Last night after my 8:15pm CoreRestore class at CorePower Yoga NW, one of my students approached me with an unusual experience. During a supine half pigeon variation against the wall, she suddenly experienced a rush of anxiety. She described how her breath became shallow and fast, and she felt very worried for no apparent reason. It struck her as especially strange because she had felt so relaxed in the preceding moments. (We had been relaxing in legs up the wall variations for at least ten minutes at this point.) She wondered why this should happen, and whether she should be concerned.
As she told me about her experience, I got a bit excited. It may seem strange that a yoga teacher should feel stoked when one of her students gets anxious during class, but let me explain. Her experience immediately struck me as a release of long-stored emotional trauma. All of her feelings–the speeding heartbeat, the panting, the emotional roller coaster–are classic symptoms of trauma. I was excited because I recognized that, in that moment, she had released old trauma. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety for my entire adult life, I am continually surprised and delighted at how yoga can help us let go of repressed emotions.
At first blush, the idea that our emotions are stored in the body may seem downright crazy. Mention this idea to most Western doctors and they’ll roll their eyes. However, certain researchers and writers have discovered that our emotions are indeed tightly wound up in our cells–and not just the cells in the brain. Neuroscientist Candace Pert, for instance, spent her career examining how peptite receptors throughout the body adjust to our emotional experiences. If you’ve seen What the Bleep do We Know, you’ve heard Pert discuss how emotions change our cells. She has written extensively on how emotions are stored in the body:
We all have painful memories – failure, disappointments, suffering, loss – hidden away or suppressed- in our BodyMinds, to be retrieved, refomed, and released, or ignored and left to fester, wounds that never heal. What John Upledger called a “somato-emotional cyst”. A primitive body defense response in which the injury, and the emotions therein encoded, are walled off from the rest of the body, and never truly resolve.
Candace Pert has shown that the peptide receptors are located on every type of cell, and they influence which hormones are released according to a person’s emotional history. Emotions are not solely felt in the brain. They are registered throughout the body, in every type of tissue. Pert’s research suggests that emotional trauma is stored in the tissues, particularly when we are not able to fully experience emotions in the present moment.
Candace’s work on the microbiology of emotions is supported by researchers in psychotherapy, such as Peter A. Levine. In his landmark book, Waking the Tiger, Levine connected how animals experience trauma with how humans trap emotions in their bodies. He points out how animals deal with extreme stress. For instance, if you’ve ever seen a bird fly into a window, you’ll recognize how animals move through trauma. First the bird lies very still. Next, it begins to shake–almost as if it’s shaking off the experience, letting it move through its muscles. Finally, the bird will get up and walk or fly away, almost as if nothing happened! Humans are animals too, and Levine argues that it’s natural for us to shake, cry, freeze, or run in the face of trauma. But we don’t allow ourselves to do that. Most of us are taught from childhood that big emotions are scary, that shaking and crying are not acceptable behaviors, and that we must avoid bothering others with big emotional displays. Perhaps if we allowed trauma to move naturally through the body at the time of impact, we wouldn’t have trapped emotions stored in our body.
But until our society deems it healthy to fully feel and express emotions, it’s inevitable that we will have scary, traumatic experiences stored in our tissues. A particularly relaxing, challenging, or deep yoga practice can allow these emotions to be released, leaving the yogi healed and just a little bit more free. As a yoga teacher, I can’t help but be excited when one of my students reaches this state. Sure, it’s scary. It’s strange. It’s not something you’d want to show to your co-workers. But on your mat, in the safety of a yoga class–that’s the perfect place to allow your emotions to flow, so that they can finally leave your body.
I strive to create an accepting, welcoming environment for my students where they can feel comfortable having whatever experiences arise on their mats. That might be bliss one day, and weepiness the next. As long as you keep showing up, dedicating yourself to the practice, you’ll eventually have the experience of feeling a strong emotion seemingly “out of the blue.” When this happens, let the emotions flow. And then congratulate yourself. It’s a very good sign when you can release these long-held traumas. This is just one more that yoga helps us heal!
<photo: Dreaming in the deep south @Flickr>