emotions. “I’ve had years and years of therapy,” she says. “I’ve still got twisty places inside of me, but I know how to accept and work with whatever memories need to come up.”
Forrest tells her students, “I’ve walked the road you’re on; I’m just about 10 miles ahead of you. But I still have a road to walk. I’m not enlightened, but I know what it is to have my spirit directing my actions.”
And it’s not just the student who learns from the teacher. Forrest says that through her students, she has grown from having “an emotional range of about four inches to a larger capacity—but there’s always a lot of room for breakthrough.”
Teardrops on the Mat
When a breakthrough does occur—even if it’s much-needed—it can be hard for a person to cope with it. “If there is a release of emotion in a particular asana, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra [II.46-49], the thing to do is relax into the pose, regulate the breathing, and focus on the infinite to become centered in the deepest aspect of one’s self,” Harrigan advises.
Harrigan thinks teachers should encourage their students to find a comforting and inspiring word or mantra to turn to anytime during class and to correlate with their breathing. “This is a centering device that is always at the student’s disposal, no matter how or when the emotional release occurs,” she says.
“I also recommend that people taking a hatha yoga asana class keep a journal of not just the physical experience but what goes through their minds and their emotional states,” Harrigan adds. “This way, they can consider the spiritual aspect of their lives very consciously.”
When a student is facing a welling-up of emotion, the most powerful action teachers can take is to simply offer him or her quiet support. “I would teach the teacher not to judge the event but to observe it with the discriminate buddhi [wisdom] faculty,” Harrigan says. In this way, teachers can help their students disidentify with the feeling but use it later for self-study, either in yoga class or out—as Danielle Pagano did with her therapist. It is always wise, Harrigan adds, for teachers to be on t—e lookout for students who might benefit from a referral to a psychotherapist.
It’s important for students to use their buddha minds too, and to get help when they need it. Whereas Lindsay felt released and was easily able to process her feelings on her own, Pagano knew she needed to talk with someone. There are times when a good therapist—as opposed to a good yoga teacher—is the right choice, agree all the teachers interviewed for this article.
Better yet, says Richard Miller, is a combination of the two approaches. “Some therapists don’t have an understanding of the universe as a oneness; instead, they often believe they are helping their clients to have better lives by supporting them in achieving certain goals or resolving specific issues,” he says. “Meanwhile, yoga teachers who speak only of hamstrings or Pigeon Pose are not communicating a true yogic view of enlightenment or inner equanimity.” The truth, Miller concludes, is that “we are not here to try to change ourselves. We are here to meet ourselves where we are.”
Asanas are not prescriptive for emotional issues in the same way they can be for issues in the physical body. But most of the yoga teachers interviewed for this story agree that some poses seem to initiate emotional responses more than others.
“Camel, hip openers, and lunges” Ana Forrest suggests. “Camel because of its immediate impact in exposing the heart, hip openers because they tap into the vital feelings stored in the area, and lunges because there’s a lot of unchanneled potential and power in the thighs.” Twists and backbends can also trigger an emotional release.
However, what works for one person may not work for another. You cannot demand release and expect a response, although you can certainly, as Forrest asks of her students, listen to your body and discover where it needs to untie an emotional knot. If your heart feels heavy, if your stomach is constantly in turmoil, if your inner child needs comforting, you can create an asana and Pranayama program specifically for your condition, the same way you might practice inversions or balancing poses if you want to challenge yourself physically.
As a longtime devotee of both the therapy couch and the yoga mat, I was curious how the two blend together in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy.
Michael Lee created Phoenix Rising specifically to help students cope with emotions. It combines assisted yoga postures, breath awareness, and nondirective dialogue based on the work of Carl Rogers, in which the therapist acts as a sounding board, repeating much of what the student says to allow her to stay with her own train of thought.
Lee drew inspiration from his own encounter with emotions on the mat in the early 1980s. He was living in an ashram where morning practice took place each day at 5:30. “Every day for a year and a half, the guy on the mat next to me would get about one-third of the way through class and begin to sob profusely,” Lee remembers. “Some people found it disturbing. One day, I said to him, ‘What’s going on?’”
“I don’t know,” the man answered. “I just get overwhelmed by sadness. I try to hold back a little so I don’t bother people.” It turns out that he had been experiencing these intense outbursts every morning for 10 years.
“The guru had previously instructed the man to just stay with his practice, because he believed his emotions would work themselves out through asana alone,” Lee recalls. “But even back then, I thought the experience required a more integrated approach.”
Lee talked with the man extensively about his experience and, in helping him, created Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. He launched the program at the DeSisto School for emotionally troubled teens in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1986, building on his background in group dynamics from the psychology movements of the 1970s. (Lee is not a licensed psychotherapist.) Practiced by yoga teachers, bodyworkers, physical therapists, and psychologists, the method aims to bridge the gap between body and mind. Unlike traditional therapy—which might focus on eliminating a phobia or improving a skill, such as communication between spouses—Phoenix Rising sessions focus on helping people recognize their own body’s wisdom and get to the source of emotions that may be causing aches and pains, physical or otherwise.
I wanted to experience the method for myself, so I turned to Carol S. James, one of 1,012 Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioners around the world. We began by talking on a couch, where James asked me about my health, state of mind, and background. After telling her about a few things that were troubling my mind on that particular day, we moved to another area in the softly lit room, where we sat facing each other on a large, puffy mat. James asked me to focus on my breath, which brought me into the moment and allowed me to begin to talk.
Throughout the session, she moved me into very gentle supported poses (backbends, forward bends, and leg stretches), almost the way a personal trainer might stretch a client at the end of a workout. She asked me to tell her more about my thoughts, and repeated many of my words. The session sounded something like this:
“I feel sad that I’m 40 and alone.”
“You’re sad that you’re 40 and alone.”
“It’s surprising. I didn’t expect this to happen.”
“You’re surprised. Tell me more about that.”
And so on, until I found myself leaning back, physically, directly onto Carol and telling her more—a “more” I had never gotten to before.
The experience of physically leaning on someone while revealing myself to the person was one of the most profound I have ever had. During my session, I felt a connection to my deepest self, the self that is at peace. The combination of discussion and touch was sweet and deep.
At the end of the session, my heart was as open with love toward myself as it had ever been. The emotional breakthrough was not traumatic but physically and spiritually enlightening. I hate to glibly paraphrase Bob Dylan, but I truly felt released, and as Richard Miller said, I met myself right where I was, with love.