By Bo Forbes, Psy.D.
Many yogis I know lament that Hatha Yoga’s mood-enhancing benefits don’t last as long as they’d like—as one recently put it, “I feel like my best self—but only for about as long as a caffeine high.” Others confide that meditation’s calming effects on the mind don’t always improve their emotional lives or relationships—as one yogi admitted, “I’m much more mindful—just not when my girlfriend pushes my buttons!” When we’re on the Yoga mat and meditation cushion, we can taste our potential for growth. Yet off them, we may encounter a force of great resistance that bars the way to lasting change.
When I teach, the most frequent requests I get are for hip-openers and heart-openers. The hips and heart seem to be receptacles for frustration. “My hips are so tight!” people say, or “How do I open my chest—no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t seem to respond!” This is because much of our emotional armoring is concentrated in the hips and heart. These areas are repositories for painful emotions and memories, but also for creativity. So we may think we want to open our hips and heart and to connect more deeply with our bodies. Yet we can’t access our deeper gifts without unraveling the layers of emotional experience that obscure them.
Yoga doesn’t rid us of our anxieties, our sorrows or our stress: it brings us into deeper contact with them. It may make sense intellectually that we store our “issues in our tissues,” and that the mind and body are inextricably linked. Yet the real-life connection between restriction in our fascia (connective tissue) and emotional holding can surprise us. Yoga seems to penetrate our membrane of defenses to reach the deepest, most primitive layers of experience. So the practice of Yoga can feel like opening Pandora’s Box: a primal storehouse of memories, emotions and experiences awaits us. This storehouse, which I call the Deep Visceral Body, evades the reach of the conscious mind.
Sometimes, the opening we find in Yoga has unexpected consequences: an avalanche of sadness that seems to come from nowhere, deep striations of vulnerability, a primordial and volcanic rage. As a clinical psychologist, Yoga teacher and Yoga therapist, I’ve noticed patterns in the way my students and clients respond to the emotional upheaval that a mindful Yoga practice evokes. Two reactions generally occur: First, the nervous system sounds the alarm and moves us into a fight-flight-freeze lockdown. Second, the emotional energy that comes surging forth from our depths can feel so threatening, so potentially self-annihilating, that it creates an immediate cognitive dissonance: This can’t be an intrinsic part of me—that would be intolerable! So the mind responds in a deeply adaptive and creative way: It projects our emotional experience out into the world in the form of a story. By doing so, the mind takes this inner, intra-psychic experience and cleverly makes it external, or interpersonal.
The story usually involves wrongdoing by a parent, child, partner or Yoga teacher. The story can be as simple as, “My grandmother died when I was three; that’s what this sadness must be about,” or more complex, such as, “My partner is cold and withholding; see how she’s not taking care of me here” or “Look how my teacher is assisting that person over there; I’m clearly not one of his favorite students.” Usually the narrative fits neatly into a cognitive schema, a mental and emotional samskara (pattern) that we’ve refined and polished since childhood. The narrative frames and contains our primal experience, and makes it safer. As with all samskaras, we rehearse our story, creating a gravitational pull is difficult to resist.
The challenge: The nervous system’s alarm response and the creation of the story happen within seconds, faster than the conscious mind can follow. Before we know it, the story has taken up residence in the depths of our imagination. And it feels absolutely, irrevocably true. This creative way of coping has an unfortunate side effect: It acts as a decoy, and lures us away from our deeper emotions. In this way, it reinforces the very patterns that clearly contribute to our suffering. And it short-circuits the opportunity the story gives us: to go inward and root out the long-standing samskaras that cause us suffering.
Even when we’re prepared for the story’s emergence, it’s hard to contain, let alone to shift. One of the most compelling settings for stories is a Yoga teacher training. Why does depth training in Yoga stir up such primal and challenging emotion? Teacher training involves a triple threat: It occurs in a learning environment, which evokes any performance pressure and attendant trauma of our early school experiences. It also takes place in the context of a teacher (i.e., parent) and colleagues (or siblings); this can reactivate the deep familial or competitive patterns of our childhood. Teacher training also asks us to inhabit our bodies in a deep way…
Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2012 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.