Dealing with Strong Emotions and Yoga

There’s a popular image of a yogi as being someone who is always on an even keel, always calm, kind, balanced and even-tempered.  And while it is true that you can look through history for teachers who seem to embody these attributes (Ramana Maharishi springs to mind), and while yoga does help us to find more peace and equilibrium within, for most of us dealing with strong emotions like anger, fear, sadness and shame is part of being human.

I practice yoga every day and have done for years, but I still get angry and cross, upset and embarrassed.  I'm not accustomed to feeling fear, but when someone I love was very ill last year, I felt like I was walking on a never-ending conveyor belt with no hand-rail.  Life felt precarious, uncertain and slippery.  It was hard not to let it overwhelm me and it some moments, it did.  Am I to see this as a failure?  Or a success... I am a lot less angry, cross and upset a lot less often thanks to the lessons that my yoga practice and my teachers have taught me.  And certainly my yoga practice helped me to get through that very difficult time when my friend was ill and to support them to the best of my ability.  

But here’s the wonderful thing about yoga and what it has to teach us about strong emotions: you are, in and of yourself, a perfect part of a perfect universe.  Life is not always easy, but it’s beautiful and you are part of that beauty.  All the other stuff, the rage, the upset, the disgrace, are a part of your make-up as a human being.  They are part of what it means to be human – but they are not who you are.  You are not an angry person – you are a human being experiencing anger.  You are not a frightened person – you are a person experiencing fear.  And so on. 

The difference between being an emotion and simply feeling it is huge and can have a profound effect on the way in which we learn to experience strong feelings.  If we permit a strong emotion to consume us and allow ourselves to be ruled by it, then it brings unhappiness, discontent and stress, moreover we might inadvertently feed it so that it escalates to new heights.  If, on the other hand, we accept these strong emotions as part of our life, observe them, watch them rise and pass away again over time, then we might notice the lesson in the emotion; which might make us stronger and more compassionate to others who are suffering; and might make the next episode shorter and less disruptive to our lives.   

Patanjali called our over-identification with our emotions and this ignorance of our essential beauty and worth, avidya, or wrong-understanding.  Avidya leads to suffering. 

The cure for avidya is first to acknowledge it’s existence: we accept that something is wrong and that we want to make it better.  Even if we do not truly feel that we are essentially good, then we at least accept intellectually that it could be possible.

Then, through practice (asana and pranayama), we start to develop skills of concentration and focus; come to understand ourselves a little better and gain the ability to view the events of our lives with more clarity.  Through practice, we make ourselves stronger and more patient and develop compassion, both for ourselves and for others. 

Through meditation (and by bringing a meditative aspect to your breathing and asana practice), svadhyaya (self-study) brings clarity and understanding of ourselves and the way we cause ourselves and others harm through our actions.

Strong emotions are a fact of life.  The trick is to see that they pass through us and move away; the trick is not to get stuck thinking that we are an emotion – we might be feeling something pretty strongly (fear, shame, anger), but it does not define us.  Life is choppy and it doesn’t always make sense; yoga helps us to learn to ride the waves rather than drowning in them.  In the end, what we learn from strong emotions (if we are prepared to let them teach us) are some of the most important lessons of our lives.  In the end, when we let go, surrender to the journey and refuse to either reject or embrace strong emotions, we emerge stronger, kinder and more understanding – both of ourselves and others.

"A spiritual warrior's life is an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad.  The basic difference between and ordinary person and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary person takes everything as a blessing or a curse."
Carlos Castenada

Comments

  1. Love this article and has made me reflect on how it is my family who experience my strongest and most powerful emotions. Makes me wonder of I shouldn't practice more at home.
    But I also think emotions are to be harnessed and can be powerful sources of some of our most profound insights and motivation.

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  2. Hi Calum. I agree... think of Jesus' anger in the temple, overturning the money-lender's tables; Gandhi's anger at being thrown off a train for being Indian, which was the inspiration for his life's work in social change; the quiet dignity in the sorrow of Linda Norgrove's parents who have started a charitable foundation in her name... There are lots of other examples I'm sure, of strong emotions being the inspiration/catharsis for positive change, both personal and social.

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  3. Maybe the approach of the spiritual warrior compares to the advice given above the players' entrance at Wimbledon..."if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same"...Vanessa.

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