By Charlotte Watts – first published in NHS Magazine November 2010
When going to a yoga class it is all too easy to simply get caught up in what this can do for us physically, without considering the mental, emotional and psychological benefits. In fact one of the first tenets of yoga as written in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - the foundation of all modern yoga – is the intention to balance and settle the mind.
This is a tough call in our highly stimulated 21st century lives – we are used to constant input, from light, sound, TV, traffic….. To protect ourselves we often put up barriers, shut down channels and create personas to cope with these demands. All this avoidance of being still and continually distracted by external stimuli can have the effect of exhausting us physically and mentally. We can feel that we have to just keep going and be expected to cope with what are very challenging circumstances for our brains.
Personally I began yoga as a form of emotional release. At a time in my life when I was riddled with anxiety, depression and insomnia, I felt the need to learn to live in the present, as I was ricocheting between angst about the past and worry about the future. I don’t think I was this aware at the time though - I may have phrased it as ‘helping me cope with stress’, ‘opening up my body’ or to ‘giving me more strength’. But through learning to breathe more freely, let go and listen to my body’s needs I found that my mind became less chatty and I began to find some space and peace.
Anyone who has decided to come to a yoga class has very possibly recognised the need for emotional release on some level, even if they don’t articulate it as such. Instinctively we know that opening the body and breathing freely can only help us mentally. Letting go of emotional baggage is a continual process that demands time and practise; we can learn to more quickly tune into that as we become more adept at breathing, meditating and practising yoga postures (asanas) in a calm and easy manner. This can feel quite difficult, even uncomfortable at first and bring up strong feelings – from anxiety, to irritation and even the release of anger as we move stagnant stuff outwards. This is powerful stuff.
In the area of emotional release it is important to note that we are not just referring to ‘bad’ emotions here – this is not a judgement call. Like stress, emotions just ‘are’, it is how they affect us or how we react to them where problems lie. Holding onto even the most benign emotions, such as unhealthy love or attachment can damage and limit us. Yoga looks to allow all of our emotions to exist, but helps us simply observe them and watch them go, just part of the natural ebb and flow of our selves.
The true source of anxieties, depressive cycles and fears often lies in what we can or can’t control and to what extent we try to control this. Many of our conditioned habits, negative coping patterns and excessive behaviour patterns are built to large proportions, resulting in reliance on alcohol, sugar, shopping, TV, anger, anything to feel some sense of control. Practising yoga with awareness and subtlety can offer us a break from this vicious cycle and an opportunity for acceptance of what we cannot affect.
Allowing ourselves to breathe freely is the antidote to all of these demands. Yoga is one of the few activities that if practised mindfully, can actively engage the calming branch of the nervous system. Then by fully releasing the out breath we can bring the body down from the stress of ‘doing’, slowing heart rate, breathing and releasing muscles. If the body is calm the mind will follow and you can feel some respite from the constant chatter - a welcome relief in a busy and sometimes overwhelming world.
Find emotional space in a yoga class:
1. Don’t worry about what the person next to you is doing – yoga is non-competitive and is really doesn’t matter how far you can bend. Yoga is an internal practice and we can use any distraction to avoid being with ourselves.
2. You’ll see that you can ‘progress’ in poses most when you switch off your brain and simply stop trying. In this way you allow your body to open and your ‘doing brain’ can have a rest. Being content where you are is an important part of the practise.
3. Whenever you feel tension arising or find a pose challenging, take a deeper inhalation to signal a deeper releasing out breath and then follow as many as these as your body needs to settle your mind.
4. ‘Be here now’ – stay focussed and attentive, every breath counts and is an opportunity to let go of stuff that doesn’t serve you well.