I live in the mountain desert southwest of the United States. During summertime, that means I live in a tinderbox. Even a spark from a chain striking the pavement (think of a truck towing a trailer) or ash from a cigarette can start a forest fire.
Still, even here, fire is not fundamentally bad. We use and need it every day to cook our food, to power our vehicles and more. The fire itself is neutral: It is the environment that determines whether the elemental power of that fire boils water or consumes forests and dwellings. In this way, emotions are like fire; emotions themselves are neither good nor bad. We, the environment in which the emotions arise, determine the consequence of the emotion.
Let's explore more about how our feelings and emotions behave, and how they can either hurt or help us on our journey to creating a higher awareness so that we don't keep reacting in the same way that we always do.
The Tendencies of Emotions
As with so many things in life, we tend to respond to emotions, or feelings, in the same way over and over. It is important to note that we are really the ones with the tendencies. Anger, resentment, giddiness, sadness and the like are ingredients of experience, but they don’t have agency. Only we have the power to act.
Emotions are one of the crucial ties between the annamaya, pranamaya and manomaya koshas — the physical body, the breath body and the mind. They enable the sensory perceptions of one sheath of existence to be communicated to some of the others.
Your physical and energetic bodies are constantly sensing the world around you and relaying what they find to your mind so that you can make decisions about what to do next.
When we simply respond in the way we have always responded to various feelings, we surrender our will, which allows us to consciously direct our own lives, to our samskaras (our conditioning). In this way, we can make ourselves deeply unhappy and destroy the most precious relationships in our lives.
Again, it isn’t the emotion that causes the destruction. It is our response to the emotion.
Emotions have the potential to create feedback loops without our physical bodies, breath and minds. A stimulus (such as anxiety) creates a response (such as shortness of breath). Shortness of breath creates chest pain, which creates anxiety, which creates shortness of breath, and so on.
We need a way out of these traps. The practice of yoga can help us.
What to Do With Your Feelings
The key to changing the way we relate to our feelings is the creation of space. We will use the emotion of anger as an example, but the discussion also applies to sadness, jealousy and so on.
(For example, the feeling of overwhelm is addressed here in How to Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed.)
Until we know what’s going on, there’s no way for us to change it, so the first step is to identify the feeling. Careful attention makes it possible for us to study what we feel in our bodies, how our breath changes and the patterns of our minds when we experience anger. Your mind is tremendously powerful. Once you are determined to do so, you can identify anger.
The moment we are able to identify a pattern taking shape within us is a powerful one. Once we can do this, we can intervene. The moment we can see what is happening is the moment we have the power to make a choice.
Now Create Space
Anger is complicated and usually linked to fear, hurt or both. Rather than try to solve the problem, work to identify anger, create space and then make a choice.
If we let it, conditioning denies us of our ability to make a choice, but we don’t need to fear our conditioning. We’re here to work through our karma, so these places where we really rub up against our conditioning are powerful opportunities to redefine the way we experience our lives.
(For insights on a related concept of space in yoga, try 'Holding Space': What It Means for Yoga Teachers and You.)
What we need is a gap — a pause — to insert our will in place of our conditioning.
A Practice for Building a Pause
As with all pranayama practices, a prerequisite to this practice is an attitude of gentleness. Don’t begin with it in the throes of emotion. You will be able to apply it only once you have already established it.
Many beginners are most comfortable doing this practice lying down. You are welcome to perform it while seated or standing on a train, too. Anytime you are able.
To begin, notice places in your body or your breath where you feel tension and see if you can allow movement around them. When a sense of softness is established in the breath and the body, observe the in-breath and the out-breath. Perhaps you can equalize the in-breath and the out-breath. If not, that’s okay. Simply notice which is dominant.
Then it might be possible to notice the places where the breath turns around, where the inhale becomes the exhale, and where the exhale becomes the inhale. Every ball that is thrown into the air pauses for the briefest moment at the top of its flight before returning to Earth. So, too, does our breath have a built-in pause.
We don’t need to create the pause. We only need to become aware that it is already there. Even when we are in the grip of strong emotion, the pause is there. It is the doorway from our conditioning to our conscious choices.
You Are in Control
Reshaping our patterns is never easy, but realizing that our emotions don’t have to dictate our futures helps to make change possible. Do not forget that only you have the power to control and change your emotional responses; and you must if you are to continue on this spiritual path.