The yoga studio I go to has different teachers that teach classes for students of all levels. It is unusual, as there is a mix of advanced students and beginning ones in the same class. Last week, one of the teachers had us do a lot of planks. This is a core building exercise that requires the yogi to hold the pose as if doing a pushup – at the top of the pushup – sometimes for several minutes. After the class, I had a discussion with another student about all of the planks. “It’s not that the pose is physically hard to hold for that long,” she said to me. “It’s that my mind has trouble holding the pose.” It was a curious comment. What is it about doing something painful that is hard? Why do we have trouble pushing through the sensation?
In this post, I want to discuss how one holds emotions in the body. Emotional healing is an important aspect of physical healing, and an important part of my practice. But how do we release emotions? Why do they come out at times when we don’t expect them to appear? This is an aspect of my medical practice that fascinates me, and the answer isn’t clear. The simple answer is, when the person is ready. There are many techniques to release this storehouse of emotions, and we can explore some of them.
I think most people would agree that stress is held in the body. It’s something that one can feel and experience. Many people feel the effects of a long day at work in their neck or shoulders. But there is a deeper issue that can happen where trauma and grief are stored in the body. I have worked with many patients who have discussed this phenomenon as part of their work with me. Many report breaking down in tears while exercising as something shifted within their body. Emotions stored are released as part of the healing process.
How do we access these emotions physically? Candace Pert was a molecular biologist who studied the mind-body connection. She discovered that the body synthesized tiny molecules in response to difficult emotions. These get deposited into various places in the body. She and other scientists proposed that the body is a storehouse of unconscious thoughts and feelings. All of the things that have happened to us are stored in our bodies in response, regardless of whether we recall them or not.
Yoga and Emotions
Why is yoga so helpful for clearing negative emotions? Yoga, as an exercise, focuses on three things: movement, breath, and awareness. These three components play out in many of the techniques used to release emotions. When most people think of yoga, they are thinking about the exercise. Yoga is actually a series of practices that include Hatha Yoga, a series of poses. These poses are either done individually or in a sequence called a vinyasa. Each pose, or asana, has a specific breathing rhythm associated with it. The transitions between asanas also have a breathing pattern. There is a synchronization between the breath and the movement. The breath is part of the ritual and allows for a cleansing of the mind, body, and emotions. The practice requires awareness and focus. One may become aware of the places that are stuck and painful.
Many yoga teachers say that yoga begins when one wants to move out of a pose or quit. Bringing attention to the discomfort can help release the pain. The awareness requires non-judgement. It is what a Buddhist would call “Mindfulness.” Mindfulness is awareness without struggle. It is pure acceptance of what is. It is about being with what is true for you in that moment. You accept the feeling, the pain, the experience. And by doing that, the discomfort magically begins to soften. It is as if we have given our bodies permission to let go.
Emotional Healing Therapy
Yoga is such a wonderful metaphor for the process of letting go. I suspect that many people benefit from yoga because there is a visceral experience. You can feel where you are stuck and release that tension. You feel the struggle in your body. For example, let’s say you’re trying to stretch your hamstrings. There’s a quality of softening you must embrace to do so. Otherwise you are just tearing at the muscle fibers. You learn to let go.
Doing this on a psychological level, though, isn’t always as easy. This is because we have a different type of block called a “defense.” We still have the same struggle. It’s just happening in our minds. Psychologists tell us that we have defenses for a reason. We build defenses as a way to protect ourselves. They may be hiding trauma, abuse, or shame. We create them because at the time they form, we don’t have the emotional capacity to process what is going on. The defense becomes a part of us and we begin to identify with it. It is analagous to the tight hamstrings. We don’t remember when the last time the legs were loose.
To move around defenses, psychologists have created various methods. Emotional healing techniques allow us to access these parts of ourselves. Talk therapy helps us see our defenses. We gain greater awareness and can change our typical response. Other techniques focus not so much on the spoken word, but some sort of visceral release. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a technique that helps patients process trauma. Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT uses a self-tapping pattern while recalling a specific event. Both of these techniques appear to allow for the body to reprocess the events on a cellular level.
While we don’t always recall the specifics, release of the event is possible. These methods suggest that there is a connection between our minds and our body. Memories are stored in the body and accessed through the brain. But the use of these techniques allows us to move around our blocks. We don’t always have to recall a specific incident. (Although both the above techniques require one to do so.) A specific event isn’t always recalled while doing yoga. It arises out of the breathing and the movement.
In my medical practice, understanding this is crucial, as so many people come to me with anxiety. Very often, anxiety strikes and is free floating. There is no easily identifiable event or experience that one can identify. Focus on the past is less important. Focus on the present is key. It is where the defense lives. It is where the body lives.
A method that I use in my office works on a different principle of mind-body connection. HeartMath is a form of biofeedback that uses heart rate to help the user relax. It’s more than relaxation though. It helps the person see on the screen how their body reacts to different types of thoughts. Calming thoughts help bring the body in a state of coherence or where different systems in the body work together. Negative thoughts bring the body out of coherence. Watching this on the screen allows the user to learn to breathe better to gain more coherence. HeartMath works by helping the user stay in the present and notice subtle changes in their body.
Emotional healing during yoga is a great illustration of a mind-body connection. The body remembers even if we don’t. But there really isn’t a distinction. Our body knows, and it keeps track. From the mild aches and pains we feel getting up in the morning to full-blown disease, our bodies remember.