Many people believe that yoga affects only the muscles and joints positively, but it is taught, that every pose has a specific effect on the internal organs. One might wonder how this can be. In yoga as in Chinese medicine, there are several emotions identified as having a specific attraction to particular organs. An excess of fear damages the kidneys. Too much anger damages the liver. Excess joy damages the heart, while grief in overabundance damages the lungs. Too much sympathy damages the spleen and sadness destroys the brain. Conversely, equilibrium in the emotions causes the body and its organ systems to work more efficiently.
There are poses to affect the emotions in yoga, just as much as they affect the muscles. For example, while practicing downward facing dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) we can deeply stretch the shoulders, the spine, hamstrings, feet, and the Achilles tendons, but we can also use this asana to decrease depression and anxiety. Simple postures such as cat-cow breathing can reduce fear. Supine twist (Suptaikapadaparivrttasana) is an excellent posture for relieving back pain, but is also an excellent pose for building acceptance of life’s stresses and eliminating feelings of being overwhelmed.
We all approach our practice from where we are – meaning, we cannot expect to jump right into an advanced asana. Some people have chronically tight muscles. It is the intent of a sustained yoga practice to gradually relax the built up tension in the body, and to release the emotions that are “locked” within the body behind this tension. When we begin to let go of the stress stored in our bodies, emotions are likely to arise. Ideally, we would observe these emotions without adding judgment. They may be so old, that we can’t even remember what made us start holding our bodies in a state of stress in the first place. This is why letting go of a purely intellectual understanding of feelings we experience in a class is imperative. The body holds intelligence within it that we may not always be conscious of. By just allowing the emotions to rise, they will pass also, like ripples on a pond.
Just as each of us have our individual experience of asana practice, we can be affected differently depending on where we store stress in our bodies. In yogic science, we see the emotional body as its own sheath or layer. The Manomaya kosha (sometimes called the astral body) houses all our emotions. When the emotions in this layer get stuck – fear, anger, sadness, joy, any emotion – they can cause energy to become trapped in the physical body, including the internal organs. While some people may manifest anxiety in the throat (i.e., have a difficult time expressing or voicing their emotions) others will experience that same stress in the digestive organs, or the liver (i.e, they have a hard time digesting their feelings as in “I can’t stomach this.”)
A feeling which was once primarily unconscious to the practitioner can be triggered while practicing asana. Asanas act as a means to open energy gateways in much the same way that acupressure or acupuncture points free energy. Often, a practitioner will feel that their practice is affected by something that is happening in their current life, when often they have released emotions that were stored a very long time ago. Allowing them to come and go is advisable. We don’t have to intellectually “figure it out.” We can let the intelligence of the body do what it was meant to do to release our samskaras (Sanskrit for impressions).
Though every person’s experience of yoga is different, the following are some common emotions that arise in varying poses:
Forward bends – these asana can trigger a release of egocentric attitudes. They force us to face our fears as we turn inward. Those of us always looking behind to see what the world is up to will have difficulty in forward folds, and may have to confront emotions which have to do with surrendering to our own strength.
Backward bends – these asana are important when dealing with attitudes of embracing life – of being wide open to receive the good, bad and the ugly, to rise to life’s challenges. When practicing backbends, we may have to deal with emotions of being a doormat to others – literally bending over backward to please them, letting go of co-dependent patterns and building our own self-esteem without relying on others excessively to give us a positive self image. Just as in forward folds, backbends can bring up fears associated to these emotional patterns. Those who are extremely shy or have had their heart broken repeatedly may feel feelings of sadness as psychic wounds of the heart are healed. Because we are exposing our whole self to the world in backbends, they can also bring up feelings of confrontation experienced in the past with the self or others.
Balancing asana – these poses are extremely indicative of a person’s emotional state. Someone with an un-easy emotional state, or a mind busied with too many emotions, will find balancing poses very difficult. As they find equilibrium in these poses, whatever emotions that are causing the mind to become agitated may increase before subsiding to a more peaceful place. Balance poses help to build a calm, resilient, steady mind.
Twisting asana – as you may have imagined, these asana have to do with untangling the knots of life. All twisting asana initiate feelings of dealing with obstacles we face, and developing strength to face whatever comes our way. Twists, along with backbends give us more confidence through sustained practice, and develop overly introversive personalities.
Inverted asana – when we practice these asana, we are literally turning the world on its head – changing our perspective completely, turning our behavioral patterns upside down. Inversions help us to see ourselves, and our world from a different angle, so you can imagine all the emotions that can arise from turning your whole perspective around. Inversions help to purify the mind and bring greater peace and calm even when our worldview feels shaken.