Why do I get emotional during one particular yoga pose?
February 2, 2010 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Why do I get emotional during one particular yoga pose?

I recently took up a yoga class and I'm enjoying it thoroughly. There is one particular pose - Pigeon Pose - We have to stay in this pose for 2 mins, then another 2 ins on the other side. It stretches your hip area; from butt to knee.

The curious thing about this pose it that I always become very emotional, experience visualizations and metaphoric images about my life, I wonder why I've failed at certain things and how I'm going to fix this and that; I think about my dead mother and my childhood. So for some reason, all my heavy-duty thoughts are brought out at this point.

I've heard anecdotally that we "store emotions in parts of our bodies" so what is it about the area from the butt to the knee that could harbor such emotions? Is this even true?

In case it's relevant; male, 33, creative desk job.
posted by rocco to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's very true that certain physical sensations—whether they're related to having one's body in a particular position or not—can have a deep connection to our emotions. I, for example, feel safe and loved when someone sleeps on top of me (weird, I know).

I also think that we can reinforce these associations. So, the second time it happens you think "Last time I did this pose I had all these emotions" and so you start thinking of them and have them again. After a few times, you've conditioned yourself into that response.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:09 PM on February 2, 2010

I have the same problem with the same pose - with me I think about my grandfather who died suddenly some years ago, and how guilty I felt for not visiting him in the last few weeks of his life.

The way it has been explained to me is that, if you live in a society where you are expected to 'manage' your emotions rather than express them, you tend to tense certain muscles as an alternative to letting your emotions rip. So for example, a tough day at work can leave you with tense shoulders and neck muscles. Different people will tense up different muscles, and there's no particular association with certain muscles and certain emotions.

I am not sure how relaxing the muscles causes an emotional response in your brain, but I assume it is some sort of biochemical signal released that your brain interprets as "hey it's time to feel these emotions now".

I used to find it embarrassing that I would burst into tears in a pigeon pose every time, until I got the above explanation from a yoga teacher. She also gave me a way to manage it, and that was to tell myself just before starting the pose that I was going to think through some happier memories of my grandfather while in the pose. This helped a lot.
posted by girlgenius at 3:13 PM on February 2, 2010 [9 favorites]

My yoga instructor encourages a lot of hip-opening exercises to deal with specifically emotional stress, and the pigeon pose is kind of the gold standard for hip openers. I don't know what there is to the idea that we store emotional stress in our hips, but I guess I do notice that emotional stress leaves me with tighter hips, while more general overworked feelings leave me with tighter shoulders, not so much in the hips.

(I do notice that yoga can sometimes feel a little overwhelming for me, though I've never associated those feelings with specific poses. But I also feel the same way sometimes during a massage, or even when I get a big hug from someone who cares about me.)
posted by adiabat at 3:13 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not very experienced with yoga, but I do know a lot of people report feeling intense sorts of emotions when they do poses that "open up their hips" (which is what the pigeon pose does). Additionally, lowering your head like that puts your brain below your heart, which means you've get lots of blood and oxygen there.
posted by muddgirl at 3:13 PM on February 2, 2010

Tree pose always gets me. There is something extra that happens with yoga. My consciousness seems to go inward, to memories and emotions, and outward, to a sense of connection to life and the world. I don't know why.
posted by bearwife at 3:13 PM on February 2, 2010

An article about the ties between physical cues and mental processes was actually in today's NY Times: Abstract Thoughts Prompt Literal Physical Responses.
posted by susanvance at 3:15 PM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

I know this pose well -- I always burst into laughter whenever I do deep hip stretches for whatever it's worth. It can be pretty embarrassing. My yoga instructor then has to explain to the whole class that because we store so much tension in our hips, releasing that tension when we stretch also releases a lot of emotion.
posted by ohyouknow at 3:16 PM on February 2, 2010

adiabat has it. I've also been taught that we store our emotional past in the hip areas. Yoga classes that stay focused on hip-openers really depress the hell out of me.

People are often baffled by yoga because we expect things to be strenuous or physically demanding and sweat inducing to be considered a 'difficult' activity. But it is these challenges that you and I struggle with that make yoga so hard.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:17 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've heard of this plenty in yoga classes but I don't buy it. You have a desk job. Your hips probably spend more of the day than they should in one position and the area of your leg from your butt to your knee is likely pretty tight. Not only that, but pigeon pose can be very intense even if you are flexible. So the way I see it is this: you are getting an intense, drastic stretch on quite a large muscle. This is uncomfortable for your mind as well as your body. Just like physically smiling can make you happy, being physically uncomfortable can make you unhappy. Your mind is being assaulted with "HELLO! this is uncomfortable" signals from your body. Your mind is not happy, this brings up memories of all times that you have felt unhappy or about your failure. Your mind is re-experiencing feelings of wrongness. Different stretches feel different (sharp, thin, dull, broad, whatever) and you experience them differently in your head. Hmm, so maybe I've just described how we DO hold emotions in parts of our bodies. Just not literally.
posted by bobobox at 3:29 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm as scientifically-minded as anyone, and I take "storing emotions" to be mostly metaphor. And I think most current research suggests that emotions CAN be just a reaction to the signals our body is sending to the brain, similar to what bobobox describes.
posted by muddgirl at 3:39 PM on February 2, 2010

Well, the idea of 'storing' an emotion in a body part (be it brain or anywhere else) is a metaphor anyway. Really, what can it mean to 'literally' or 'not literally' hold an emotion somewhere?

For example, if my shoulders get tight, knotted and cramped when I am feeling stressed...if my stomach gets quesy when I am worried...if my brain hurts (headache) and my chest hurts (heartache) when I am feeling unhappy and unloved...and if my pink parts get all rosy and tingly when I am excited...what's to say that emotions aren't happening there? Where does one draw the line between brain and body? I reckon it's all part of the same interconnected package. Especially with blood, air, and nerve activity running through the whole thing in one self-contained system held together by a skin barrier.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:46 PM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Pigeon pose is also a very, very "aware" (for lack of a better term) pose. I find that I'm more aware of the (somewhat painful) sensations brought about by pigeon pose than many other yoga poses. It reminds me a lot of the mind-space I go into when I have done body suspensions. Such intense physical sensations can produce altered states of mind and getting very emotional is a common response.

Another thought that I have had/read/learned about is that a big aspect of pigeon pose is letting yourself fall into the pose. It's different from many other poses where you're not pushing your muscles to go into the pose, rather you're letting go and letting your body and gravity do the work without you actively trying to do the pose. Yoga, I've found at least, links the mind and body together such that when I'm letting go with my body I'm also letting go of things in my mind. Not just thoughts that I'm having, but also control of it, in a very basic manner. Doing so can bring up a lot of different thoughts, ideas, memories, and emotions that I don't think I'd have otherwise.
posted by swashedbuckles at 4:06 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pigeon pose is a notoriously difficult, introspective and aware pose. It's usually held for quite a bit of time - it's also often at the end of practice, so the sort of coming down but not quite relaxed thing may have something to do with it. Here's a cool Slate article solely about the pigeon pose.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:15 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

we store our emotional past in the hip areas

Additionally, I would strongly caution against following anyone's map to your body.

Hip openers make one person laugh, depress another and are uplifting for me but that is no indication that I have a happy past. In fact, I was a miserable sumbitch for most of it.
Warrior pose is where I face my demons but not because its, like, poetic and stuff. I just hate using my quadriceps. Take what helps you, leave what doesn't. It's great you're getting into yoga. Good luck.
posted by bobobox at 4:31 PM on February 2, 2010

I *love* pigeon pose. I'm surprised that it's known as notoriously difficult. I find it to be a surrendering pose, and my hips love being wrenched open in that pose. Other poses kill me, but none make me react emotionally. I don't understand that, either.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:43 PM on February 2, 2010

That pose even looks sad.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 5:44 PM on February 2, 2010

My old yoga's studio's saying is "Free your hips and your mind will follow".

I used to open up a bunch of family stuff during Camel. Hard enough pose to do as it is, harder still when you're crying through it. For other people it was other poses.

After doing yoga for 20-something years I strongly, strongly believe there is a mind-body connection whether or not neurosurgeons wish to recognize it.
posted by micawber at 5:58 PM on February 2, 2010

Mod note: comments removed - please go to metatalk if you cannot answer the question without ragging on the other commenters
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:05 PM on February 2, 2010

Yeah, it's the combination between the relaxation, the intensity, the gaze downwards, the fact that you hold it so long, and that it comes at the end of class.
posted by yarly at 7:17 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Though I don't have an answer, I'm glad you asked this. I actually had the same reaction to a different pose after some emotionally trying times. Every time I did childs pose, especially after a particularly strenuous set, I'd break down into tears. It was quite disconcerting. Glad to hear I'm not the only one that's had this kind of experience.
posted by inmediasres at 8:48 PM on February 2, 2010

Pigeon pose is particularly emotional for me too.
posted by salvia at 10:34 PM on February 2, 2010

What science does say is true is that there is associations between memories, emotions, and the five senses. Including kinesthetic. Memories or emotions can anchor themselves to certain sights, sounds, touches, etc.
As an example Chazz Palminteri wrote a play, and subsequently a movie, based on the fact that he had a very strong imprinted memory while he was sitting in a certain position when he was very young. The memory would recall whenever he got into the same sitting position. This is not at all uncommon, and I'm sure anyone can find many examples in their own life.
I don't think necessarily the same thing applies here as the example, but yes, strong emotions/memories can be "linked" with certain body positions.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:29 AM on February 3, 2010

This article may be of interest to you. I've skimmed it & it often says unwinding is in response to a therapists touch, but it can happen spontaneously. Unwinding can be physical or emotional or both. I'm sure many mefites will say this is utter bullshit, but it's commonly seen in body work. I've experienced it, seen it & facilitated it.
John F Barnes calls it Unwinding (see his book Healing Ancient Wounds)
Upledger calls it SomatoEmotional Release.
Other people call it different things, but I think it all boils down to the same thing, whatever that thing is.

MefiMail me if you want more resources along these lines.
posted by goshling at 6:46 AM on February 3, 2010

I burst into tears pretty much every time I do pigeon pose. At first, I thought I was weird -- until this one class where we did pigeon and when I sat up at the end I saw that everyone was crying. Even now, years after I started doing yoga, it gets me. Sometimes I look forward to it; other times I steel myself emotionally going into it. But every time it softens me, deepens me, and I feel better for doing it, even if it brings up inexplicable, unplanned emotion.
posted by mothershock at 6:56 AM on February 3, 2010

I've heard anecdotally that we "store emotions in parts of our bodies" so what is it about the area from the butt to the knee that could harbor such emotions?

I don't think that those who say we "store emotions in parts of our bodies" claim that there's any location-specific thing going on (in other words, they're not saying we store happy memories in our chins, but if it's our kneecaps, it's third-grade math class blunders, or anything like that).

But we all sometimes carry tension in various spots in our bodies; I have the bad habit of tensing the back of my neck and my shoulders when I'm under stress, and if I don't remind myself to relax those spots, it builds. Most of the time it manifests as just tension headaches and stiff shoulders, but sometimes if I'm undergoing a lot of high emotion that I've been trying to suppress, and I try to stretch out my shoulders, I get a little choked-up as well. I may not have even been aware that I was at a low-level of upset, but relaxing the body does remove whatever roadblocks you've been putting on yourself to express emotions, sometimes.

I think that's all that 'storing emotions in our bodies" means. As for why that low-back stretch may specifically trigger things, that's a common spot where we all tense up, because of a combination of bad posture and just poor human anotomical design.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:22 AM on February 3, 2010

I've experienced this with child's pose as well. I tend to think it's mostly bodily memory of childhood causing feelings of loss related to the vagaries of getting older (I used to do this pose when I was a kid, before I knew anything about yoga), but I don't doubt that there's a particular neurochemical reaction happening when we stretch muscles that normally tense during stress.
posted by statolith at 8:54 AM on February 3, 2010

My own personal theory is that emotions are located inside the body, not the mind. I could point to the scientific research that backs it up, but let's just say that things like elevated (or reduced) heart rate are more than the mere symptoms of emotions.

It would make sense, then, that moving the body in certain ways can trigger emotions. Dancing, for example, typically induces joy. Riding a roller coaster, either terror or exhilaration.

So while your yoga pose may seem like an arbitrary link between body & emotions, it's not altogether unexpected.

Incidentally, one of the larger arteries in the body lies in the thigh.
posted by MesoFilter at 9:36 AM on February 3, 2010

If your instructor is a yogi type yogi and not a health club type yogi, you should talk to them. If not, you seem like you might benefit greatly from a yogi type yogi.
posted by cmoj at 10:31 AM on February 3, 2010

This guy had an elaborate system of psychoanalytic treatment, "vegetotherapy" based on the idea that we store emotions as tension, or "armor" and that a combination of psychoanalysis and massage/physical therapy was necessary to restore mental health. It's far from scientific, but it would explain why emotion is released during a particular yoga state for you.

Reich also had a large number of his books burned in an incinerator by order of the US government, an event that really broke him as he'd fled to the US from Nazi Germany to avoid persecution (where, ironically, many of the same books had also been burned). His biography makes for fascinating reading, studied under Freud, was kicked out of both Austrian psychoanalytic circles as well as the German Communist Party for being too radical for either, exiled from ~4 countries, did observational sexual research decades before Masters and Johnson, had correspondence with Albert Einstein, and toward the end of his life formulated downright loopy theories about the life-energy and weather manipulation and space aliens. You can't make this stuff up.
posted by Ndwright at 6:28 PM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ah, I knew there was another term I was trying to think of when I wrote my previous response.
Upledger calls the kinesthetic storage of trauma (physical, emotional, etc) Energy Cysts. Here's an article he wrote for Massage Today.
posted by goshling at 7:32 PM on February 3, 2010

Over the years I, too, have been told in yoga classes our bodies hold stored energy and emotions. I know people, myself included, who have had intense reactions/releases during different poses or sometimes after class, just as you described. I would think it is your body talking to you, doing what it needs to do. I know plenty of people who will roll their eyes at that statement. However, after many years of practice, I am different physically, and have grown in so many ways, because of my yoga practice.
posted by bookshelves at 7:36 PM on February 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for all the wonderful, insightful contributions. I will embark on my yoga development with a greater understanding. Thanks again and impossible to mark a favorite answer ;o)
posted by rocco at 4:33 PM on February 6, 2010

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