I have been in countless yoga classes in which the teacher will say, usually in pigeon pose, something to the effect of “breathe deeply through this, we hold a lot in our hips.”
This is usually the extent of the verbal offering. If you’ve ever wondered about or wanted further explanation, here is my take from my experience as a somatopsychic psychotherapist and yoga teacher.
The body stores emotion
The body, mind and psyche are organically, intimately connected. The natural state is for all three to be freely pulsating with aliveness and to be freely communicating with one another at all times, so that one’s being is free to express its authenticity. We come into the world wired this way, albeit in an infantile and primitive state. In order for these systems to evolve harmoniously into full maturation, we rely on an environment (namely our caretakers) for a secure and safe ground to plant our roots and be free to develop and expand our being and express who we truly are. Many studies show that without this secure ground for development, parts of us will be unable to fully express, evolve, or in some cases even form in the first place. (See the work of Beatrice Beebe and Margaret Mahler, to name a few).
Since no environment or caretaking is perfect, we all to a greater or lesser degree emerge with some wounds.
We intuitively adapt to the lack of secure/safe enough environment by contracting, so that we can continue going on being in that environment. Since we are made of body, mind and psyche together, the constriction and contraction of the flow of aliveness will be lived out in all three realms in interrelated and complex ways. We are, initially as a matter of survival, often not awake to the ways in which we have contracted against the full expression of our authenticity and vitality. In other words we do it instinctively and purposefully, yet sub- or unconsciously. These adaptations can become so chronic and insidious that they become patterned into the way in which a person lives in and contacts the world and one’s self day in and day out.
How stored emotion manifests
Western culture, and pop-psychology specifically, has maintained a consistent and limited focus on the processes of the mind when it comes to matters of self and self-development. Coupled with the medical industry’s focus on medication and treatment rather than root cause, there is a widespread neglect for how the body itself lives out one’s emotional wounds and interrelates to the mind and the psyche in doing so.
For example, feelings, albeit sometimes painful, are an organic part of being alive as a human being. If one grows up in a family/environment where strong feelings, or “negative” feelings (sadness, anger, fear, etc) are not tolerated or are experienced as threatening, one must adapt by holding back their nature to gain approval or cater to the anxiety of others. As a result, potential adaptations may be:
Overall Adaptation: Hold back, Hold in an effort not to feel
Mind (cognitions): My feelings are bad, threatening, too much
Psyche (emotions and spirit): Shame about being a person with feelings “there’s something wrong with me”, depression, anxiety
Body (somatic): Clenching of jaw, shallow constricted breathing patterns causing tightness in the muscles of respiration and low overall energy, constipation, tightness in the psoas muscle, depressed chest/energetic heart space leading to muscular tightening and spinal/postural imbalances
How Yoga can help
The practice of Yoga asana has, to some degree, an inherent way of encouraging one to wake-up to oneself. Of course, the degree to which it raises one’s consciousness lies more in the individual and how they choose to relate to their practice. Regardless, Yoga asana, at the least, affords you an opportunity through the lens of the body, perhaps one not available to you in other realms of your life, to come into contact with yourself and awaken to the ways in which you may live out contracting, holding, tightening, deadening, etc.
The Yoga asanas are anatomically and energetically intentional in their essence and by assuming a shape you may inadvertently come into an unexpected emotional experience precipitated by the lengthening and strengthening of certain muscles, stacking of bones, and focusing of breath. Moving your body into asana stimulates the flow of energy, bringing blood flow and thereby life to the area, waking it up. This draws unprocessed and split-off pain, relegated long ago to the depths of the tissues, to the surface.
When pain comes back into the conscious reality, we have an opportunity to finally give it the space it has always needed for support, expression, and cathartic release.
When you are in pigeon pose, you could imagine the process highlighted above as akin to the wringing out of a wet towel. In lengthening the deep external rotators of the hips, space is created for feelings to move to the surface and out (like the wet towel).
I find in a posture like pigeon I need lots of support. My tendency in this posture is to fidget around and to contract my shoulders, jaw, and breath in an effort not to feel. But with support (taking my time to get into it, using props to settle some of my weight, focusing on the tides of my breath), I feel held enough to release into the reality of what is there to be felt just a little bit more each time.
While I’ve used pigeon pose as an example here, every asana has its opportunity. Everyone is unique and therefore has their own individual experience of each posture and themselves in it.
If you find all of this interesting, I encourage you to listen close in your practice to the parts of you that emerge when given space. The practice has a beautiful way of providing something needed that perhaps was never before afforded.