Emotional Release Through Yoga
For as long as I have been practicing yoga, I have heard of yogis suddenly breaking down in tears in the middle of a pose, sobbing for a couple minutes, and then moving on as if they didn’t just have an emotional breakdown in the middle of a yoga class. And for years, I was jealous.
I couldn’t explain it logically, but I was desperate to experience this emotional release, but I couldn’t seem to trigger it, no matter how frequently or intensely I practiced. Until one day, a couple months ago, when I finally went through my own spontaneous emotional breakdown during an asana (the physical poses in yoga) practice. One second, I was in downward dog, and the next I was kneeling on the mat with my forehead on the ground, sobs overtaking my body.
Emotional breakdowns during yoga are common, and they can happen during or after a session, often coming out of nowhere. They usually manifest as crying, but they can also appear as uncontrollable laughing. Most experiencers describe them as a sudden, overwhelming flood of emotion that gets released after a couple minutes.
There are multiple perspectives as to why yoga can trigger the release of emotions, although a definitive conclusion has not been reached. The following are a few major theories:
Humans tend to store emotions in our physical bodies by tensing our muscles unconsciously, such as clenching our fists when we are angry, excited, or overwhelmed. This often occurs in the hips, due to excessive sitting, the constant physical effort of walking and supporting our bodies, and in response to strong emotions, which can trigger fight or flight responses in which we naturally tense around our hips in order to prepare us for motion (i.e. running away or bringing our knees up to protect ourselves). When muscle tension is not released, it traps our emotional and cognitive experiences in our muscles. Yoga can release this tension through stretching and strengthening exercises, simultaneously releasing the emotions stored there.
Some experts suspect that people cry during yoga from emotional relief, rather than joy or pain, as stretch receptors in the body (which are connected to relaxation centers in the brain) cause relaxation, allowing the release of usually inaccessible emotions.
People often turn to exercise to deal with stress, and it is possible that their minds turn to these stressful situations during physical exercise, triggering an emotional response. This is exacerbated by the physical vulnerability often experienced during a yoga practice, opening up our bodies in unfamiliar ways, and triggering emotions such as shame, frustration, or fear, which we may release suddenly by crying.
Yogis who experience emotional breakdowns during yoga may be so immersed in the present experience (rather than worrying about the future or ruminating on the past) that their emotional walls or inhibitions fade away. This activates an emotionally raw state of being in which emotions can flow out freely.
So, what should you do if you find yourself emotionally overwhelmed or crying during a yoga practice?
Keep breathing and flow with the discomfort. As Resilience Rally co-founder, Lauren O’Donohue, says “learn to ride the wave.” This means accepting your emotions for what they are and understanding that you can experience uncomfortable emotions without being consumed of defined by them. These feelings usually play out within a minute or two, so feel them, let yourself cry, and be gentle with yourself until it passes.
Release any emotions that come up. We have been socialized to believe that we should hide our emotions, but expressing them by crying (or laughing) is a healthy way to connect with ourselves, practice gentle awareness, and discharge repressed feelings from our bodies.
Step out for a moment if you feel uncomfortable or disruptive, or work through these feelings on the mat. If you feel capable, continue flowing through your asana practice, or sink into a child’s pose or seated position while you release your feelings. Your instructor and classmates have likely seen this before and will not judge you. In fact, this can be a wonderful invitation to connect with others in a shared experience of humanity and empathy.
Practice self-compassion and self-care during and after. This means taking your time, speaking kindly to yourself, and allowing yourself to truly process these emotions rather than rejecting them. Maybe treat yourself after practice by eating your favorite snack or doing a comforting activity like journaling, painting, meditating, or having a movie night.
If you want bonus points: accept this challenge, and dig deep into the feelings that came up. Use tools like journaling, communicating, self-reflection, or therapy to increase your self-awareness, get to the root cause of any emotions you’re holding onto, and heal through any difficulties. This is a beautiful opportunity to learn about yourself, grow your awareness and resilience, and continue feeling and releasing your emotions moving forward.
You may be asking yourself how you can experience one of these sudden emotional releases through yoga. While physical exercise, including yoga asana practice, can be very useful, emotional and psychological work are also important. This looks different for everyone, but often includes therapy, journaling, talking to trusted people, self-reflection, self-expression, art, writing, or crying. The aim here is to accept discomfort as a part of life without resisting it, and embracing your emotions as a part of your human experience. You can also try gradually increasing the frequency or intensity of your yoga practices and incorporating more hip-opening stretches. Remember that it is okay if you don’t experience sudden emotional release; maybe your path is gentler and more gradual. Trying to force anything will likely make release more difficult.
I hope this blog post has provided some clarity and understanding, and maybe sparked an interest in yoga and emotional release. Please share your experiences with us, reach out to Resilience Rally with any questions, and utilize our resources to support your own mental health journey!