There was a time when seated straddle stretches would make me laugh uncontrollably.
I was relatively new to yoga and I had a partner eager to show me the ropes, to the extent of being a tad too pushy. She would rebel against my stiff, inexperienced body by making me sit on the floor with my legs wide apart as she pulled my arms forward, fighting against my unconscious instinct to stiffen and pull back, a psychological protective measure guarding me against a wall of inexplicable fear and helplessness that lay just beyond where I was prepared to stretch.
Despite my pleas for her to stop she persisted pulling, bringing me past that wall, into a storm of abject panic and horror. And having reached such a point without knowing what to do, my body did something equally inexplicable – I giggled and giggled and giggled, contracting arms and legs into a fetal position. It was as if I had been tickle tortured.
I later learnt that it had been my first taste of the emotional release that can happen when working with the physical body.
Where did all these emotions come from? Certainly the sense of fear I had experienced had nothing to do with my life situation at the time. The answer was, that they had come from deep in my past, a certain traumatic event that left an indelible mark on a malleable psyche.
Through the course of living our lives we pick up judgments, preferences, tendencies and habits that define us for who we are in the world. We also harbor guilt, resentment, anger, jealousy and regret, and we carry the countless scars of hurt and loss and sorrow.
Our lives are like a mirror which sparkles at the moment of our birth, clear and lucid with a shining perception of reality, that becomes dusty with time until eventually all that can be seen is a caked layer of dirt on the mirror and not what it reflects.
As we gather emotional content, we somehow fail to release them in a healthy manner. Instead we cling to them as if losing our painful past would somehow mean losing a part of ourselves.
This is, of course, incorrect, the origin of the mistake arising from our identification of the caked dust on the mirror as who we are, and not the mirror itself.
And so we become a cynical, resentful shadow of who we ought to be, or cower within protective walls that become our own prisons, acting out the same patterns of behavior again and again. And because our emotions are related to our energies, which are in turn linked to our physical bodies, these emotional blocks turn into energetic imbalances and ultimately physical disease.
Emotions, like anything else that constitutes our experiential world, were never meant to persist. In holding on to them, or developing complexes around them, we create stagnancy, and in the yogic perspective, all stagnancy is toxic.
Yoga, aiming for the purification of the body, has its principal focus in releasing stagnancy and toxicity in all forms, restoring the natural state of balance and flow. It does so by working with the physical and energetic body, because the connection between body, emotions and energy works both ways: just as emotional toxicity affects your energetic and ultimately your physical body, so too can you release emotions and tendencies by acting on the physical and energetic level.
Certain asanas (poses), for example, are notable for releasing specific kinds of emotion, specifically the ones that act on the hips and chest. In his book “Astanga Yoga, Practice & Philosophy”, Gregor Maehle1, for instance, noted some of his students experiencing anger when doing forward bends that stretch their hamstrings, and others feeling emotional pain and vulnerability when doing back bends that open the heart region.
Once these emotions come to the surface, it is then a matter of maintaining your equanimity with the strength of your presence and awareness in the practice. In doing so you do what Eckhart Tolle describes as “shining the light of consciousness”2 onto that which is unconscious, dissolving and releasing years of pent up stagnancy.
Never try to push this process by going too far to fast, or the giggling fit that I encountered would be the least of your worries. Remember that yoga is a peaceful practice that requires a patient attitude of gentle persistence.
Practice and practice further, being mindful of inner performance as well as outer, uniting breath with action, feeling the aliveness inside your performance, allowing your presence to follow.
Happy Easter to all and see you all on the mat!
(Picture source: “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Ludolf Backhuysen. )
- “Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy“, Gregor Maehle (2007) ↩
- The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle (1997) ↩