Working With Difficult Emotions in Yoga


To be human is to experience an array of emotion.

Animals also have feelings, and I am reminded of this each time I leave home and my dog begins to tremble and whine. The human psyche is unique, however, and our highly sensitive and responsive nervous system processes a complex of human emotion that ranges from joy and ecstasy to despair and sorrow.

In the yoga tradition, there tends to be a bias toward states of equanimity and joy (feeling om shanti, or peace). Students come to believe that the true state of yoga is an effusive and expansive love for everyone in all situations. This may be due to the description in classical yoga of the "body of bliss," the most interior layer of the body, called the anandamaya kosha.

This subtle interior of the mind-body is identified as sublime and eternally joyful. In hatha yoga, accessing this semi-divine body is in some ways the summit of the training.

I certainly do not mean to degrade this state of exquisite joy. On a good day in my own meditation, when I drop into the depth of my being and rest in an ocean of calm, I feel a delightful rapture.

However, in yoga practice—both on and off the mat—it is also important to be able to attend to difficult emotions. I would like to explore here the very question of how to navigate them.

Experiencing Our Emotions Directly

Of course, we all would rather not feel grumpy, jealous, antagonistic, or irritable. In fact many of us, myself included, go to great lengths to avoid difficult feelings, and we can be quick to deny their presence when they arise.

So when we hear about the body of bliss and its nectar of sweetness, we may say to ourselves, "I want that!" Because difficult emotions are painful, we hopscotch right over our shadow, ignoring and neglecting how we really feel.

In this way, a yoga practice can become an emotional bypass. The impulse to be equanimous, happy, or enlightened is so strong that we may pretend we are content when we actually feel miserable inside. And the slim waistlines, pretty leggings, fun yoga sequences, and dance-like postures of contemporary yoga culture can contribute to simply glossing over a more messy interior.

It is important to acknowledge that we all experience suffering. Discontent or dissatisfaction is the first of the Four Noble Truths as espoused in the earliest teachings of the Buddha.

One of the primary aims of both yoga and Buddhist practice is to alleviate suffering. Despite our inclination to hightail it away from painful feelings as soon as they arise, it can be advantageous to acknowledge them. In our own quest for truth, we have to touch our heart and our mind pain, the sometimes decades long, intergenerational suffering that we carry.

And who of us is not born into heart-mind pain?

Jalaluddin Rumi once wrote, "The cure for the pain is in the pain."

In order to better understand this, consider the analogy in manual therapy of “unwinding.” When adjusting strain in the body, osteopaths, craniosacral therapists, and Rolfers will at times take the body’s connective tissues—muscles, bone, joint capsules, and ligaments—into the strain pattern (i.e., the pattern of holding).

The body’s sensory-motor system may then respond with, “Oh, that is the pain pattern that has locked me up all these years, and maybe I don’t need to hold on any longer.”

When the future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha, left the cozy confines of his father's palace, he was motivated to see into the suffering of all beings. He knew he had to witness pain firsthand. Ultimately he had to feel the hurt and the wound that was deep in his own heart.

In feeling our own pain, we touch a place inside of us that is tender, empathetic, and kind—and in so doing, we remember our connection to our greatest good.

That direct experience was his "practice." Jesus Christ also experienced the wound, both personal and collective. For Buddha and Christ, as well as other historical spiritual figures, suffering is essential on the path toward the development of higher consciousness.

In feeling our own pain, we touch a place inside of us that is tender, empathetic, and kind—and in so doing, we remember our connection to our greatest good.

In this context, to suffer doesn't mean stubbing your toe, having a stomachache, or experiencing your arm going to sleep. Rather, it suggests a suffering inherent to all beings. One of the tenets of the Buddha’s teaching is that everything is impermanent and life is fragile.

Stepping into Our Greatest Good

There is a saying in Zen that "All things hang by a thread." We realize that our bodies are fragile, threadbare, prone to decay and collapse. Also, mountains of ice and granite are impermanent as they melt and erode. In fact, the very ecosystems that sustain us are fragile, and in this age of global warming, it is possible to sense that the earth itself is in pain.

What is your own experience of fragility or loss?

Perhaps you or someone close to you has recently received a life-threatening diagnosis, your relationship with your spouse or beloved partner is in chaos, or you have a parent in the last stage of life.

Maybe you have felt anguish, outrage, or despair in light of the recent socio-political developments within the United States.

If we override our experience of suffering by denying it or sublimating it—or if we simply try to get it to pass as quickly as possible—we close a window that offers potential for opening us to our greatest good. When the molecules of feeling move freely inside of us, an alchemical shift occurs.

Feeling deeply can help us to move away from a posture of condemnation, defensiveness, and enmity to one that is open, tolerant, and sympathetic.

So if the yoga practice is working well, we welcome difficult and unpleasant feelings. This can be easier said than done, however. Many of us are willing to put our bodies through rigorous yoga postures, but we resist stretching into areas of emotional pain.

Many students of yoga could benefit from not only physicaltapas (heat-induced transformational practice) but also emotionaltapas. The tapas process is like the age-old practice of churning milk into butter.

Whether stretching the fascia in yoga or sitting with entangled thoughts and feelings in meditation, potentially toxic feelings may surface. Yogis who practice being with difficult emotions allow caustic or bitter feelings to arise.

Without judgment or blame, they allow themselves to feel fear or to acknowledge the shadow of a painful memory.

Three Key Components of Transformation

There are three key components to this transformational process. The first is intention—that is, a willingness to be with feelings of fear, irritation, or desire without succumbing to the impulse to change them, make them better, or resolve them.

The second is acknowledgement. This involves what we call “somatic tracking”—locating sensation in the body and witnessing the raw feeling associated with it. In meditation this recognition is called vipassana, which translates literally as "seeing into."

The third component is non-reactivity—building a capacity to observe painful emotional states without acting on impulse.

By touching our own pain, we develop the ability to work with the wounds of others. As a yoga teacher, this is what enables me to accommodate all kinds of different students from all walks of life. It is through recognition and somatic integration of my own painful feelings that I am able to sense the suffering of others.

Heart pain and mind pain are great teachers, showing us the path to compassionate action. This is the life of the spiritual warrior.

The spiritual warrior is not someone who can plow into handstand or hold warrior pose for hours on end—nor one who remains aloof, fearless, and unaffected by the trials of the world. It is someone who has worked deeply through his or her own wounds. By attending to our pain, we become more accepting, making it possible for feelings of humility, grace, and love to then flow through us.

In working with the emotional body, we typically pass through waves and waves of difficult emotion. In meditation we bring mindfulness to feelings that may be raw, irritating, or deeply frightening. As if approaching an animal in the wild, we need to proceed slowly, carefully, and lovingly. In yoga poses, it is through breathing, sensing the tension in our belly, and moving into the constriction of the hamstrings, or anywhere else in the body, that we transform.

Like in an archeological dig, we move layer by layer, strata by strata, through the history of our feeling body. When we can work through the pain and fear trapped in our bodies, we connect to our deepest sensitivities.

Through deep kindness toward ourselves, we develop a greater capacity for more nuanced feeling and sympathetic resonance with others.

Remaining Open

When I began practicing yoga 20 years ago I didn’t have the capacity to stay with difficult, conflicted feelings. I lacked the sensitivity and the emotional resilience. As my practice matured, I was able to work drop by drop, sensation by sensation, through the confused, distorted soup of my own emotions.

Rather than armoring or trying to engineer, control, or compensate for a feeling, I can now let it arise within me, allowing it to be what it is without analyzing or judging it.

When we can acutely feel our own pain and the pain of others, we become more open and available in our lives.

We live in a time where mindsets and "heartsets" are becoming ever more divided along lines of good and evil, right and wrong. Attitudes of us versus them prevail. Perhaps more than ever before, we need to cultivate patience, empathy, and sensitivity.

Yoga fosters sensitivity, and it is worth noting that sympathy and receptivity lie at the very root of yoga’s first principle, non-harming. The yoga teachings espouse that profound and lasting change occurs within. That is, when we stay connected to our own suffering and remember the fragility that is inherent to being human, we develop a greater capacity to care for ourselves and others.

It is by moving through the layers of complex feeling inside of us that we become more tender, and find the strength and resilience to remain open in the midst of a rapidly changing world.

About the Teacher

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Tias Little
Tias’s unique and skillful approach enables students to find greater depth of understanding and awareness... Read more