Understanding & Working With Emotion: A User’s Guide

Wheel pose, Zion National Park

Upward Bow pose, Zion National Park

For the first six months of my yoga practice, every time I held the yoga pose Upward Bow I would cry. Tears would well up and seep out, and I had no idea why.

There was no accompanying memory, no feeling of physical pain, just emotional sadness and a spontaneous release of tears.

The first time it happened I thought something must be wrong with me. I’ve come to learn, however, that this is totally normal.

The Body-Mind Connection

This was my first glimpse into how body and mind are linked together. All of us have feelings, whether anger, joy, sadness or any other feeling natural to the human experience.

What’s unique to humans, though, is we often place the feeling and it’s accompanying experience in the scrapbooks of our memories. When feelings move from the present moment into the space of memory, emotion is born.

Instead of being able to live in the moment—letting the experience and the feelings move through us—we constantly (and usually unconsciously) reference the tattered scrapbook “images” from the past. The person who hurt us is gone, the experience is long over, but we’re still imprisoned by the emotion.

Trauma survivors have an even harder time with this, as the imprint of memory and emotion is much more difficult for their traumatized physiology to digest. Regardless, the record of emotions lives not only in memory, but in what’s called the energy body, the pranamaya kosha in sanskrit.

This layer of our presence is the meeting place of mind and body; feelings are generated by the experiences of the body, the mind stores the feelings, then emotion is born and lives in the energetic body.

Breath & Emotion

Every time we stuff our feelings, rather than letting them flow, we create emotional residue. Every time we are (or feel) trapped and helpless in the face of trauma, or are unsupported in the expression of our feelings, emotional energy is trapped and cannot be discharged. A part of ourselves splinters off, then, and lives in the past, connected to that unresolved emotion.

Once we have the necessary support to process what happened, we no longer need to cut ourselves into pieces to survive. Healing and happiness come from living mindfully in the now, as a whole being, with all the layers of our being, or koshas, aligned.

Breathing is one of the best tools to help us integrate into wholeness. Prana is the vital energy that we bring into our bodies through the breath. In pranayama we move this vitality consciously, in an effort to release held emotion and to integrate the connection of body, mind and spirit.

Sometimes all we can do is breathe…

Yoga Postures & Held Memories

When we bend and stretch through yoga asana, we confront our emotions and revisit our scrapbook memories, where they’re stored in the mind and in the pranamaya kosha. The actual memories may or may not arise, but their imprint in the energetic body is effected by the yoga poses. Sometimes the emotion is obvious, and other times it simply leaves us feeling nauseous or angry.

During yoga, the physical body, known as the anamaya kosha, and the energy body realign. In that moment of wholeness, we move forward by living in the present. If, instead, we hold onto the past, the different levels of our body (i.e. physical and energetic) can’t line up and we create disharmony, stress and, potentially, disease.


Everyone has feelings & emotion…

Observing As Witness

When emotions arise out of the past, or feelings are present in the now, the best thing we can do is allow them to flow freely through us.

I call being able to witness whatever arises “Holding Space.” While the feelings may be painful or uncomfortable, and the urge is to turn away, or try to “fix” (i.e. stop) the problem, staying with ourselves is a chance for wholeness.

The longer it’s been since we’ve faced them, the scarier it is to witness and hold space for our emotions. Holding space means we accept how we feel. It means we see the truth of our own pain and don’t abandon ourselves during it.

This kind of presence weaves together the mind and the body, watching and experiencing simultaneously. The crux of this re-wiring is to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. It takes tremendous energy —you may need more food or sleep.

Once the bag of past emotions has been unpacked, those splintered off pieces of ourselves come back home and we find a new wholeness. We will still get triggered, but the emotion won’t throw us to the ground as easily or for as long, because we recognize and hold space for it —for ourselves.

The more we can honor and allow those experiences and feelings, the more we hold space for and witness them, the easier it is for us to find happiness and freedom, and work with our emotions instead of having them work against us.