Question from Sean M. in East Detroit, MI
I’ve noticed lately that my negative thoughts/feelings never come independent of a physical experience. I always feel shaky, my chest gets tight, and it’s hard to breathe. Should we try to experience our (negative) emotions as physical experiences? Does yoga help you free yourself of them?
That shaky, chest-tightening, hard-to-breathe sensation you describe is the triggering of your fight-or-flight response. This is the body’s physiological reaction to a perceived threat or stressor. The sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamus release adrenaline and other stress hormones, triggering a state of hyper-alertness. Other symptoms include dilated pupils, increased blood-glucose levels, tense muscles, and quickened pulse. Functions like digestion that are nonessential to battle may shut down to conserve energy.
Besides insuring our long-term survival by enabling our ancestors to fend off saber-tooth tiger attacks, fight-or-flight fuels ordinary people toward extraordinary actions. I know a woman who picked up a car whose tire was trapping her husband’s hand. He’d been working on the car when it slipped from the jack. Without thinking, she lifted it up and pulled him to safety. That’s the good side of fight-or-flight.
Hidden super powers are great for life-threatening situations, but this protective behavior has gotten a bit too big for its evolutionary britches. While woolly mammoths stopped charging thousands of years ago, these days merely walking down a dark street, missing a work deadline, or garden-variety anger can set off a red alert. Once triggered, the body can take an hour or more to return to even keel.
Can yoga “free” us from those bad feelings?
We’ll get to that, but first let’s stipulate that in certain situations, unpleasant emotions are an appropriate response. Facing a major loss, whether that of a family member, relationship, or even a job, grief is not only normal, it’s healthy. Feeling the depth of that loss opens the door to compassionate self-care, acceptance, and healing. So if I may take the liberty of turning your question around for a moment, yoga has excellent tools to help you to feel your feelings.
Sometimes a little stress is a good thing. A dash of extra adrenaline may help to enhance performance when we’re trying to make a convincing presentation, defend a dissertation, or finish a race. But when stress becomes a go-to response, it’s time to re-strategize. (You’ll find an interesting take on the dance between useful and harmful stress and the business case for remaining calm here.) This is where yoga comes in.
About 2,000 years ago the scholar and sage Patanjali codified ancient oral yogic traditions into a written text called The Yoga Sutras. He described yoga as an eight-limbed practice (astanga) that encompasses codes of conduct, physical practices, breathing techniques, meditative and withdrawal practices, and tapping into (non-theistic) source. These practices are intended to bring us to our highest potential.
The second of those eight limbs comprises the Niyamas, a group of five behavioral observances to cultivate. These are: purity, contentment, discipline, surrender to the divine, and, relevant to your question, self-study–svadhyaya in Sanskrit.
Svadhyaya is the act of looking deeply within to illuminate and liberate us from our human limitations. A spirit of open inquiry reveals our best qualities, as well as our unhealthy, limiting, and self-destructive patterns. Viewing the whole picture with curiosity rather than judgment helps to dispel long-held assumptions, ideas, or reactions that are built on unsound premises.
Techniques for self-study vary and can be physical and/or mental. Meditation is a great one. Observing the mind without being pulled into the act of thinking, analyzing or planning can be transformative, and the variety of techniques mean that you can find one that works for you. More active forms of self-study include journaling, painting or performing a form of physical practice. A good teacher can help you create an effective practice that resonates with you.
Areas of your self-exploration should include what’s driving your emotions and behaviors. Is there actual danger or is the stress response body’s expression of fear, anxiety or insecurity? What are your triggers? Do you have other choices in how you respond? Are those negative emotions serving a purpose or filling an unmet need?
You probably already realize that disallowing unpleasant feelings doesn’t eliminate them. They just skulk off awaiting a more opportune time to dismantle our plans via angry outbursts, disrupted sleep, or zoning out with substances, internet usage or high-fat foods. Or by creating any of the many other “obstacles” we yogis keep talking about removing.
When we stop trying to not feel our feelings and take a wide-eyed look at what is really going on, we open the door to more measured responses and less stressful days.