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
Question: When your life is full of teaching and work and family, how do you fit in your personal practice as much as you'd like? Is it critical that you maintain a full Yoga practice (meditation, postures, breath work) during a time of busy-ness, or is that just my ego?
The benefits of practice build and go deeper if you practice daily. You find time for things you consider a priority. Prioritize your health, peace of mind, and relief from stress by doing your practice daily.
The question is: how much do you have to do to consider that you've done your formal practice? It's good to have a "daily minimum". If you have a do-able daily minimum, like 15 minutes of meditation and 3 sun salutations, then you'll really be able to do it and you get the benefit of the sadhana (spiritual practice). Plus your mind stops bugging you about doing your practice. It's even OK to have a minimum of 5 minutes of meditation and 1 pose. It's great if you can check it off your list first thing in the morning. But make it something you can do to calm down before bed even if you've been overwhelmed all day.
Then you build in short sadhana times whenever you have to wait. Say a manthra or affirmation in line for the grocery store, chant when you're stuck in traffic. Read a spiritual book in the dentist waiting room, etc.
The more sincere you are, the more pressure you may put on yourself to do formal practice. That pressure may be the ego, indeed. You set a goal and the ego wants to succeed to feel good about itself. But that’s a good use of the ego. Your practice will help you and others, so it can help develop the sattwic (balanced) ego.
Sometimes the ego makes you try to do too much, then you give up because it's too hard. So you may want to start by setting a goal--then cut it in half. Stick with that for a while, and if it's very easy, increase gradually. If it's too much, cut again until you find what works for you.
Do your daily minimum in a relaxed way, but be firm about sticking with it. Be encouraging and cheerful with yourself while training the mind and body. Talk to God (a higher power, your chosen idea of the ground of being) about your stress. You can cultivate the sense of being held, seen, and loved by a higher power while you do your practice. That will help you to want to do it.
When you practice regularly, it gets easier to keep it up. The habit becomes a part of your routine, and you start to feel the results. You will gradually feel more peace in your daily life even if your practice itself felt unfocused. Over time, many people find that they make more time for practice because it feels good. And they don't feel pressured.
That's been my experience. Many years ago I set a goal of 15 minutes of meditation per day minimum. Over time that grew to where I rarely do less than an hour, even when I'm away from the Ashram. But on a super busy day, I still feel happy when I've fit in 15 minutes--that's non negotiable.
People often imagine they'll make time for spiritual practice when they're less busy. St. Frances de Sales said, "Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed." You need it most when you're busy so that you can keep your peace of mind. Yes, do an hour if you can. But if you can’t do that much, don’t let busy-ness keep you from doing your daily minimum.
When I was a child, I loved the book, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
My mother read many books to me at naptime, including Secret Garden. She read with feeling, making each scene vivid, and the characters come to life. This was a clever way to get her active children to want to take a nap so we could hear the stories.
When I was old enough I read it to myself countless times. I had the old, battered copy that had been read by my older siblings, and discarded as they moved on to Jane Eyre. I knew the plot well, of course. But somehow the suspense of finding the boy crying in the night, and the delight of discovering a forgotten garden were fresh every time I read the book.
The Secret Garden taught me some good lessons: have the courage to follow your instinct, and trust that nature can show a way through difficult times. It gave me hope that I could find a place of safety in a hostile world. Ultimately it taught me that reaching out to others gives us strength we didn’t know we had. And encouraging others builds community and heals them and ourselves in the process.
I was also learning that you can teach memorable lessons through stories, and that’s one reason that I was drawn to study Yoga with the master storyteller, Swami Satchidananda. And why I teach through stories so much myself.
Even now when I use imagery for my own healing and relaxation, one of my favorite places to explore within is a secret garden.
In the world today, most people approach the study of Yoga through the asanas (physical postures). And for many schools, that’s where the study of Yoga ends. People want to be healthy and have a trim physique. One may ask, why do you want a trim physique? In some way, you think it will make you happy. But the body is changing every moment, and even trim bodies pass away one day. So many people are looking for permanent happiness in the changing body (in the name of Yoga).
If we take a closer look at our day-to-day life, we can observe that our happiness is often disturbed by conditioned patterns of negative emotions. If I have a negative pattern of anxiety, my mind will find a hundred excuses a day to feel anxious about situations that may arise. If I have a pattern of depression, my mind will find a hundred excuses to feel that something or someone isn’t quite good enough. Having a trim body can simply mean you have an attractive vehicle in which to be miserable.
Yoga is really the study of happiness: what is it, where is it, and how can we be happy all the time, despite the changes in the world? The koshas are a way that the Yoga teachings understand the different layers of our being: the physical form, energy, emotions, intellect and inner peace. Each of these layers has Yoga practices that help us change our patterns to experience peace.
For me, study of the koshas has been a highly practical roadmap for how to use Yoga to find happiness. If I’m feeling anxious, it’s not that that easy to simply say, “I’m not going to be anxious!” and have those feelings go away like turning off a light switch. But the Yoga tradition teaches us to use a “back door approach” through the koshas to change stubborn patterns.
So when I feel anxious, Yoga can teach me to find that emotion where it lives in the body, because every negative emotion will be felt as tension somewhere in the physical form. When I find that tension, I can use an asana to help un-knot the tension where it lives in the body. That helps to release the negative emotion, and over time it can help release the pattern of emotion that causes anxiety to be my default attitude toward the world.
Another back-door approach is to see my anxiety and analyze it using the intellect. “How often have I felt anxious? How much has it helped? How many times have I wasted the day feeling anxious about an upcoming event only to have it turn out wonderful?” The intellect is subtler and more powerful than the emotions. So, Yoga teaches us to ask our emotions questions from a loving, supportive part of the intellect to un-knot the patterns of negative emotions that keep us from happiness.
The study of Yoga through the koshas is a wonderful way to do Yoga therapy for ourselves and others. If we understand how every layer can provide a doorway to help resolve negative patterns on the other layers, we can design a Yoga program that is uniquely tailored to our needs and our strengths. Over time, this can provide the building blocks to a happier life.
“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