Here are some things students have said to me this week:
“I’m ashamed that I still feel resentment towards my ex-partner. That’s not very yogic, is it?”
“Anger is corrosive. It keeps bubbling up and I hate myself for it.”
“ I’m a yoga teacher but I hate my body. I’m such a fraud.”
At the heart of these statements lies the conviction that feeling anger, resentment, disgust and any other ‘negative’ emotion is a bad thing. It’s un-yogic. Where did so many of us get that idea? How did we come to believe that being a yoga practitioner means vanquishing all emotions except that elusive ‘bliss’ state that we see in the dreamy expressions of Instagram yogis meditating on the beach?
The truth is, those big, hairy, uncomfortable feelings exist and our attempts to make them go away can end up causing bigger problems. The Dalai Lama is very clear on this point: “We cannot overcome anger and hatred simply by suppressing them.”
Telling yourself that you ‘shouldn’t’ feel these emotions is counter productive because when you push those sensations away, you’re actually training yourself to numb out to ALL of your feelings. Suppressing your feelings becomes a habit and, eventually, even joy, excitement and empathy become dampened down as you habitually stuff down emotions the moment they arise. Perhaps feeling nothing seems easier than having to experience those big, confronting emotions. But there’s a very high price to pay as we become disconnected from our feelings, needs, bodies and relationships.
So, if we can’t make those intense and unwelcome feelings disappear, how do we deal with them? Yoga offers a two-fold approach. Firstly, we learn to feel what we’re feeling – and tolerate those feelings without having to act on them. It’s ok to feel anger – allow yourself to notice how anger manifests in your body and breathing. You don’t need to suppress it or act out. Just be with the experience of feeling anger. This can take some practice, guidance and support. Those emotions are there for a reason and stuffing them down won’t make them go away. Learning how to experience and express them allows us to go through a process of ‘unburdening’, owning and then releasing the power behind the sensations.
Secondly, we cultivate qualities that act as an antidote to those difficult feelings. If you are experiencing anger, try cultivating compassion. If you are feeling hatred, cultivate love. If you’re experiencing disgust, cultivate patience and tolerance. This is a very empowering process as it means you actually get to choose the way you want to feel, rather that being hijacked by feelings that seem beyond your control.
These approaches can take time and you’ll certainly benefit from the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher or therapist. But you can start right now. When those intense emotions show up, notice how they make you feel and take a moment to be aware of what happens in your body and mind when they arise. Do you hold your breath? Do parts of your body tense up? How do you feel like acting out? Just notice.
Then take some time each day, when you’re feeling calm, to cultivate the qualities that are the antidote to these strong, painful emotions. Perhaps you can practice a Loving Kindness meditation to cultivate compassion. You could work with your teacher to create a practice that helps you experience more confidence, patience, self-acceptance or whatever qualities you need in order to build the resilience to meet each emotion as it arises. And that’s when the transformation happens - when you can welcome feelings as they arrive, experience them authentically, and then choose how to respond. That’s when we are liberated from the destructive power those emotions once held over us.
Painful emotions can be calmed through practicing Mindfulness. Listen to your free 3 minute mindfulness practice here or download a free Loving Kindness (Metta) Meditation here
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.