How to Deal When You Experience Less-Than-Chill Feelings in Yoga Class

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Several years into her practice, Seane Corn was taking a Power Yoga class and found herself in a mood—silently judging those around her and feeling intense irritation as they moaned and groaned through an intense series of poses. But as the session wound down and she settled into pigeon, something strange happened: She realized she was about to start crying during yoga.

Corn immediately jumped up from her mat and ran to the bathroom. "In the stall, I heave. Tears pouring from my eyes, deep, animal sounds coming from inside me," the legendary yoga instructor recalls in her new book, Revolution of the Soul. "I don't get it; everything in my life is fine. It really is. I have a job I enjoy, a boyfriend I'm into, a practice I love. Why am I suddenly, so unexpectedly, emotional?" Eventually, she returned to class and got into pigeon on the other side—only to begin sobbing again, this time with flashbacks of the abuse she experienced as a child.

She didn't realize it then, but Corn was experiencing an extreme manifestation of something many yoga lovers have encountered at some point—unpleasant feelings or traumatic memories that arise during a practice. "When people move and breathe and discharge energy, emotions may come up to the surface. Sometimes they're big emotions, like crying, fear, or rage," Corn says.

So why is yoga, specifically, so effective at stirring up this kind of emotional detritus? One theory, popularized by experts including Peter Levine, PhD, and Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, is that the energy of traumatic experiences is stored deep within the body. Yoga releases long-held tension in the tissues and nervous system, and may "unlock" some of this latent energy, allowing it to come to the surface. This can be especially true in poses that mirror a past trauma, says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Cohen, PhD. "A big one is cobra pose, where you're pushing against the ground," she says. "Let's say you were in a situation where you couldn't push or get out—the pose can mirror to your body that feeling of pushing or escaping."

Even if you haven't experienced severe trauma, there are several other reasons why yoga may bring forth not-so-good vibes. "Very often, people run around distracting themselves—with phones, with substances, with food—so they don't have to feel or experience," says Dr. Cohen. "When you're in a yoga class, you're slowing down, bringing your attention to the breath, and feeling into your body. You can't really be distracted [from your feelings] anymore." She adds that the soft music and lighting in some yoga classes activate the parasympathetic nervous system and trigger the body's relaxation response, allowing certain emotions to flow more freely—including sadness and longing. Conversely, when the body's in an amped-up fight-or-flight state—which could be tipped off by a more vigorous yoga class that puts stress on the body and mind—Dr. Cohen says you're more likely to feel things like anger, frustration, or anxiety.

If any of this sounds familiar, the first thing to know is that you're not a bad yogi. Emotional uprisings are a common side effect of the practice, and they can happen to beginners and pros alike. The key is to know how to handle them in a healthy way when they do happen. The following expert tips will help you do just that—so you can leave your mat a little bit closer to that peaceful, easy feeling you came for.

Ground yourself in whatever way works for you

Crying during yoga can be extremely cathartic. If you feel like you have the tools to cope with your tough feelings, there's no reason not to let them out if you feel the need. But after you're done—or if your emotions get to a point where they're scaring you or you start to dissociate—both Corn and Dr. Cohen agree that it's important to engage in grounding techniques to bring yourself back into your body.

"Stop, get into child's pose, feel your body on the floor," says Dr. Cohen. "Open your eyes and orient yourself to the room. Name three things you see. If there’s a song playing, listen for a drum beat or a tone. Get yourself back into the present moment." Corn adds that stepping out of class and breathing in some fresh air can help you reorient yourself—and if you're taking class with a friend, ask them to come with you for support.

Get curious about your feelings

So you've never cried (or felt extremely pissed off) during a never-ending round of sun salutations? That doesn't mean you're not processing buried negative experiences. As Corn points out, just about everyone has had thoughts of comparison and competition on the mat—you know, things like I’m not good enough or I’m too old for this or I’m going to go deeper than that person next to me—which she says are often feelings rooted in past experiences.

If you ever feel ashamed of yourself for thinking such thoughts, Corn wants you to change your perspective. "If [a negative thought] starts to come up, great! You can't change it until you see it," she says. "Witness it and get curious about it. Where did I learn this behavior? Where else does it show up? How does it impact me and how is it determined to sabotage my growth? How can I begin the process of changing it?" She recommends journaling on these questions after class, noting in which poses the thoughts came up. The important thing is to start a dialogue with the shadowy voice in your head, rather than instantly shutting it down.

Talk about it with your yoga instructor

If you experienced any unexpected emotions during class, Corn recommends talking to your teacher—in many cases, they can help reassure you that you're not alone. "Hopefully, the teacher will be skilled enough to normalize the experience and say 'Your body is wanting to express something, how can I support you in this?'" She says many teachers will be able to recommend additional resources for what you're going through, such as the names of local therapists or trauma-informed yoga instructors. (If you can't find any of the latter in your area, she recommends looking into the work of Hala Khouri, Ashley Turner, or Kyra Haglund.)

Set boundaries around your body

Yoga studios have changed in the #MeToo era—many teachers have dialed back on physical adjustments to avoid triggering touch-sensitive students. Even so, if you're uncomfortable with touch in any way, you have every right to be proactive and ask your teacher not to adjust you. "You have to remember you have agency over your body," says Corn. "Your experience is your own to control and to determine, and you can do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself." Your teacher won't be offended, promise.

Visit a therapist

In some instances—say a person is dissociating, panicking, or crying during yoga on a regular basis—Corn and Dr. Cohen both recommend seeing a mental health expert for additional help. "Think of it as your body saying 'Please give me more attention,'" Dr. Cohen says. They recommend finding a therapist one who specializes in an embodied treatment called somatic experiencing—a specific kind of therapy designed for people experiencing trauma or PTSD. Dr. Cohen says that acupuncture and craniosacral work are also good complements to therapy.

Don't give up on yoga

You may be tempted to stop doing yoga altogether if you're triggered in a class, but Dr. Cohen says that's not a great idea—and not just because yoga has a myriad of proven mental health benefits. "Avoidance just leads to more anxiety," she says. "There's nothing we cant handle, we just need to do it slowly." She and Corn recommend trying out different styles of yoga, different teachers, and different class times to find the right fit for your current emotional state.  And remember, says Dr. Cohen, there's no reason to be afraid of strong feelings. "They're a part of life," she says. "We just need to be able to learn from them and hold them in our nervous systems."

Next time you start feeling stressed out in yoga class (or, like, anywhere), give these calming breath techniques a try. And seriously, don't worry if your practice isn't "perfect"—there's no such thing.

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