psychology, Yoga Therapy

How does yoga help to cope with emotions?

“To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.”
― William James

When I personally started with yoga, I practiced mainly for physical benefits – strength, flexibility, tension relief. In time, I noticed that yoga also had an effect at the mental level. I started to feel more connected with my body, thereby becoming more aware of the way I moved. Using the friendly, accepting approach of self-observation, I also learned to connect with my body with more kindness. This overall accepting attitude became more and more accessible in a broad range of situations – stressful times in my life, challenges, and all the emotions that came along. Being more open and having the courage to feel your emotions is an effect that many people experience when they practice yoga. So how does yoga help to cope with difficult emotions?

Becoming aware of our automatic responses to emotions

Before I started really feeling my emotions, I wasn’t even aware that I was suppressing them very often. But I did – by working very hard, thinking I had left difficult things in my life behind, just going on with all kinds of goals in my education and career. I ran away from my emotions without knowing.

This is something that many people do. We do not want to feel painful emotions. We do not want to feel sad, anxious or angry. So we just push them away. Some people avoid feeling their emotions by obsessing with some kind of activity – whether it’s working, cleaning, or eating. Others try to numb their emotions, for example through drinking or using drugs. Again others just deny they feel emotions, and end up sitting in their head all the time, rationally thinking they are fine. And sometimes people just do not have the time to pay attention to their emotions, having a busy lifestyle and planning every day full with new activities. We all have our own automatic responses to emotions, some of which are effective and others not so much.

On top of that, we learn that negative emotions should not be felt, we should get rid of them as soon as we can. We hear from others that we should focus on the positive side However, all emotions are part of our life. What’s more, they are important messengers. They tell us when we feel safe or not, when we should speak up for ourselves or when we should take care of ourselves. It is therefore important to listen to our emotions and try to experience them fully.

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Cultivating an attitude of acceptance

Yoga teaches us to welcome our experiences directly as they are – positive or negative. It often starts with observing the sensations in our body. This can already be a challenge, as we may notice discomfort – and our first tendency is to respond, to act, to change it. But while we just sit and observe, we often notice that these sensations come and go, like waves. If we accept the sensations that we feel, instead of trying to push them away, we start to feel less fearful for potential pain.

We can expand this attitude of acceptance to our thoughts and feelings. When we notice emotions come up, we can try to be curious and open while we observe what happens. We learn about our automatic responses to emotions, and when we slowly start to let go of these responses, we learn about the emotions that are present.

While practicing, you may notice that you judge your emotions or responses. This is a human thing as well, but realize that these judgments are not helpful. They are not the truth, but merely creations of your mind. If you realize these thoughts are creations of your mind, you can choose to change these thoughts into more helpful, compassionate ideas.

Being mindful, present in the moment, with an attitude of acceptance – it sounds so simple, but it is a challenge in itself. Much of the practice of yoga focuses on cultivating this attitude – a state of clarity and openness. Notice it is a practice, which basically means it is a skill. Anything that is a skill can be learned, so having an attitude of compassion and accepting your emotions can be learned too!

Short practice for accepting your emotions

Do you want to practice accepting your emotions? This five-minute meditation may be a good start.

  1. Sit comfortably, with a straight spine and shoulders relaxed. Close your eyes or softly gaze forward. Maybe you want to set an intention for yourself: “I am open and compassionate, accepting the emotions that come up today.”
  2. Notice how you are feeling today. What sensations do you feel in your body? Try to welcome anything that passes by, and notice that all sensations come and go.
  3. Tune into your breath. Notice the movements of your breath in your body. Just follow these movements for a while – if you get distracted (which is likely to happen and very normal), just bring back your attention to your breath when you become aware of this.
  4. Now expand your awareness to your emotions. Which feelings are present in this moment? Just like the sensations in your body, and like your breath, notice how they come and go. You don’t have to change anything, no need to push them away. Just let them come and go, like waves.
  5. Take a few more deep breaths until you’re ready to bring your awareness back to the present moment, to the space around you. Close your practice in your own way.

Repeat this meditation regularly – it will become easier (took me a few years!). Be patient with yourself if you notice you become restless, you don’t have to practice perfectly at once. Apply the attitude of kindness and acceptance even here, not judging yourself about the way you practice.

You will probably start to experience your emotions differently, with more openness, in time. Remember each of us has automatic responses, and as it took time to develop those patterns, changing takes time as well. And most importantly: it takes courage to experience your emotions fully! But once you start doing so, you’ll feel more connected to yourself an you’ll be able to take care of them.

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