It is generally accepted that yoga is healthy, and will make you feel good. The brochure from Yoga Bharata (my present teacher Bharath Shetty’s school) confidently states: “Yoga Increases: feeling of wellness, Positive attitude, Energy levels, Circulation, Memory, Concentration, Social Skills, Strength, Self-acceptance, Flexibility etc.”
While in my experience yoga definitely enhances well-being, and even one’s quality of life, in the long run, it can also on occasion leave you feeling considerably emotionally unsettled, or visited by unexpected and sometimes powerful moods, or strange dreams.
Yoga gradually works on even the deepest, longest standing tensions in the body, in particular the tight muscles that limit the freedom of movement of joints. It also works deeply on the whole nervous system, especially the central nervous system. And some powerful postures, for example those that work on the spine, activate considerable energy too.
One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, after an intense morning hip-opening session, I inexplicably found myself feeling shaky and insecure in my body, overcome with fear, doubt, and uncertainty. The mood passed overnight, but the force of the wave of negative emotion I experienced was unlike anything I had encountered so far. A few days later, my morning practice focused on asanas that work the lower back – the cobra posture, several variations of salabhasana, and dhanurasana (basically postures in which, lying on your stomach, you lift the upper torso, arms and legs off the floor, and hold). This session had the opposite effect, and left me feeling empowered, centred and grounded. In savasana the following day, after the same practice, I was suddenly flooded with a feeling of immeasurable gratitude, which persisted for much of the day. Everything seemed almost miraculous, the mere existence of a cup of hot chai, the sight of people happily chatting to each other filled me with joy, and for I while I ceased to feel separate from things, and felt like an integral part of the whole. This also passed, alas, but again it left a strong impression on me.
I once attended a week-end course with Mark Darby, during which he led a back-bending class, and warned us we might experience some emotional upheaval, or find hidden memories resurfacing. (I didn’t at the time, but since then I’ve noticed back-bending can affect my state of mind, and it’s not always blissful). And during a workshop in Marseille, taught by Petri Räisänen, one girl broke down in tears, sobbing uncontrollably for several minutes. Petri remained unperturbed, simply radiating the serene, benevolent energy characteristic of this great teacher. But he took the opportunity to talk about the power of yoga to heal mental and emotional patterns, confidently stating that addictions, for example, could be “purified” thanks to the practice. And he told us a story about one of his students, a woman who had been bullied for years at school as a child. When she came to him, he first taught her the sun salutations, but to begin with she could only do two, since as soon as she started on a third, the trauma of her past experiences would resurface. Petri explained it was some weeks before she was able to do a full set of both A and B salutations without breaking down. I speculate it may have been the deep ujjayi breathing that triggered her reaction, since the solar plexus is one of the first areas we unconsciously store tension, when distress disrupts our breathing patterns and provokes strong emotional reactions, but I may be wrong. The story fortunately has a happy ending, since Petri’s student is now a yoga teacher herself.
The yoga journey can sometimes be a rough ride. We all expect to feel sore at times, but if you’re thinking of taking up yoga, or practicing more regularly, know that you may experience surprising, unexpected effects, and that in the long run, yoga will quite likely change your life in more ways than you can imagine.