The mental and emotional benefits of yoga are myriad. One way to take advantage of the emotional release that often comes with yoga is to combine your practice with journaling. Here’s how.
There’s a saying in yoga—“Your issues are in your tissues.” It’s amusing shorthand, but true. It is not uncommon to be in a yoga practice only to find the unsettling feeling of anger, jealousy, or resentment arise from what seems like out of nowhere. The good news is that yoga can help you acknowledge and digest your difficult feelings—whether they arise on or off the mat.
You bump up against the body-feelings nexus any time you are in a yoga class. And there are times in life when you want is to be anywhere except where you are. It’s a natural part of the human experience. And yet, if you can learn to stay with discomfort, the next moment often yields something new and sweet—release, catharsis, or integration. What brings you to the yoga mat over and over is that wonderful feeling of completeness and peace when you stay present with whatever arises during practice, and also when you bring what is present in your daily life to the mat.
Journaling is another discipline that can help you find clarity in the mire of feeling and sensation. It can feel like talking to a good friend or therapist—only that compassionate, wise person on the other side of the dialogue is you. A journaling practice can be done in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way, or it can take the form of specific questions and answers. Do whatever works for you.
In the spirit of inquiry, integrating yoga and journaling can yield riches of self-understanding. Here’s a yoga and journaling sequence for acknowledging, digesting, and integrating emotions that arise for you on and off the yoga mat. This practice includes longer holds of postures (one to three minutes) because that allows space for emotions to bubble to the surface. Use a timer so that you don’t have to keep track yourself, and keep a journal and pen nearby. Consider using the old-fashioned, manual art of putting pen to paper instead of typing your notes—studies show that the mere presence of computers or smartphones alters the way you think.
1. Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Child’s Pose is the perfect, quiet starting point for this journaling and yoga practice.
- Start on all fours in Table Pose.
- Bring your big toes together, separate your knees, and press your hips back toward your heels.
- Rest your forehead on the floor or your stacked hands.
- Exert slight pressure on your forehead toward the brow line (instead of the hairline) to ground and soothe your body and mind.
- Stay in the pose for two minutes.
- Regulate the length of your breath to a pattern of four counts inhalation, and eight counts exhalation.
- Check out instructions for five different modifications for your Child’s Pose.
- Ask yourself, “How does my body feel? What are the sensations in my muscles, bones, joints, and organs?” Try not to tell yourself a story about why you feel the way you do. Simply notice the sensations.
- Next, ask, “Is my mind calm or agitated? Where are my thoughts drawn? Is there a predominating subject to my thinking, or am I pulled in many directions?” Again, try not to criticize or explain any of this to yourself. Simply observe and give permission to be as you are.
- Last, ask, “What is my state of heart, or emotion, at this moment?” See if you can put a name to one or more feelings, even if they’re difficult ones. Remember that people can hold many—sometimes conflicting—emotions. You might register worry, hopefulness, sadness, impatience, and love all in the same moment.
Write down your observations before transitioning to the next movements. It’s useful to record even the obvious things, such as “I’m hungry” or “My back feels achy.” This is an exercise in deep self-awareness, and that starts with the outermost layer—the body.
2. Free-Form Cat and Cow (Marjariasana and Bitilasana)
This enlivening warm-up will prepare your body to hold the postures that follow.
- Come back to Table Pose.
- Move your spine in gentle forward and back bends (aka arching and rounding).
- As you inhale, lift your tailbone and chin upward toward the sky and let your belly move down toward the earth.
- As you exhale, draw your belly into your spine and round your back toward the ceiling as you tuck your chin and tailbone.
- Alternate these two movements several times.
- Now, let this movement evolve. You can sway your hips side to side, or do circles and barrel rolls—whatever types of gentle movements awaken and energize your spine.
Let it feel good and let your body—instead of your agenda—lead the way. All the while, stay aware of your physical, mental, and emotional landscape.
Journaling Exercise: Notice the effects of these simple movements in your body. Ask, “How has my body responded? Do I feel awake in my body—or tired, or tight, or relaxed, or something else? What kinds of thoughts are present? Have my feelings shifted from a moment ago?”
Remember, it’s okay if sensations and feelings shift, and it’s okay if they stay the same. The purpose of this exercise isn’t to force a change, but simply to grow your awareness.
3. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Downward Dog, a ubiquitous yoga pose, gives a luxurious stretch to the entire back of your body from legs to spine and shoulders—and is a healthy place to hold and observe. A mild inversion, it allows more blood flow to your brain.
- From Table Pose, walk your hands a few inches forward, curl your toes under, and press up and back to Downward Dog.
- First, pedal your heels and release any tension from your head and neck.
- Then, straighten your arms, lengthen your torso, lift your sitting bones up and back, press your thighs toward the wall behind you. Bending your knees is perfectly ok here.
- Encourage your heels toward the floor if that’s available to you.
- Try to keep all of these actions in the body while breathing deeply and holding the pose for two to three minutes.
Take a short rest in Child’s Pose, and then return to your journal.
Journaling Exercise: How did your body feel? What kinds of thoughts were present? Did you experience resistance to the long hold of the posture? Did your mind wander, and if so, where did it go? What kinds of feelings arose? Are they the same ones from your first round of journaling a few minutes ago, or did they shift? How do you feel now that it’s done?
4. Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana)
According to chakra theory, the hips are the seat of the sacral, or second, chakra, and govern the emotions. In other words, you may find that your issues are most especially in your hip tissues!
- From Table Pose, slide your right knee behind your right wrist.
- Flex your right foot and slide the heel toward the front of your mat.
- Slide your left thigh back and straighten the left knee, then widen the left side of the pelvis toward the left, and descend your hips and buttocks closer to the floor.
- Walk your hands forward, rest your forehead on your forearms, on a block, or on the floor.
- Breathe. Allow sensations to be there. Relax all that you can.
Sometimes unexpected sadness or grief can come up here, if you allow it. Tears can provide a welcome release from past hurts that you may—or may not—remember consciously. Try to allow yourself this experience without labelling feelings as good or bad, and without pushing them away. After three minutes, switch sides. Upon releasing Pigeon Pose, return to your journal.
Journaling Exercise: Observe yourself in body, mind, and emotion, and record what you find, along with any insights. You might ask yourself: “Where, exactly, did I feel Pigeon Pose in my body? The back leg or the front leg? The outer hip or the buttocks? What was the quality of that sensation—deep or superficial, localized or diffuse, pleasant or intense? Where are my thoughts now? Is it getting easier to anchor into the present moment by linking awareness of my body, mind and heart? Did my feelings change or intensify in Pigeon Pose? Were any memories or past experiences activated?”
If you find yourself upset or agitated after this practice, or if you have unaddressed trauma in your past, seek the help of a skilled therapist. There are many therapists who use a somatic, or body-centered, approach.
5. Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Also known as yogic relaxation or Savasana, this is the ultimate moment to integrate the physical-mental-emotional experience you’ve had.
- Lie flat on your back and relax your legs to be equal distance from the mid-line.
- Open your arms to a 45-degree angle, turning your palms up. Take the time to establish Savasana in a symmetrical way so that your Prana, or life energy, flows unimpeded through your physical and emotional bodies—bringing rest, integration, and ease.
- Let go of thought, analysis, and interpretation, and allow your mind to float or wander if it wants to. You may find yourself blessed with an experience of pure Being.
- Stay in Savasana for five to ten minutes.
Journaling Exercise: Approach this last round of journaling as a way to integrate the whole experience. What are the effects of the whole practice in your body, mind, and heart? How do you feel now? Do you have a message for yourself moving forward, or an affirmation about what you want to create? Again, trust whatever comes to you at this moment, without judging or censoring. Practicing awareness of body, mind and heart can lead to more freedom, if you allow it.
If it comes easily, you can end this practice with a prayer. You might ask that your burdens be lessened, or for guidance and direction. Or you might simply say, “thank you for the gifts and insights of this practice. May I have compassion, and may I see the light in all beings.”
These poses will each connect your body and mind in a different way, which means that they all have the potential to release different thoughts and feelings. Take the extra time in these poses to heart and use your journal to further explore comes to the surface.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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