Yoga: Exploring the Body of Emotion

By Charlotte Bell

Instead of running from fear, investigate the sensation.

Disappointment. Devastation. Fear. Sadness. Dread. Sleeplessness. Numbness. Loss of appetite. For myself, and for many of my friends and colleagues, this has been a pattern of existence since the shocking results of the presidential election became clear.

I made the mistake of looking at Facebook the next morning. Already, supporters of the winner and the loser were telling those of us who were upset to “stop whining” and “get over it.” This advice, though it may have been well-meaning from some circles, is not at all helpful: Feeling bad? Have a drink or eat some ice cream. Manufacture a smile. Rise above it.

For me and I suspect for many, disappointment, fear, sadness and dread are the truth of the present moment. These emotions may or may not be present 100% of the time, but it is vital that we allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel them when they are present.

Mental states and emotions filter our perception of reality. For example, when sadness is present, everything in our experience can look bleak. When happiness is present, the exact same experience looks wonderful. It’s important for us to understand how emotions underlie our perceptions, so that we can see our lives more clearly. From clear seeing, we make wiser choices. When we make wise choices, our lives are more peaceful.

My favorite metaphor for the essential nature of awareness is that of the sky. The sky is inherently radiant and pure. Clouds pass

through, rains fall, winds stir the atmosphere, but none of these conditions change the nature of sky. The mind is the same—clear and radiant. Emotions, like clouds, come and go, but they do not change our essential nature.

How can we begin to uncover our essential awareness, not so that we can rid ourselves of uncomfortable emotion, but so that we can meet whatever is present with spacious acceptance?

Begin by finding a comfortable sitting position, cross-legged on a meditation bench or cushion or in a chair. Notice if you feel as if you are leaning forward into your front body. Leaning forward is a posture of anticipation that can create stress in your body/mind. Rock forward and back a few times to find a position that feels neutral. When your body is in a neutral posture, you may experience a feeling of “settling back.”

If a particular emotion is present, find its physical location in your body. Once you have found where the emotion is manifesting physically, begin to investigate the sensation more closely. What do you feel? The range is infinite, but might include sensations such as burning, pulsing, fluttering, shivering or buzzing. Allow yourself to feel the sensations fully. Feeling emotions in the body helps us to step back from them, to see them more clearly. It is here where you can practice the art of working with emotions—finding the heart that neither indulges nor suppresses what you feel.

Notice if you react to the presence of certain emotions by judging yourself. Our culture supports a belief that emotions such as sadness, anger or fear are a sign of psychological weakness. In truth it is natural for these emotions to be present at times, just as it is natural to feel happiness and peace.

People who walk a spiritual path, in particular, often believe certain emotions to be unacceptable. We construct images of ourselves that deny these unacceptable emotions and judge ourselves harshly when we feel them. Judging what is present only makes us feel worse. Remember that emotions are like the clouds that move across the sky. We do not have to define ourselves by them; we only have to accept that they are present. This distinction is the gateway to finding peace no matter what we are feeling in the moment.

Remember that this practice is not the same as thinking about emotions. Obsessive thinking fuels emotion, and can cause us to get stuck. Dropping below the level of thinking to the level of experiencing the sensations of emotion is where our relationship to what we feel can begin to shift.

Emotional exploration can be a fascinating, if complicated, practice. Sometimes emotions may arise singly and at other times they may appear in clusters. We may recognize an emotion that is on the surface of our awareness but until we look more closely, we may not see another emotion that is underneath it, feeding it. For example, anger may be predominant, but when we look more closely we might see that it is being fueled by underlying disappointment or sadness.

Using emotions as our objects of study and meditation can be a basis for ethical behavior so vital to living a life of ease. When we can see our emotions clearly, we can begin to discriminate between those we want to cultivate and those we want to let pass, between those that bring happiness and those that bring suffering to ourselves and others. We can’t change what happened on November 8. But we can learn how to navigate our emotions skillfully, and from there, act with more clarity.

Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2016.