Opening The Heart…

From Kripalu Yoga by Richard Faulds

Each of us is a lake of love, yet strangely enough we are all thirsty. – Swami Kripalu

The full flowering of emotional health is the capacity to live in a web of authentic and caring relationships. As your heart opens, your capacity for empathy expands and relationships take on more meaning. Close relationships allow you to be real and genuine, sharing whatever you are feeling. They are also a place where you can listen deeply, understand another’s experience, and express true caring. When your heart is open, even casual interactions can be intimate and meaningful.

As a result of the bumps, bruises, and very real traumas of life, and through a tenancy to focus on cognitive processing, many adults suffer a loss of emotional sensitivity. The flow of feeling through our internal networks breaks down, stifling communication between body, heart, and mind. What causes this breakdown is not known. Yoga points to energy blocks that impede the free flow of life force. Psychology refers to trauma, undigested experiences, body armoring, and the suppression and repression of feeling. Neuroscience posits that overwhelming emotions may get stored in the body’s cellular memory, causing neuropeptide receptors to shrink in size, decrease in number, and leave us dull and desensitized.

Regardless of the mechanism, many of us have unconsciously erected barriers that block strong emotions like anger, sadness, grief, and loss. Sometime, or perhaps many times in the past, we were angry or hurting and for whatever reason were unable to feel and express it. Years later, we still brace ourselves from feeling it through chronic muscular tension, defense mechanisms, and patterns of behavior that dull our ability to feel. It is impossible to block only “negative” feelings, and this strategy has a notable side effect. It prevents us from feeling pleasure, happiness, and joy. If we can’t hear the low notes, we can’t hear the high notes either. Inhabiting a narrow band of feeling not only limits us individually, it restricts our ability to connect with other people. When severe, it can leave us isolated, lonely, and unable to create and sustain intimacy.

To make matters worse, there is a strong tendency for this state of affairs to spiral in the wrong direction. Suppression is like holding a beach ball under the water. As the beach ball grows in size, more and more effort is required to hold things in place. Pressure builds within the psyche and we become reactive, carrying around an emotional charge and apt to fly off the handle by responding to situations with too much intensity. Bottling up emotions also agitates the mind, and we lose clarity. Acutely aware of the pressure, we are often in the dark on what is causing it, or how to alleviate it. All this makes the prospect of opening up to feeling even more threatening, so we clamp down harder still. The path to opening the heart starts with reversing this process and regaining the ability to feel.

What Are Feelings?

The term feelings covers a lot of real estate. Feelings are the colors, textures, and tones of your response to the world around you. When you are in touch with your feelings, life is vivid and real. Cut off from your feelings, life occurs as dry, hollow, humdrum, and meaningless. You may find it helpful to distinguish between two types of feelings that arise during yoga practice, sensation and emotion. Sensation is the raw physical experience of being in a body that pulses with life and is equipped with five senses. It includes the ability to sense the body’s position in space, feel movement, and identify differences in warmth and cold, tension and relaxation, heaviness and lightness. It also includes the visual images, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells associated with the outside world. Mediated by the cerebellum and brain stem, sensations are basic messages essential for our safety and survival.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions, on the other hand, are richer, meaning-laden feelings that seem too occur at the interface of body and mind. While the biological basis of emotions is not yet fully understood, it is clear that emotions are processed by different parts of the brain – the amygdala, hypothalamus, and limbic system – known to play important roles in decision-making and memory.

Emotions convey a wide range of important messages. The flow of emotion is not an occasional occurrence, as suggested by the phrase getting emotional. The emotional system is working all the time to sustain a familiar emotional tone that governs mood, colors thought, and helps us act appropriately. A consistently angry or sad person has often grown so accustomed to their emotional tone that they are unconscious of how it impacts their behavior and their reception by others.

Emotions are complex and sometimes confusing. It is not uncommon to flip-flop between opposing emotions in response to a situation. You may be happy that you got a promotion at work, but sad that a hard-working colleague was passed over. You may feel genuine warmth for a loved one, yet be enraged at how they are treating you. You may be elated to have accomplished a major goal in life, but feel overwhelmed by yet another hurdle looming on the horizon. To further complicate matters, your emotional and cognitive response to a situation may conflict. Thoughts and feelings can diverge in different directions, leaving you confused and needing time to sort things out.

Kripalu Yoga teaches you how to hear and honor the full range of emotional messages flowing through you. By listening closely, most practitioners discover that their body is far from a mindless brute. Dancing for joy, or sobbing with sadness, the body is highly sensitive and profoundly wise. It is the seat of an attribute as old as the hills but only now being recognized as: emotional intelligence.

Regaining Sensitivity

Kripalu Yoga offers a way to safely reclaim your ability to feel. It is based on a simple but powerful truth: you do not need to do anything to change or fix your emotions. You just need to stay present in your body and ride the waves of whatever feelings arise during practice. Sensations and emotions are messages conveyed in the language of feeling. You can learn to receive the message and let it go. With each message received, you grow in self-awareness and a layer of tension melts away.

During practice, uncomfortable or even painful emotions should not be rejected. Instead of evidence that you are doing it wrong, their presence is a strong indication that you are doing it right. There is simply no way to free yourself of an emotional burden without feeling the weight, bit by bit, of what you have been carrying. Buried emotion rises from the subconscious and unconscious to be fully felt, pass through you, and leave you lighter and wiser. When you really catch on to this, strong, painful, and even neurotic emotions become your light in the darkness. Watch them enter your consciousness. Feel them in your body. Breathe into them. Notice as the sensations shift and change. When held in the light of awareness, what was feared as an obstacle often befriends you and reveals a profound secret.

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