Embodied Yoga. Why Feelings and Emotions Matter to Our Practice
Most Yoga sessions held today in studios all over the globe are still mainly centred around physical postures that students perform with their bodies –asanas that are sometimes accompanied by some form of breathing, and possibly, though not always, a measure of meditation. In an average class, it is also not uncommon to hear teachers encourage students to power through practice with discipline, attention, and focus and disregard any feelings or emotions that may surface during physical poses. Emotions and feelings agitate our passions and are seen as sensorial distractions –a type of white noise we must allow but not get attached to, least we may fail to pay attention to what really matters: our practice in the here and now.
While there's a measure of sense in that, approaching asana as a physical practice and disregarding emotions as a nuisance is a form of (spiritual) bypass, one that greatly misconstrues and misrepresents the reasons why we practice Yoga to begin with. We at ACEBE have written more than once about the dangers of thinking of Yoga merely as a physical practice in an attempt to bring meditation back to its due position in the tradition: the centre. Meditation is Yoga, and those of us engaging only in asana-based practices are truly missing the point. But does this mean that meditation is not of the body? Or, put differently, does this mean that meditation is not a physical practice? Granted, the answer is 'no.' But if the answer to these questions is so, what should we make of our emotions and feelings? Where do these events that we assume are of the body fit in in the larger scheme of things?
The reason why any of us, consciously or otherwise, rolls out the mat every morning to shape her body into her version of a particular set of asanas is to shape her mind in a particular way too. Those of us regularly practicing Yoga accept –again, perhaps unconsciously– that particular ways of breathing paired with particular musculoskeletal positions aid in bringing about certain mental states; and not only that, but that these states are often helpful when it comes to managing daily lived experience, as well as in maintaining particular states of concentration and relaxation during (but also after) meditation. In other words: we practice to experience greater calmness and a greater sense of centeredness both while we practice and after practice. And so, we implicitly accept that body and mind are one.
Still, it is often our impression that, in trying to correct the misinterpretation of Yoga as asana, we are somehow implying that meditation is a practice solely of the mind. And the truth is that nothing could be further from that. Body and mind are never experienced separately. They relate to each other as the waves do to the ocean or the clouds to the sky. Perhaps the confusion stems from a generally poor understanding of where the body ends and the mind begins, what the mind actually is, what is the relation between body, mind, and brain, and where do elements like emotions and feelings fit in the overall scheme of things. So more on that below!
Body, Mind, Brain and Yoga
Let us first be clear from the beginning: the body is not just a vessel for the soul, nor a mere tool of an all-mighty mind. Neither is the mind anything but a bunch of disembodied concepts without a body. Body and mind go hand in hand, for they are experiences in time and space that co-occur together (at least in this dimension!) and, as such, they co-necessitate each other to be able to operate in this world.
It is through the body that ideas take form and find expression in this reality, and it is thanks to the mind that our bodies acquire a measure of will and agency in the shape of sequenced images we call thoughts that can then lead to actions. The brain, on its part, is yet one more organ within the body, one containing many (though not all) of the systems and structures necessary for our organism to become conscious and acquire a mind. But the brain is not necessarily the prime location of consciousness, nor can the mind be said to reside solely in any other specific body part. This is not just 'us' saying so. Countless contemporary researchers in the fields of neurology and neurobiology* have come to confirm this much –as do, interestingly, the Vedic systems of knowledge Yoga derives from.** According to the latter, consciousness is a universal and all-pervasive phenomenon: the fertile soil where all that is and ever was grows. Mind is but an individualized reflection of this consciousness embodied within a person and thus rooted in space and time. Mind is embodied consciousness and this much is important.
The reason for all of these clarifications about these very fuzzy concepts is their importance to our practice of Yoga particularly where emotions and feelings are involved.
Emotions, Feelings and Yoga
In the West, rationalism has had a few centuries of supremacy by now, which means that most of us have come to think that 'rational thoughts' are something like Mathematics: factual, true, real, cold entities devoid of feeling that expose reality as it is and that conform the bulk of what great decisions are made up of. It is allegedly when we remain 'cold headed' and 'reasonable' that we make the best decisions, informed decisions. But what is the actual meaning of 'informed'? What kind of input constitutes the information we can really rely upon when making a 'reasonable choice'?
Years of research have come to demonstrate that one of the distinctive features of humans vis-a-vis other species in this planet is our capacity to experience emotions and feelings and put those to use when making an informed decision. And so, unlike popular bias, emotions and feelings often enable us to remain highly flexible in the face of events and react to a particular situation in ways that can sometimes counter what instinct (or reason) would dictate. Granted, emotions and feelings aren't always easy to handle, nor do these always lead to easier or better choices. But to disregard them as unimportant 'extra stuff,' stuff we should put aside to make better use of 'high reason' is a misinterpretation of the reality of how we humans actually decide.
In fact, emotions are often the result of highly complex evaluative mental processes, processes that alter the state our bodies are into, change the chemistry of our brains, and produce changes in our body-minds with particular physical and cognitive results. They tune us to the exterior (and to the interior of our bodies) in ways that go beyond rational, conscious knowledge, priming us for the generation of feelings, and thus (re)actions, based upon previous experience.
Hence, to discard emotions and feelings as mere white noise from the body is not just false, but also unhelpful; as much as saying that asana is something we do for the body and meditation something we do for the mind, and that neither emotions nor feelings have anything to do with that. In reality, body and mind, thoughts, feelings and emotions, and asana and meditation are much more dependent on each other than we often realise. The one affects the other not just in one direction, but frequently in a spiral that changes the essence of who we are with each passing moment.
The main goal of our capacity to reason, think and make informed decisions is to select the best response to a given event from the pool of possibilities available to us, and that pool is built from the variety of experience we gather as we do life –experiences that also involve our emotions and the feeling these often give rise to. So if your practice of Yoga brings up emotions and feelings to the surface don't just discard them as mere 'body stuff.' Sit with them, explore where a particular emotion or feeling is possibly coming from, where in the body (or the mind) it is experienced, how does it make you feel, think, not feel, not think. Why does it surface at this particular point in your practice and life. We learn not only from the experiences we consciously embrace and commit to –such as sitting in a particular pose while breathing a specific ratio for a concrete amount of time– but also from daring to face the things we fear, ignore, and avoid as they show up; from gathering enough strength to explore all that is with us and within us, with the desire to know ourselves perhaps not yet completely, but a bit better with each renewed attempt. There is a good reason why our experience of reality is embodied and it should also follow that our practice of Yoga be as much.
* See for instance the works of Prof. Ronald De Sousa, Prof. Donald Hoffman, Prof. Joseph Ledoux, or Prof. Antonio Damasio.
** The works of Dr. David Frawley are a good source of information in this regard.