personal yoga practice

Yoga for Your Heart: Healing Emotional Pain

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Recently, a client of mine asked for guidance in her personal yoga practice. We’ll call her Brenda. Brenda was going through an emotionally-draining transition period and wanted help “escaping” from her mind and problems. She asked if I could write her a physically challenging and vigorous routine that she could practice at home in order to help get her mind off her current life situation. Her common predicament inspired me to write this piece, as many of us look towards yoga for help through difficult times. Like most human beings faced with emotional pain, Brenda’s first reaction was to try and find a way to avoid it. Unfortunately, although this method may be helpful in the short-term, it isn’t an effective long-term solution.

Really challenging or fast moving flow practices are great for letting you “get your mind off” the rest of your world or your problems, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; short-term relief is sometimes what we need or all we can handle at the moment, especially in a public class where we may not feel safe exploring or acknowledging the reality of our emotions. Getting fully into our bodies has a calming effect; it tends to slow mental activity and allow us to concentrate on something other than our problems, even if just for the hour. Feeling our physical form heating up and burning with transformational discomfort can be a welcome experience when it serves as a distraction to discomfort we may be struggling with mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.

The problem with the distraction method is, we can only run from and ignore reality for so long; eventually we have to acknowledge and work through our problems in order for them to get better. “Escaping” only delays the process of confronting the pain so that we can heal and come out on the other side. At some point, changing our situation for the future requires that we are open and willing to accept and explore reality as it is in the present. When you are struggling with emotional pain or life transitions, take a look deep inside your heart. Decide if you are ready to face your inner emotional issues head on right now. If not, intentionally choose to give yourself more time and, by all means, keep practicing with flow, moving with and enjoying the breath. Be aware that you are doing this to temporarily soothe the pain, and this is okay for now. Maintaining honesty with yourself is important; it is up to you to balance challenge with compassion, rather than avoiding the challenge of change completely.

At some point repressing the pain will get tiresome. The cost will outweigh the benefits. When you feel brave and ready, it is time to begin holding poses for a very long time in your personal practice. Surrendering to a posture helps us to acknowledge our current reality so that we can deal with it. Holding asanas for a few minutes can help us make peace with “what is”; the focus of the practice becomes a meditation on our inner “aliveness” and  helps us to accept reality and have a sense of calm about where we are right now (on the mat and in life), even if it is uncomfortable, foreign, or scary. When we fully embrace and understand the present we can deal with it effectively, and take actions towards creating the life we want.

I recommend the following postures for helping you work through transitional periods and emotionally-challenging times. Hold them for 2-5 minutes each. While you are in them, focus on the sensations and experiences that come up in the body and the mind. These may be physical, energetic, emotional, or mental “mind chatter”. All of these experiences are important and need to be acknowledged and processed. They are begging for attention for a reason.

  • Centering/Meditation: Begin seated comfortably and sit up straight. Close the eyes. Notice what you can hear, smell, taste, and feel in contact with your skin. Become keenly aware of all 5 senses. Then notice where you are emotionally. Notice what you are thinking. Notice what you can feel or sense inside your body. If you are noticing “what is”, you are meditating. Meditation is not about clearing the mind or relaxing; it is about observing one’s experience.

  • A Heart opener such as Camel, Cobra or Up-dog: These are excellent for relationship issues and feelings of loneliness, separation, resentment, and distrust. Heart openers help cultivate open-heartedness, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, trust, and unconditional love (not only with others but also with ourselves!). I recommend warming up the spine with cat/cow or baby cobra before moving into the more intense camel, full cobra, or up-dog. This will prevent injury to the low back.

  • Pigeon, Cow’s head, or any intense hip opener: These open up the gates to our authentic emotions so we can acknowledge them, process them, and release things we don’t need anymore. Hip openers are excellent for letting go of things that are holding us back.

  • Balancing Half Moon (regular or revolved): This pose helps us to find the calm within the chaos. It reminds us to find our center, stay balanced, and focus on what is important in the midst of any circumstance. We also learn that falling isn’t nearly as scary as our fear of falling, and that we can always get back up. Our attitude about falling is much more important than whether or not we fall.

  • Headstand: This asana is good for life transitions and accepting change, as the posture offers a new perspective on the world. Being up-side-down helps us look at things in a new way, observe rather than judge, and get outside of our comfort zone. Practice with a wall behind you for safety. This is a good one to end with right before Savasana, as it sends a lot of blood to the head.

  • Savasana: The classic ending posture to any yoga routine, this active resting pose helps us to consolidate what we have learned in our practice and integrate it into our bodies and minds. We reflect on and notice any change we created or wisdom he came in touch with. We experience the miracle of being fully alive and human by simply being with ourselves and letting the ground support us. We decide what to take with us off our mat and into the rest of our life.

Yoga reminds us that the relationship we have with ourselves is the most important. This is the foundation for healthy and happy relationships with others and the universe. Meet yourself where you are and use modifications when your body asks for them. Practice self-compassion and use child’s pose in between postures as needed. I hope these pointers are helpful. If you don’t know how to do the poses, I recommend taking a few private classes or finding a “beginners series” to join. As always, you are welcome to come explore yourself in the safety and support of my private yoga therapy sessions.

Change is rarely easily, most things worth doing are challenging, and personal growth requires an attitude of openness and acceptance as we trek into the unknown. Yoga provides an opportunity to explore these realities of life from the security of our mats. Be open, be brave, and most importantly, remember to breathe.