Integral Yoga approaches emotional wellness through all levels of our being (the koshas): the body, breath, senses and intellect.
As children, we learn to push painful emotions out of our awareness, along with the physical distress they cause, because it’s too uncomfortable to feel them. Suppressed painful emotions show up in our body as tension, blocked energy, and physical discomfort. We start to armor the body, becoming stiff around the area where this emotional energy is held, and becoming somewhat numb to what that part of the body is feeling. This can lead to anxiety, depression and ultimately illness.
In Integral Yoga we start to create emotional wellness by working through the body. It’s a “back door” approach. The poses essentially massage the body and so release emotional holding patterns. Over time, hatha yoga helps us to let go of old painful emotions by releasing the memory of them that we hold in the body.
This approach is different from remembering old stories of how we got hurt as you do in many types of Western psychotherapy. As Joseph Campbell said, “The Eastern approach to psychotherapy is biologic, not biographic.” We work through the body to gain access to deeply held emotions and mental blockages. It’s a gentle, gradual approach.
When I started practicing Hatha Yoga, many years ago, I had a couple of years when the practice was always joyful. Then I started to notice that I would be distracted by angry thoughts during my asanas. I wondered if I was doing something wrong in my Yoga practice. The anger would bubble up, and I would use Raja Yoga to analyze the anger during my meditation after the poses. I would ask myself, “What am I attached to that’s making me angry? Will getting what I want make me permanently happy? Or will it come and eventually go?” And after a while, the anger would subside.
I eventually realized that old anger that I had stuffed down for years that was gradually being released through my Hatha Yoga practice. I even had memories of childhood injustices that still distressed me when I remembered them. So my practice was bringing them up, but also helping me to let go of them. Over the years I can see how the combination of Hatha Yoga and meditation gradually brought up old unresolved emotions and provided a way to integrate those energies in my mind and heart.
This is a gradual process, but so worth the time because it increases our day-to-day happiness when our mind isn’t reacting to life with undigested negative emotions. It also frees up blocked physical energy, giving us more energy throughout the day.
Other types of exercise can also help us release emotions, but there’s something unique about classical Yoga traditions. It’s not just movement, but the awareness in movement and in stillness that makes a posture Yoga. In Integral Yoga Hatha poses, we move slowly so we can be conscious of what we feel at every phase of the movement. We start to study our use of prana, or energy. Am I using too much prana by straining, or forcing my way through tension? Can I feel sensations in this part of the body or is it outside my awareness? Where are my chronic holding patterns that block the natural energy flow in daily life? When I become aware of sensations I can choose to let go of the holding patterns and relax which opens the flow of energy.
This is different than, for example, basketball, where the focus is outside ourselves: on the ball, one’s team members, the basket, etc. In Yoga the focus is inside us, listening to the body and the breath, stretching while letting go. This is profoundly healing for the body and emotions.
In basketball, it’s easy to strain oneself because of being so focused on the game. In classical Yoga traditions we don’t strain. If our body feels pain, it’s telling us to back off or stop. If not, we’ll be injured. When we strain our mind says, “No, I want this pose to be perfect and what I’m doing isn’t good enough.” Then two things happen: we again suppress what we’re feeling in the body in order to override it with strain. And we simultaneously stuff down the emotions held in that part of the body. Straining re-enforces negative emotional patterns, and having the thought that “My comfortable asana isn’t good enough” re-enforces a negative self-image.
This doesn’t mean the poses should be lazy. If we don’t go as far as we comfortably can in the pose, we probably aren’t probing the emotional holding patterns enough to help release them. Both physical and emotional healing happen when we go as far as we can in a pose without straining.
With Integral Yoga Hatha, we learn to not strain; we learn to listen effectively to the messages from our bodies. Then we start to listen to our bodies in daily life also, to know when to rest, when to eat and when to move. That’s the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. When the body is healthy, it’s so much easier to be emotionally balanced too, because physical pain makes us emotionally cranky and depressed. So, not straining is a key component to the Integral Yoga Hatha class.
We do a balanced set of asanas. This includes warm-ups, backward bending postures, forward bends, inversions and twists. Backward bending stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which makes us feel alert and strong, ready to face challenges. Forward bends stimulate the parasympathetic system, and this engenders the relaxation response. When we do backward bends and forward bends, we are alert and calm, fearless and self-nurturing. Inversions are very helpful for overcoming depression because the body is released from the normal downward pull of gravity. Physically we are helping ourselves to eliminate states of fear through the backward bends, anger through the forward bends and depression through inversions. The half spinal twist balances the ida and pingala, the masculine and feminine sides of the body.
In Integral Yoga Hatha our body becomes our buddy to help us balance the emotions.
Originally published in Integral Yoga Magazine
“We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing?”
― Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras