I get angry.
It may come as a surprise to some, because I’ve heard many friends and acquaintances of mine comment on how calm I am. That I’m the kind of person they can tell does yoga. One friend even asked me if I could ‘teach her to be zen.’
I don’t say these things to brag, but to prove that things aren’t always as they appear on the outside.
In a world ruled by social media everyone displays the happiest version of themselves. In the realms of yoga, spirituality and self-development, so much of the conversation is about positivity and finding your bliss.
In this world, it can be so easy to judge ourselves when any so-called ‘negative’ emotions arise.
We can often feel guilty for feeling these emotions, which only makes matters worse.
Guilt can hit the yogi who is stereotyped to be peaceful and calm all the time, or the woman who has always been told to be nice and not to rock the boat. (Let’s be honest, guilt can hit the man who has been told to be a man and not show any emotions).
People who know me best, my parents, my siblings and my partner are the ones who have seen me at my worst. They’ve seen my rage, my anxiety, my depression, my stress, my overwhelm, my breakdowns and my uncontrollable weeping.
I doubt any of them would comment on how calm or zen I am as a person. In fact, I appreciate that there are a handful of people that accept me for all that I am, including the difficult emotions.
The fact is, we as humans experience a whole spectrum of human emotions. And it is only us that has labeled them ‘negative’ or ‘positive.’ Yet, many of us have not been taught how to deal with our emotions.
We often inherit from our parents their mode of dealing with emotions, without little thought to the matter. The tendency is to either stuff our emotions inside or explode. Or, if you are like me, some combination of both.
I did not give much thought to how I dealt with my emotions until I started yoga. Over the years, the practice of yoga has showed me how to embrace my emotions and not let them take over.
How yoga taught me how to embrace my emotions.
It taught me awareness of my body
Like I said, all humans experience the full range of human emotions. In fact, emotions are just a physical reaction in the body. They are neither “good” or “bad”, but just a biological reality.
The things we normally associate with emotions, such as yelling when we’re angry, are not the emotion itself, but the way we try to release or avoid the physical reaction in the body.
Before I started yoga, I was so out of touch with my body. I rarely thought of my body, unless I was hungry, in pain, or working out at the gym.
I’m guessing many of you are like this too. I mean, when was the last time you thought about relaxing your tongue, teeth, ears or brought attention to each one of your toes? There are so many parts of our body that we forget about when going through our everyday life.
In yoga, I learned to bring total awareness to the body.
The practice of yoga teaches you to bring awareness to all areas of your body in each pose. At the end of each practice, you are often instructed to relax all the muscles in your body. Overtime, your awareness of your body becomes greater and you become more sensitive to all the subtle changes you experience.
The key to dealing with difficult emotions, is to stop and bring awareness to the sensations in your body that the emotion brings, rather than reacting to the emotion.
I once read an article about psychologists dealing with anger management clients. They brought their clients back into a memory that caused anger. Once they were in the space of anger, they asked their clients to close their eyes and simply state the sensations in their body.
On the outside, these clients didn’t look angry at all, because instead of yelling, shouting, scrunching their face, opening their eyes wide or making fists, they calmly narrated the sensations in their body with closed eyes, until the physical reactions dissipated and transformed into calm.
It’s often hard to do this when we are in the heat of strong emotions. Normally, our habitual reaction takes over.
Yoga gave me the space to practice being aware of my body. It helped me build up a habit of noticing my body and its sensations. Overtime, this practice in times of calm, helped me create a habit that I could carry into the times when strong emotions took over.
I’ll be honest, I still often react when difficult emotions arise. But I know that with consistent yoga practice, I will make the habit of noticing my body stronger and the habit of reacting will become weaker.
It taught me awareness of my breath
The breath is such a powerful tool in dealing with emotions. When we are stressed or anxious, we tend to breathe shallowly just into our upper chest. The same thing happens when anger or grief grip us.
Have you ever had the feeling that you can’t breathe when crying and noticed how the breath becomes deeper when the sadness begins to calm?
Deepening the breath can help us breath through discomfort, relax our emotions and bring our bodies once again to a calm state of being.
Most of us go through life breathing shallowly everyday. We rarely notice our breath and take for granted the very thing that keeps us alive. If we go throughout the day breathing shallowly, we don’t have any experience in breathing deeply to utilize when we feel strong emotions.
When I started yoga, I noticed how I breath very shallowly. It was very difficult to do any breathing practices and most of the time I wanted to avoid them. The more I practiced, however, the deeper my breath became naturally. Then slowly, when I got angry, I remembered the breathing practices from yoga and began to use them to calm my anger.
Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Anger, talks about how the breath helps us embrace our anger instead of judging it.
“Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing mindfully in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away.”
When we get angry, our mind starts to tell stories about how the other person is wrong and why we are right. In our thoughts, we can chastise ourselves for being angry and we begin to feel guilty.
Connecting with the breath takes us out of our minds. We stop telling stories. Instead, we can simply watch the breath. The guilt and anger slowly dissipates. Then, we can embrace our anger and feel compassion for ourselves.
When I first read about breathing when angry, I thought it would be easy. Then when I would get angry and yell, I would get mad at myself for failing. It was not easy to suddenly remember to breath.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about watering the seeds. Practice breathing mindfully each day, in order to practice using the tools for when they are needed in the heat of the moment. Sure enough, through consistent practice of the yogic breathing practices and mindful breathing, I have been able to use the breath to reduce my angry outbursts.
It helped me find the roots of my anger and speak my truth.
Developing more awareness of my body and breath, gave me the tools to slow down during moments of anger; to not let my mind run wild with justifications for my anger, but to come into the moment and notice what was really causing my anger.
In angry moments, it is easy for my anger to escalate. One thing will be said that will tip me off and then the argument will start to spin out of control. By the end, I may even forget what started the argument in the first place.
Coming into my body and breath, helped me come into the moment and really examine what caused my anger. I began to realize that what the other person had said or done was not really what I was angry about, but that thing had reminded me of something before that caused me anger in the same way.
These “triggers” often came from my childhood or even my own anger at myself. When I was able to slow down, I was able to understand what triggered my anger.
Then I was able to express this truth. Instead of being mad at the other person, I could share the previous experience and how that made me feel.
I was also able to realize that anger comes from a need that I have that was unmet. I started to understand what my needs are as a person. I was able to express my needs and also establish boundaries to make my needs a priority and prevent situations that would cause anger.
So what do I do now when I am angry, anxious or sad?
- I stop, close my eyes and take a breath.
- I scan my body for what sensations I can feel.
- I ask myself to describe these sensations: butterflies in my stomach, tingling in my chest, difficulty breathing, frog in my throat.
- I watch the sensations until they dissipate.
- I give myself compassion and tell myself that despite the fact that I have these emotions, I accept myself.
- When I am calm, I review what made me angry. I explore what triggers were brought up and what needs were unmet.
- I express these needs and triggers to the person I am angry with.
Dealing with anger has been a long journey for me. It began seven years ago, and is a journey I continue to this day. A consistent yoga practice gives me the chance to daily connect to myself and become more aware of my body and breath. Each day, I practice slowing down, so that I am able to slow down when I feel difficult emotions arising. Y
Yoga has given me the tools to bring that body and breath awareness into the times most needed and taught me the courage to deal with the anger of my past and vulnerably express my truth.
For the longest time, I was embarrassed by my anger. I thought, “I’m a yogi. I should be peaceful and not angry.”
If you’re reading this, then you may feel the same feelings of embarrassment that I also felt.
In my confession today, I hope you feel that you have a companion on the journey and the support to open up about your struggles with strong emotions.
I truly believe the more we open up to all of our emotions, even the so-called “negative” ones, we can process them, let them go and live our fullest and freest life in the future.
Do you share the same experience? Share in the comments…
Do you ever feel guilty for feeling angry, anxious, sad or any other emotion?
How have you learned to process?