If You’ve Ever Cried During Yoga, You’re Not Alone. Here’s What Science Suggests Happens.
How contemporary research and ancient tradition explain the unexpected emotional release.
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I don’t recall the first time I cried on the mat. Probably because it’s happened so often that it feels like such a normal part of my practice.
When I returned to yoga postpartum more than a decade ago, my body was a wreck from carrying twins who arrived prematurely, three months to the day after my mother passed away. Depressed and grieving, I cried on the mat as well as off.
My grief was the obvious cause for those tears. But my crying on the mat hasn’t always been because of sadness. Or even anything I can easily discern.
On days when my body feels like it’s made of cement and my breath feels stuck, my tears speak to frustration. Other times, tears of release sneak out in a hip opener or a forward bend. Sometimes the prolonged surrender in a Yin pose or the almost hypnotic state I find in yoga nidra elicits tears of unknown origin. More often, the tears come in Savasana. And, at times, the tears are because a perfect storm of elements—the pose, the vibe, the music, the words of the teacher—resonate so deeply.
Yoga possesses the uncanny ability to unlock our feelings, even the ones we don’t know we have. Teachers tend to explain the resulting tears by saying we store emotions in our bodies and that our practice can release those feelings.
What yoga teachers say about crying during yoga
“I remember being curious when a yoga teacher said we store our ‘issues in our tissues,’” says yoga teacher Ellen Mosko, who has taught Yin Yoga classes for nearly 20 years.
A common explanation often given by teachers is that we accumulate mental and emotional tension in response to everyday life, and those experiences linger in our bodies. As we settle into the rhythm of our practice by intentionally slowing our breath and aligning it with the movement of our body, we shift from the sympathetic nervous system (known as the fight, flight, or freeze response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming rest and digest response).
In this more relaxed state, the theory goes, muscles and connective tissues release physical and other pent-up tension. “Students begin to access these ‘stored’ emotions on a subtle level when both body and mind are relaxed and mindful in a yoga class,” says Mosko.
And this can bring up…stuff.
What science says about crying during yoga
The belief that emotions are stored in the body is also present in psychology. In The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist and trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk relates observations from his 30 years of research in neuroscience and clinical therapy with trauma survivors. According to Van der Kolk, there is an intricate interplay among our mental, physical, and emotional response to trauma.
His observations led him to believe suppressed emotions eventually manifest as physical symptoms, and he began to explore nontraditional treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including embodied movement such as yoga and certain forms of athletic movement.
Although not all tears are related to acute or chronic trauma, Van der Kolk’s research offers tremendous insight into the relationship between our emotions and our bodies. In particular, about the potential for suppressed emotional tension to be released through certain forms of movement, including the practice of yoga.
How your breath may be related to your tears
Although the exact mechanics of how yoga, in particular, can elicit an emotional response are not understood, research and anecdotal evidence suggest that the breath plays an integral role in unlocking our emotions.
“From my experience teaching tens of thousands of people for 27 years, I can say for certain that breathing patterns are the way in,” says Max Strom, an author and breathwork teacher whose Tedx Talk on the breath has drawn 3.5 million views. “A way in beneath the armor we wear for protection. It is the quintessential tool for emotional healing.”
Based on his conversations with neuroscientists, Strom says it’s not yet known how exactly breathing and emotions interact, and exactly where in the brain and body this happens. “We do know that the nervous system is in every part of the body, and it’s where we experience our emotions,” he says.
And there’s no question that the breath can and does calm the body by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. When we breathe slowly and in tandem with rhythmic and embodied movement, which yoga teaches us, there seems to be a measure of natural intelligence at play. “Crying is not a problem to be fixed,” says Strom. “Crying is genetically encoded.”
What to do when tears happen
“There could be many complex reasons why you might experience tears in yoga class. It could be pent-up emotions. It could be the only time you’ve had in days to slow down, feel, and process your emotions. It could be the movement-induced release of hormones, which can affect your emotions,” explains Melissa Renzi, a yoga teacher and licensed social worker.
As a yoga teacher…
“We can’t assume the cause of someone’s tears,” says Renzi. “But yoga teachers don’t need to know the cause in order to teach with trauma-informed principles.”
That begins with not trying to “fix” the situation for students. In his trainings, Strom suggests teachers hold back for a couple of minutes before approaching a student to offer support or a tissue. “If you go over to them prematurely, they may pull back and stuff everything back down again,” he says.
According to Strom, students are often afraid to allow themselves to feel what’s inside, let alone release it. In fact, he continues, we often expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to repress our feelings under the mistaken belief that if we release them, they will destroy us.
Instead of approaching students, Renzi has a different approach. “I prefer using supportive language that emphasizes that all emotions and experiences are welcome,” she says. “I also cue a lot around choice, by inviting students to pause or move or choose an anchor point such as the ground or a sound that they hear.” This brings students back to the physical reality of the moment and might return them to a sense of safety.
But crying may not, in fact, feel safe for some people. “Being vulnerable can feel—and actually be—unsafe for people of color and LGBTQ+ folks,” says Tamika Caston-Miller, a trauma-informed yoga trainer. “Historically, being vulnerable has led to harm for QTBIPOC folks. Asking for them to be unarmed and open with you can be a big ask of trust. Have you built that?”
What Caston-Miller has found to be especially powerful for traditionally marginalized people is “when a yoga teacher is able to create a container of safety and allyship.” This is achieved over time and includes welcoming and witnessing students and creating a space where they are respected as they are.
The “freedom to exist honestly” that Caston-Miller says comes from being in an affirming class can be transformative. “It can lead to moments of letting go of holding all of our feelings—our rage, our despair,” she says. Creating this affirming relationship over time can help teachers support those who are consciously working through systemic and developmental trauma, she explains.
As a student…
If you’re a student and find yourself starting to cry, try not to panic. Although it can feel uncomfortable or even embarrassing to cry in a yoga class, it’s completely normal. There’s no need to suppress your emotions or feel ashamed of them.
“When you do yoga, which is the combination of breath and movement, even a simple alignment can shift things. And suddenly your energy just flows,” explains Todd Norian, founder of Ashaya Yoga, a heart-centered yoga practice. Norian suggests you approach your tears through “the three Cs.” Namely, curiosity, compassion, and courage.
Observe any emotions you are experiencing. There’s no need to pressure yourself to understand why you’re crying or feeling a certain way. Simply notice the feelings.
Give your feelings space and try not to resist whatever emotion you’re experiencing. No judgment. This can help normalize processing any emotions that come up for you.
Researcher, storyteller, and author Brene Brown has spent the last two decades exploring courage, vulnerability, and shame. As she explains, vulnerability is an act of courage. It’s okay to allow yourself to be real. In fact, it’s essential.
Having a good cry in class may be exactly what you need to release pent up tension and frustrations. It can release some of the heaviness attached to those emotions.
If difficult emotions linger, however, consider consulting a licensed therapist who can help you work through them. Your yoga teacher is not equipped to help you resolve past experiences, no matter how knowledgeable or kind. Yoga’s role may be to bring awareness to what may need further exploration rather than provide resolution. And, perhaps, to understand how the lesson of slowing your breath, especially your exhalations, can help you experience emotions on the mat.
In my case, I believe that if I hadn’t become accustomed to moving pain through my body, it would have stayed stuck there. I have come to rely on the mat as my own little rectangular island, a space where I can process life’s challenges—whether I cry or not. Something always shifts there, even if I don’t necessarily know what it is. I just know that I usually feel better.
Regardless of what science can or cannot explain, I think Strom’s reminder helps us understand why. “The goal is not to tie ourselves in knots. We’re already tied in knots,” says Strom. “The aim is to untie the knots in our hearts.”
About Our Contributor
Carrie Havranek is a food and wellness writer, yoga practitioner, and Reiki master living in eastern Pennsylvania.