Recently, in a yoga class, I started crying. The tears welled up as I took a bind while in side-angle pose (look it up) and finally dribbled down as we settled into our final position—lying flat on the mat. Then they just kept coming. Soon I was hup-supping (as my husband’s grandmother used to say) like a little girl. I had to leave the class to compose myself; no one can enjoy shavasana to the sound of a fellow yogi weeping. It blocks the chi, or something.
This time, the music was clearly a trigger. Each yoga teacher has her (or his) own class soundtrack—a mix that may go from wine-spritzer Dave Matthews to songs from Grease (yup, really) to wolf howls and Gregorian chants. On this day the selection included the sweet ukulele version of “Over the Rainbow” by that big Hawaiian guy who died so young. It was a song my mother loved, one we’d listened to over and over while she was dying and that we’d played at her memorial service as we ran through her life in Slideshow. That song kills me.
So, I’m not surprised at how emotional I got when it came on. The big guy was dead (such a gentle soul and nice voice!), my mom was dead (such a loving, funny woman, also with a nice voice!); it was all just too much to take.
But it seemed to me there was more to it that than. I truly felt that the stretching and twisting I’d done had pulled some tucked-down feelings to the surface. It was like wringing out a rag—the emotions were holding on tight in every nook and cranny in my body, but then they were forced to let go. If the song had come on in the car, I don’t think it would have affected me that way.
So, what is it about yoga? Most people who practice it know that it’s calming and centering and makes you feel good.
But is there something about those up-ended and twisty poses and measured breathing that truly extends into the emotional part of our brains like massaging fingers? Did a series of sun salutations or the reaching of an arm around my back against its will physically extract sadness from my heart and push it out through my eyes?
It’s a tough thing to prove. In fact, a lot about yoga has been hard to show clinically, and skeptics (insurance companies?) fight hard to keep yoga in its place as a hippy-dippy exercise without real medical benefit
Granted, because official, peer-reviewed research on yoga and health hasn’t gotten very far yet, there are still a lot of “mays” associated with its long-term effects. But in the short term, it does a lot of real things. Like some other forms of exercise, doing yoga has what scientists call a downregulating effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system, which just means it eases our bodies’ various responses to stress. It lowers blood pressure, blood sugar, and stress hormones. It boosts immune system function and, recently discovered, it even decreases markers of inflammation in the body in heart failure patients. That makes me think about cancer. Cancer is all about inflammation. If we can tell the body to ease up swelling by holding awkward postures, opening our hips, and breathing in three parts, that would be fantastic news.
More good stuff: People with arthritis report lowered pain and people with breathing problems report better air intake when they add yoga to their days. Many breast-cancer survivors also report it helps in their recovery—by improving sleep (thereby reducing fatigue) and easing stress and fear about their ordeal. Yoga helps disadvantaged kids pay attention in class. And it really does help to kick anxiety and depression to the curb, at least for a little while. Real scientists doing real studies have said so.
Of course, yoga isn’t a pill you take a few times to cure you of any of the above. It’s something you have to keep doing. But if it can have all of the above effects during and shortly after the period in which a person becomes a yogi, the message is, stay a yogi. Long-term effects undoubtedly come with long-term practice. It just makes sense.
As for my crying experience, so far there exists no study that I can find that ties the twisting and stretching directly to “emotional release” in the way I envision it. The idea that our sadness and fears are like little bugs caught in the web of stuff inside us hasn’t shown up in any peer-reviewed journals thus far.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work that way. For me. (Yoga teachers always remind you it is “your practice.”) To fully engage in yoga I find I have to set aside logic and picture lots of things that wouldn’t normally make sense. For example, “breathe into your hips.” What? “Open your heart center.” Trying. “Connect your sits bones with the earth.” That I think I’m doing (though I find it awkward, in a group, to “move the flesh of my buttocks out of the way” to get there). In fact, I’ve learned over the years to visualize all kinds of silly-sounding things in ways that make them very real. And once you get to that point, you truly do feel the positive effects on body and mind of those actions. You are sending breath to a particular place to “create space” and you are rooting yourself to the earth to feel more grounded. If it makes you feel better, nothing wrong with a little hippy-dippy description now and then, I say.
So, I visualize quite clearly now the emotional garbage squeezing out like paste from tight spots here and there as I “twist on the exhale.” I can, putting logic aside and letting something else in, watch sadness being pushed up and out; in a way, I can feel it happen. It might come out as tears, it might not, but there is something real going on and something real being released. I decide what that real something is. The clinical evidence doesn’t matter to me.
What I love most about yoga is that it lets us picture not just what’s happening inside but how we want our bodies and minds to be, to reach for an ideal state of ease even though most of us will never actually get there. The landing isn’t what’s important; it’s the twists and turns we take along the way.
Jennifer S. Holland is a contributing writer for National Geographic magazine and the author of two best-selling books about animals, Unlikely Friendships and Unlikely Loves. See more of her work at cuttlefishprose.com.
Photo: Anna Jurkovska