Moved to tears

EVER FOUND that opening the heart, or hips, opens the floodgates too? In the March 2015 issue of Australian Yoga Life  I explore the unexpected emotional responses many of us experience on the mat.

I gently fold my torso over in Pigeon Pose  and feel the familiar burn in my hips begin to build. Other sensations nudge me too. A catch in my breath. Hot wet heat behind my eyes. It’s as though a wave gathers force, breaking over me, submerging me, tossing me like a rag doll. All I can do is to surrender, and cry. I’m mortified by the tears which continue as though an underground spring has been undammed and embarrassed at the curious glances I’m now attracting from others in the class. But I’m nonetheless fascinated what’s unfolding, and soothed by the sense of healing it brings.

After class, the sense of release, and repair, and relief, remains. And later I learn, through tentative conversations with students and teachers, that crying during yoga class is far from uncommon. “It happens all the time,” says Kate Pell, principal teacher at the Bowral Yoga Studio. “Every day, I’ll be handing round the tissue box.” It seems there is something about the safe, supportive space created by the four corners of a yoga mat that facilitates deep emotional release.

I also learn that hip-openers, including Pigeon Pose, Reclining Bound Angle Pose, Reclining Hero Pose and Happy Baby, can be particularly potent when it comes to eliciting emotional responses. Michaela Griffiths-Leese of Brisbane’s Urban Yogi suggests this is because women tend to hold emotions in their hips and pelvis. Postures which involve deep stretching in this area can thus “bring lots of emotional release”, she adds. Science hasn’t given us any physiological reasoning for this emotional reaction to date, but as myself and many other people have discovered, it does happen.

Dualism defined

Perhaps it should not be surprising that motion unleashes emotion. Writing in his Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes (1596-1650) introduced the theory of dualism in which the mind and the body are two distinct entities – an enduring theory which persists within Western thought today. But, as practitioners of yoga ultimately come to understand, body, mind and spirit are one. It is impossible to act on the body alone. And so a physical activity which often attracts people keen to improve their balance, flexibility or strength, usually evolves into a more expansive endeavour. “The training of your mind and the consequent exploration of consciousness is the main event,” writes Duncan Peak in Modern Yoga.

Contemporary research is coming around to a similar view of the inseparable body-mind. One study published in Psychosomatic Medicine (2009), and replicated numerous times since, examined the three-dimension gait (walking) patterns of 14 psychiatric inpatients with major depressive disorder. Compared to a group of never-depressed participants, the depressed patients showed marked differences in their gait – namely, reduced walking speed, arm swinging and vertical head movements combined with larger lateral swaying movements of the upper body and a more slumped posture.

Related research suggests it’s a two-way street: shifting posture can change one’s thinking. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1984 showed that individuals forced into a slumped posture had reduced motivation and less feelings of control. Another study required participants to hold a pen between their teeth – contracting the zygomaticus muscles involved in the production of a smile. Participants with pens between their teeth rated a series of cartoons funnier than participants who did not contract their zygomaticus muscles. Such findings have definite echoes of yoga master BKS Iyengar’s assertion that yoga poses which emphasise lifting and opening the chest counter depressed mood states.

Even more fascinating is the burgeoning literature on “embodiment” which explores the intricate, reciprocal interactions between bodily, cognitive, and emotional processes. A 2012 study published in Mindfulness considered the emergence of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and its usefulness in treating depression and other disorders. “Mindful contact with the body is not just a means of coming into contact with avoided and negative emotional patterns,” the authors write. “Rather, the body is or can be a valuable positive resource and the place where people—while practicing mindfulness—can experience deep states of calmness and joy.”

Dark places

My last full-time office role involved working on a daily basis with men and women who had just been released from prison and were subject to continuing supervision orders. I was struck by how many of them moved stiffly – with their tight hips, stiff shoulders and rigid necks, they shifted position as though their bodies were encased in a brittle exoskeleton. “Penitentiary style training”, as it’s sometimes dubbed, designed to build up muscle mass in an environment where violence is an ever-present threat, was no doubt a contributing factor, at least among the blokes. Yet in listening to the many stories of these remarkable, resilient people, something else became apparent too.

Many prisoners bear unfathomable histories of trauma and abuse. The evidence for this is not just anecdotal. For example, a 2004 survey released by the Australian Institute of Criminology showed that 87 per cent of women prisoners sentenced for drug- or alcohol-related crime across six jurisdictions were victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse in either childhood (63 per cent) or adulthood (78 per cent) and that most were victims of multiple forms of abuse. What’s more, according to criminal lawyer and CEO of Sisters Inside, Debbie Kilroy, more than 50 per cent had been in care as children and around 25 per cent had previously been imprisoned in a juvenile detention centre. Their biographies were reflected in their bodies.

While scientific evidence for the beneficial effects of yoga on conditions including psychosis, high blood pressure, stress hormone secretion, asthma and back pain, has emerged in the past decade, only recently has yoga emerged as a potentially useful tool to help manage trauma. No psychiatric journal had published a scientific study of yoga for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) until Bessel van der Kolk and his colleagues at the Trauma Center at the Justice Research Institute in the US published a paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2014. It revealed that yoga reduced PTSD symptoms to the same degree as talking therapies and medication. “Yoga may improve the functioning of traumatised individuals by helping them to tolerate physical and sensory experiences associated with fear and helplessness and to increase emotional awareness and affect tolerance,” the authors note.

David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, authors of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, agree that yoga can help build “distress tolerance” by increasing an individual’s capacity to manage uncomfortable physical and emotional sensations. Yoga may also promote healing through its gentle but insistent focus on the present, expressed through breath work, meditation or asana instruction. For example, the authors suggest practitioners can overcome the “numbing” that frequently accompanies trauma, by exploring the subtleties of simple, powerful asanas like Mountain Pose (Tadasana). “One helpful instruction for us has been, ‘Maybe there are some things you can do to help you feel your feet on the ground, like move your toes, or gently tap your heels’,” they write.

Researchers still don’t fully understand the mechanisms by which yoga facilitates emotional release. One theory is that emotions too powerful to process at one point in time will retreat, for days, months or even years. But eventually, when an individual feels secure, these emotions will re-emerge, seeking to be reckoned with. It may also be related to the way in which memories are stored not only in the mind, but in the body. Writing in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, van der Kolk notes that traumatic memories cause the rational brain (the frontal lobes) to relinquish control and the emotional brain (the limbic area and brain stem) to take over.

As a consequence, van der Kolk adds, traumatic imprints are thus not encoded in coherent mental narratives, but rather “fragmented sensory and emotional traces” which can be reactivated and released during a yoga practice. This is adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, say Emerson and Hopper. “In the face of an imminent threat, each of these responses (fight, flight, freeze, submit) is adaptive and is designed to help us avoid, escape, or cope with dangerous situations,” they write.

Relax and release

Yoga helps us relinquish the ties which bind us to everyday worries too. I’ve noticed students who rush into class, their shoulders tense from workday woes, clearly relax when we practice a pose like Wide-Legged Forward Bend. The relief is palpable, especially when accompanied by a verbal invitation to sigh, or groan, or moan, and to let the day’s troubles metaphorically slide off the shoulders. Others arrive, bracing their shoulders and hunching their backs as though protecting their heavy hearts from further assault. I’ve noticed they may be reluctant to engage in heart-openers such as Camel Pose, Upward Bow (Wheel) Pose and Fish Pose (Matsyasana) which invoke an immense sense of physical and emotional vulnerability. However, when practised with equal parts courage and self-compassion, such asanas can be profoundly healing.

Resting poses may also invite powerful emotional states because of their still contemplative nature. I’ve shed tears in resting poses including Child’s Pose and Corpse Pose because, I suspect, when the body is still, the mind has nowhere to hide. Sometimes, too, emotions can well up in the aftermath of practice. Kathryn Jakeman, of Calma Yoga in Brisbane’s western suburbs, said one of her students reported having to pull over onto the side of the road after finding himself in floods of tears on the drive home from class – not once, but twice. “I had to explain that emotional release like this does happen and it does frighten people when it happens for the first time,” Jackman explains. “Yoga loosens the body and allows people to let go of emotional knots as well.”

While recognising that emotional breakthroughs do occur on the mat, it’s unwise to enter any practice with a grim determination to open old wounds and “deal with my shit once and for all” (as one student pronounced). It’s preferable that such release occur spontaneously and thus safely. Indeed, in my experience, strong and long-buried emotions tend to emerge only when one has the capacity to process them. Expecting or demanding or trying to hasten the process fails to observe the yamas of ahimsa (non-violence, including to oneself) and aparigraha (non-covetousness). Equally, where serious psychological issues exist, it is recommended yogis seek professional help off the mat as well.

And if the emotional outpourings are coming not from you, but the person on the next mat? One of the most supportive things you can do, as a teacher or fellow student, is to bear witness to their tears, without becoming engulfed by them. To recognise the courage it takes to surrender in a culture that prizes self-control. To acknowledge our shared vulnerability. And if all else fails, pass the tissues.

DENISE CULLEN is a Brisbane-based freelance writer who is also a qualified yoga and swimming teacher. She is completing fourth year psychology studies, conducting research into the prevalence and nature of psychopathic personality traits in business leaders. Visit her at www.denisecullen.com.au or www.onemilemedia.com.au.

The above story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Australian Yoga Life. Profound thanks to those who assisted with its preparation.