For the last 400 years, Western culture has developed the prevailing belief of “mind over matter”, “reason over intuition”, “intellect over wisdom”. Even many Eastern spiritual teachings tell us that the body is 2nd to spirit and that our time on earth should be spent trying to transcend the body to return to spirit. In fact, in classical Yoga, we are often told that ‘we are not our body nor our thoughts nor our emotions’. My personal belief is that we are spiritual energy and that our bodies are a physical manifestation of that energy…much like ice is a denser version of water and air. In fact, I believe that everything in our worldly experience is an expression of spirit. And so, if this is true, then why would I try to deny the beauty, power and wisdom of my body and its corresponding emotions, if they are indeed expressions of spirit?
The word Yoga derives from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ which means to ‘yoke’ or ‘join’ or ‘connect’. And so the fundamental principle of yoga is to connect and bring harmony to the disparate parts of ourselves – and in the Western cultural model, our bodies, emotions and parts of our psyche. When we deny any aspect of any three of these, we limit ourselves from becoming integrated and whole human and divine beings. I suspect that Yoga grew out of the authentic experiences of spiritual seekers, teachers and shamans as they explored different ways to know their human and divine selves better. But, over time, the practice of Yoga, and this is especially true in North America, has become a callisthenic endeavour with the goal of fixing what we perceive to be broken. Now don’t get me wrong – a Yoga practice involves moving the body and sometimes it is physically challenging and vigorous. However, it is also much more than that. It is not simply about showing “how far we can reach, or even reaching as far as we can, but rather about ‘paying attention’ to” what is happening in the moment, (Donna Farhi).
When we practice Yoga with awareness, moving and experiencing our body mindfully, we can reconnect with our body, emotions and mind (the wholeness of who we are) in loving ways. We can invite and allow transformation rather than forcing ourselves to be something other than what we are. When I teach and practice yoga, as students explore various poses and different ways to move their bodies, I invite them to observe what they are feeling: physically and emotionally and to pay attention to the thoughts that accompany those physical and emotional experiences. Sometimes, this brings up emotions that we may have been repressing for years. The beauty of emotions, ALL OF THEM, is that they can tell us how close we are to living our heart’s desires, or not. In this way, you might imagine your physical body and felt emotions as being your “inner barometer” or your spiritual GPS. When we suppress emotions because they are painful to feel, or we are ashamed to be feeling them, we abort the process of transformation and end up with an overabundance of energy locked down in the body where we can’t make use of it. This is true of any type of emotion that is left unfelt and unexpressed.
The word ‘emotion’ derives from the Latin word ‘emovere’ which means ‘to move’. And so ‘emotion’ means ‘energy in motion’. Emotional energy is creative energy and it is meant to move…when we don’t allow ourselves to feel our emotions, and we typically resist feeling the uncomfortable ones, we cut ourselves off from the flow of creative energy. We also bury our emotions alive where they can, if repressed long enough, wreck havoc on our physical, emotional and mental well-being. When we acknowledge, feel and appropriately express our emotions in the moment in which we are feeling them, we allow that energy to flow and transform. Some might say that letting ourselves feel grief or anger limits us from living abundantly; I invite you to consider that “we are not held back from feeling our emotions but, rather, we are held back [from experiencing an authentic life] by the degree to which we choose to remain unconscious of our emotions. Living our lives fully can only happen when we allow ourselves to feel deeply.” (Unknown)
Allowing ourselves to feel the full range of our emotional spectrum doesn’t mean we give ourselves permission to ‘act out’ or ‘project’. Indulging takes us out of the present moment, as we lose ourselves in our thoughts about the emotions we’re feeling and, like a hamster on a wheel, keep going round and round the emotional race track. Projection and acting out happen, not because we are allowing ourselves to authentically feel emotions in the present moment but because, conversely, we suppress or deny emotional energy that simply will not be suppressed or denied. You can be sure that whenever you are emotionally triggered by another person’s words or actions, there is an emotional history within you that is begging to be witnessed and transformed. If you make your emotional response to a situation about someone else, you lose the opportunity to transform that emotional history. This doesn’t mean absolving other people for their own behavior, especially if their behavior is harmful to others. But it does mean getting real about how you feel in any given situation, and allowing yourself to really feel those emotions, expressing them in a way that is not harmful to yourself or another, being open to receiving the gifts hidden underneath the painful layers and taking the steps towards transformation, if that is in your highest good. This kind of journey is not for the feint of heart.
You might say that Yoga is more about cultivating inner strength or fortitude that supports us during challenging times…and we do so through the practice of poses (or asanas), mindful breathing practices and meditation. When we come to our Yoga mat and practice with awareness, we are given the opportunity to greet our whole selves – perhaps for the first time in a very long time. Whether you’re practicing yoga or simply living your life, set the intention to meet and befriend all the parts of yourself. Perhaps this meeting will take place at your ‘edge’. You can think of the ‘edge’ in Yoga as “the threshold of your comfort zone” or “the boundary of your resistance”. This is something we experience both on the mat and throughout our daily lives. Your edge might be physical, emotional or mental. If you don’t get close enough to your edge, you’ll likely miss the beautiful view and you might be left wondering what all the excitement is about; you might end up in a rut, doing and experiencing the same old things over and over again. If you go too far past your edge, you might fall off into the land of injury. Transformation is powerful and not something to be forced upon yourself or another.
As you explore a yoga practice, either in the privacy of your home or in a class setting, I encourage you to “participate with your body” rather than strong-arming it to do what your mind thinks it should. Remember, it’s not about trying to show what you can do; rather, focus on self-discovery. Imagine you’re going on a scavenger hunt and that you are the buried treasure. And then take the experience of doing so off your mat and out into your life…and be prepared for miracles.