A new student recently said she had been told that if a yoga teacher knows what they are doing and teaches the class properly then the students should leave feeling energised and good. Did I agree? Well, I thought, I guess that does often happen – but not all the time. Students can leave an asana practice feeling angry, depressed, paranoid, and hopeless. So what is that about? Isn’t it supposed to make us peaceful and serene?

For me, yoga (by which in this context I mean asana) is a transformative practice and the process can sometimes be difficult and uncomfortable and painful. This can be felt on a physical*, mental and emotional level. So why is this? What are the mechanisms at work? What should we do while it’s happening? Will it ever be over?

Yogic Theory

Yoga theory says we have five bodies.

  • The physical body we can all see and feel: the annamaya kosha.
  • The energetic body we can experience as vibration or buzzing: the pranamaya kosha (the etheric body in the Western Tradition).
  • The mental and emotional bodies: manomaya and vijnanamaya kosha, (these I will refer to, somewhat inaccurately, as the astral body).
  • And the body of bliss (we all hope to experience in the end): the anandamaya kosha.

One Way Of Seeing It

When we experience strong emotions an imprint or pattern can be left in the astral body. Even if we forget the original event, these patterns can cause us to react to life unconsciously with thoughts and emotions that are no longer relevant. They can stop us from seeing things clearly and stop us from reacting freely. They keep us trapped in old un-thinking, un-aware patterns. They reduce our free will and keep us from our true selves. Yoga can be seen as a practice to work through these patterns and become free – or at least freer.

How Does Asana Affect This?

During an asana practice we stretch our physical body and work through blockages in muscles and joints. This leads to the body being freer and healthier. In the short term however this process can cause the release of toxins and some level of pain as previously stuck areas start to move again.
A similar process happens on an astral level. As we work on the physical body, we also work on the energetic and astral bodies. Mental and emotional blockages are un-blocked and things start to move. This can lead to us re-experiencing emotions and thoughts with no obvious cause. For example, leaving a yoga class and suddenly feeling angry, or maybe later that day feeling depressed and miserable. This can be confusing and hard to deal with.

What Feelings Can Come?

I’m not sure how helpful it is to make generalisations because everyone is different, but over the years I have made some observations on what feelings seem to come, and from where in the body:

  • Back bends (front openers) – anger, depression, paranoia and (it’s not all bad) increased sex drive.
  • Hip opening – anger, frustration and depression.
  • Shoulder opening – lack of protection, vulnerability.
  • Hamstrings – feelings of worthlessness.

But in reality any emotion can be felt from anywhere; it’s very personal.

What Should We Do?

The first thing is to try not to react and act out these feelings on those who are around us.

Hold: Try to hold the feeling. Really feel it. Feel it in the body, in the breath. Allow it to be there.

Observe: “Oh! I feel angry/depressed/paranoid! That’s interesting! Lets watch it and see how it develops”. See if any memories come up. Note what you dream about. Are the feelings directed at specific people? At yourself? Are they general? Does the feeling have a colour? A temperature? A texture?

Allow: Try not to judge. Try not to label emotions as “bad” or “unacceptable”. We all have a huge range of feelings and reactions. That’s fine. What’s important is what we do with them. Watch and hold with gentleness. Observe.

Don’t Give Up: Keep doing your yoga practice. There are huge ranges of other therapies that can be helpful in dealing with negative emotions. Talking therapy is probably the most direct. Also helpful are massage, reiki, dancing, chanting, rebirth – the list goes on. The key thing is to stay with it.

And then – sooner or later – it will pass. This may sound a bit simple and easy, but that is my experience. We will go along for maybe a few weeks or months dealing with these strong emotions (or maybe just feel it a bit every now and then) and then one day it passes and we go back to “normal”. Maybe you will understand what it was all about; maybe you won’t have a clue. It doesn’t matter. And afterwards comes a certain lightness, an awareness and maybe some peace and ease**.

Usually an emotion is not fully “dealt” with. Normally there are layers of emotions within us (the onion analogy fits well here). But each time we deal with the emotion we go a little bit deeper, gain a little bit more understanding and maybe a bit more peace.
Normally we re-experience the feelings again further down the line. Most issues aren’t just sorted out in one go, normally we find ourselves working through layers of experience and meaning over time.

Back To Yogic Theory

So by working on our astral body through an asana practice we can clear old patterns of reacting in response to triggers in an unconscious way. We can become clearer and lighter and more aware. In the process we can go through uncomfortable times of re-experiencing old thoughts and emotions. We hold them and observe them and let them go.

Interestingly, this can happen whether we are aware of it or not. Even if someone views their asana practice as purely physical, it can still have a profound effect on them emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Often people come to a yoga class for physical reasons but the motivation to keep doing it is mental and emotional.

As a yoga student, be aware of this possibility – welcome the process as part of your transformation. Be gentle with yourself while it is happening and maybe warn the people close to you.

As a yoga teacher watch for this process in your students and sometimes explain something of this to your class. The emotional side of Yoga is a subject that should be discussed from time to time in Yoga studios and health clubs and especially on teacher training programs. Open discussion about the emotional aspects of Asana practice may help students experiencing negative emotions return to the mat, and may even encourage further exploration around the source of the feelings.

When you feel that unexplained anger/depression/paranoia, try to embrace it. See it as a positive process of working through old and unhelpful patterns, an opportunity to grow and transform and learn about yourself.  For a practice to be meaningful and genuinely transformative we need to take the rough with the smooth. Enjoy that feeling of peace, wellbeing and serenity but also try to embrace the less enjoyable feelings because going through that process is going to make the biggest difference in the end.

* When I say an asana practice can be painful physically I want to make it clear that I am not advocating practicing through physical pain. When practicing asana we experience many sensations in the body, from the dull achy feeling of safe muscle stretching to the sharp feeling of damage and the body saying, “stop!” We need to learn to understand different sensations in the body and listen when the body is telling us to stop. Choose VERY CAREFULLY what sensations you work through and when you back off.

** My experience: I have practiced asana for 16 years – for most of that I’ve had a daily Ashtanga practice. I have gone through the primary and second series and started third. I have taught Ashtanga for 13 years. I have seen many friends and students go through a similar journey.