Yoga for the Emotional Body
The wisdom of yogic practices can help you design a healing program to manage your mood. Through the practice of pranayama (breathing) exercises, asanas (postures), and mantras (vocal vibrations), you can learn practices to calm and relax an anxious mood and practices to energize and elevate a depressed mood. Contemporary medical and psychological research affirms the power of yoga to bring balance to the emotional body.
Classical Yoga elucidates both the reasons for emotional suffering and the path for healing. According to this yogic wisdom, the primary reason we suffer is that we forget our connection to each other, all of nature, and to the universe. The Sanskrit word, avidya, describes our ignorance of this profound and beautiful connection. In a state of avidya, we feel separate and alone; we forget who we really are. The regular practice of yoga brings us to an elevated emotional state. At a biological level, many important changes occur. While the dance of breath and movement releases the “feel good” hormones of oxcitocyn and prolactin and decreases the secretion of the stress hormone, cortisone, there is also an increase in oxygen rich blood to feed and nourish our brains. At a more emotional and spiritual level, our yoga practice creates a sense of union with ourselves and our world. Most yoga practitioners will tell you that following their yoga practice, they experience a sweet sense of inner peace.
Feelings of disconnection caused by avidya are further exacerbated by a lack of prana in the body. Prana is our life force energy that rides on the waves of our breath. If you close your eyes and visualize a depressed person, the first image that arises is often a figure with rounded shoulders and a collapsed chest. This contracted, slumped posture limits the flow of breath into the lungs. Consequently, there is not enough oxygen moving through body, nor is there that energizing flow of prana. By learning yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) and yoga postures (asana), we create space in the body. We begin to open the lungs, feed the brain, and bring more prana into our system.
Yoga literature describes three basic psychological tendencies, known as the gunas. The three gunas are: sattvic (balanced), rajasic (agitated), and tamasic (lethargic). When we are depressed or anxious our minds and bodies are out of balance. In a rajasic state, we’ll feel anxious and/or manic. In contrast, a tamasic state will engender feelings of depression, dullness, and inertia. Yogic practices seek to bring the body and the mind to a state of balance (sattva). When balanced, we are able to respond to the challenges of life in a kind, calm, alert, and thoughtful manner. Understanding our personal psychology from the perspective of the gunas can help us design a yoga practice that moves us to that sattvic state. For example during periods of depression, we want to energize the body. Therefore, our breath and movement exercises will be those that invigorate. When anxious, we employ calming practices, asana (postures) and pranayama (breath exercises) that are slower and more restorative. Yoga can be a highly beneficial adjunct to good psychotherapy.
Ronda Pretzlaff Diegel, Ph.D., LP, RYT-500 is a clinical psychologist, registered yoga teacher, Clinical Supervisor at MiSPP, and meditation and Enneagram teacher. You can find out more about her at drrondadiegel.com.