Both the Indian yogis and the Daoist yogis in China noticed a correlation between particular emotions and certain areas of the body: fear is centered in the kidneys, anger in the liver, worry in the stomach, fright in the heart and grief in the lungs. These associations make a lot of intuitive sense even to us Westerners. When we grieve our lungs go into spasm (called crying); when we are frightened suddenly our heart skips a beat (or we suffer a heart attack and become “frightened to death!”); when we fret the rate of ulcers rises; when our liver becomes damaged we may subject our loved ones to bouts of extreme rage (as most families of alcoholics are only too aware); and when we are afraid our adrenal glands activate readying us to run away or fight that which confronts us. Fortunately, we are also beneficiaries of positive emotions as well: the home for beauty is in the lungs; joy in the heart; creativity in the stomach; kindness in the liver; and wisdom in the kidneys.
Poses in yoga work the body physically and energetically, stimulating the meridian lines that correspond to the major organs of the body and sometimes eliciting strong emotional responses. In the example of the woman who experienced fear while she was in Straddle Pose, she may have created a deep stress along the inner thighs, the adductor muscle group, through which the liver and kidney meridians run. This stress may be sufficient to trigger an emotional response if there is some blockage psychically or emotionally in the pertaining organs of the liver and kidneys.
Regardless of the cause of the emotional response, the prescription is the same: awareness with dispassion. Watch what is occurring without trying to change it, without running away from it, without giving into it in despair or resignation. Of course, as we have already discussed, if you really feel you are past your edge and are too deeply into an emotional state, then back off! But if the emotions are just challenging, not dangerous, stay and observe the raw experience that is occurring. This is when something interesting is about to happen. Don’t miss it!
Ask yourself constantly, “What is this?”
Note the emotions and the associated physical sensations in detail to yourself: what are you feeling, what is your breath like, your heart rate, is there increased tension in your jaw, shoulders, neck? For example, if you are feeling fear, notice what fear feels like: “my breath is shorter and choppy; my shoulders are tense; my thoughts are foggy and I can’t focus.”
Don’t judge these sensations as good or bad and don’t try to change them; just observe them as they are. If you would like to work more deeply with these feelings check out the exercise described in YinSights called A.W.A.K.E.N. It is based on cognitive behavioral therapy where a similar program is offered to help people cope with anxieties, phobias, and debilitating fears.
To sum up, when a strong emotion arises in the middle of a yoga practice pay attention to it. If it is too strong, back off and perhaps even stop the practice for that day. If this continues to happen to the degree that you can no longer practice skillfully, then seek help from a qualified yoga teacher or counseling. However, if the emotions are challenging but not dangerous, use this opportunity to take your yoga practice to a new level: play the edge of the emotion without going over the edge. Start to observe what is actually occurring, without adding anything to the experience and without taking anything away from it.
One last thought, and for this I will quote Rod Stryker: “If you have never laughed or cried in a yoga class, what are you waiting for?”