Have you ever had a big emotion rise up during a yin yoga class?
Did the experience take you by surprise?
Have you ever felt angry during a certain yoga posture and had no idea why?
And was there a strong urge within you to stop this emotion in its track and hold it down?
Or was it able to subside slowly in its own time?
Big emotions stored in the body can be stirred up during yin yoga.
You might even find yourself crying without any understanding of why?
We are learning more about the body all the time, especially in the realm of how traumas, big emotional events and memories can quite literally get stored in our cells.
In a yin yoga class we intentionally pull on the tissue of our body to give it a healthy stress, so it stands to reason that emotions stored in those tissues could very well be dislodged, re-triggered, or even helped to clear out.
I recently interviewed the lovely Alma Brock (almabrock.com.au) for a podcast episode on trauma in the body, and somatic practices that can be helpful for nervous system regulation. We spoke at length of polyvagal theory and how we can be supportive of our own nervous systems when teaching classes or working with clients.
One of the interesting topics she shared was the difference between what happens to animals vs what happens to humans when our nervous systems kick into sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) mode.
In the animal kingdom, her example was a gazelle being chased by a lion, the gazelle fearing for their life in full flight mode (sympathetic response), after some time of trying to run away, may lay down and pretend to be dead.
At that time the lion might go back and collect her cubs to bring to their gazelle meal. In the meantime, the intense adrenaline energy created within the gazelle when they were trying to escape, which they desperately want to release, is used in a giant burst to seize the moment and run away to safety.
Essentially, the emotion/stress/hormone/trauma cocktail gets cleared out of the gazelle as close to the event as possible.
Whereas, in humans, we have a fright, or undergo a big trauma of sorts, and we commonly feel the urge for the body to want to release it, (think full body shaking, wanting to scream, wanting to run, etc) but our mind kicks in and overrules the primal urge to clear the stress out immediately.
Maybe we feel self-conscious, maybe we are down-playing the event, whatever the case may be, in that moment, the stress experience gets suppressed deep into the body. Alma continues by saying that the suppression switch can be so effective, that even when we get re-triggered, especially if we are not in a safe supportive environment or not working with a professional who help you move through the reaction, it may just get stuffed down inside again.
This makes it really difficult over time to even touch base with the old wound stored within and help it to start healing!
Alma and I speak often about our dogs, (Alma has an adorable cavoodle named Ponyo and I have a long-legged greyhound named Larry), and how we notice that if either of them has a fright, pretty immediately they shake it off and move on.
But we humans, don't shake things off very well. We hold onto it, and put it somewhere out of our awareness.
It was such a great conversation.
It really made me think about the depth of what yin yoga could be offering us in terms of helping to clear or move deep emotional things that are in the physical body, without necessarily having to talk it out.
I must make a disclaimer here that I fully support working through deep held traumas and emotions with a qualified professional. I also think it's a great idea to build a whole team of support around you, which might include your favourite yin yoga teacher among others. I can speak from my own experience, and I do share this in the episode with Alma, that it wasn't until I started working with my therapist, that I have been able to slowly step into some of my own deep suppressed emotions, without my body shutting all the doors so fast that I can't even take a tiny peek. Oh that lightening fast nervous system is hard to navigate!
So what do you do if you are a yoga teacher and you can see that one of your students is having an emotional release during the practice?
This is a tricky one.
Often we can be so overwhelmed by the vulnerability of emotions surfacing, that we can shut down and stop them from releasing. If a teacher rushed over at the first sight of a student having an emotional release it could do exactly that.
Something I found myself doing in yin classes from time to time, (and honestly it was not very often that a student did have a big emotional release), was to gently place a box of tissues next to their mat for them to find. Or if I already had a good relationship with that student and my intuition told me it was ok, I might gently place a hand on their back for 3-5 seconds to say "you are supported" through my touch, and then leave their personal space.
It is not always possible, but a moment of catching someone's eye on the way out and giving them a smile, or being receptive to them sharing a snippet of what was coming up can also be a way of holding space. Of course, some students may just want to be alone and go home to process and that is also ok.
After talking to Alma, I started thinking that if our tendency is to suppress our emotions after a traumatic event, then if someone has actually felt safe enough for some of those feelings to rise to the surface, close enough to actually break and release, then that is potentially very powerful in terms of catharsis and beginning to heal.
In Bessel Van Der Kolk's seminal classic The Body Keeps The Score (which if you have not read I insist you add it to your reading pile), he says:
"If you are not aware of what your body needs, you can't take care of it. If you don't feel hunger, you can't nourish yourself. If you mistake anxiety for hunger you may eat too much. And if you can't feel when you are satiated, you will keep eating. That is why cultivating sensory awareness is such a critical aspect of trauma recovery."
I take these words to mean that getting in touch with the body, its signals, its sensations and messages is a really big part of unlocking, leaning into and potentially rewriting our stories in order to create a new narrative for ourselves.
In a well-held yin yoga class, the continual offering of the inquiry back to the student is a great way for them to begin paying close attention to what they are feeling, how they are breathing, how strong is a sensation feeling, do they need to come out of a pose or skip it all together etc.
I say this often, but one of the best tools to facilitate this as a teacher, is to ask a few gentle open-ended questions. This helps the student to begin noticing things for themselves, rather than simply waiting for the next instruction to follow.
And of course, always give options! Options are the key to helping people make the best choices for themselves in that moment!
If you've experienced an emotional release in a class I would love for you to let me know in the comments below, and if you had an interaction with your teacher, what affect that had on you.