May 4, 2016

How to React to Strong Emotions more Peacefully.

girl sad emotional angry

If you’ve taken yoga for a while, perhaps you already know it is not uncommon to have emotions emerge during class, particularly if you’re in a class that encourages mindful introspection.

As my classes are breath-based mindful movements, practitioners have the optimal environment to access their interior. For this reason, occasionally, a student will confide that an unexpected emotion arose during class. Sometimes the emotion is accompanied by a memory, but not always. And it can be unsettling for some as it is unexpected.

Based on the wisdom of Vipassana, I encourage practitioners to allow the sensations of emotions to arise and to observe them with a sense of equanimity—neither grasping nor avoiding them, whether those sensations are pleasant or uncomfortable. Without attaching a story or judging them. This allows what may be stored emotions to arise and release. (When emotions or sensations feel strong/raw, please consult a therapist for an individualized session.)

This practice can teach us valuable skills to better deal with life’s ups and downs.

Much of our suffering is caused not so much by events themselves, but by our reactions to them. Perhaps if we can practice being with what arises in our bodies with a sense of equanimity, we can utilize these skills to better respond to life’s events and their associated bodily sensations with more balance.

When I started this journey, I remember well the first time I decided to use my Vipassana training in the moment with a strong emotion I was experiencing. It was early in my marriage and one afternoon I was building up steam to blast my husband for something he’d said/done. (I frankly don’t know what it was now, which perhaps signals its lack of real importance.) Anyway, at the time it seemed urgent—ha! I remember being in the bedroom about to barge in the living room angrily and vent, but instead had the conscious awareness to instead feel the emotion in my body that I was about to unleash at him. I laid down on the bed and turned my awareness inward and all of a sudden a flash of heat exploded in my body. It was scary and intense, but I stayed with it, witnessed it, and then it left as suddenly as it arose. With its exit went my fury. I could talk to him in a calm manner if I wanted to. But without the intense emotion, I no longer had the desire.

This does not mean I think confrontation is useless. However, disagreements expressed with a cooler head can keep the other from feeling defensive and often brings about a more fruitful outcome. Had I just “stuffed it” instead of expressing it or feeling it, it would have likely manifested as pain in my body.

Here’s the thing. Every emotion plays out through the body as sensation, no matter how subtle. If the body is not allowed to experience and release strong emotions, they can be stored as a pain in the neck, knots between the shoulder blades, or an upset stomach.

A mindful yoga practice and meditation are not the only techniques that help release stored emotions. Other effective techniques that help to release stored emotions including free-association journaling (see Back in Control), or Trauma Release Exercises (TRE).

Many of us do whatever we can not to feel our bodies or emotions. Even a yoga class can be done in a manner that distracts the practitioner from feeling. For those on the path of greater self-understanding, establishing a practice of mindful presence and awareness can yield greater opportunities for self-knowledge and compassion. This healthy relationship to our body and mind is not only beneficial for our own well-being, but can also dramatically improve our relationships with the world around us.

Author: Jessica Mollet

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Image: Holly Lay/Flickr

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Jessica Mollet