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How Yoga Helps to Understand Emotions

By Dr Maarten Immink

Yoga has helped me catch up emotionally. I have pushed myself physically for the last 20 years. Emotionally I was struggling and there was resistance for me to do anything that was good for me and now that is starting to fall away…yoga has made me feel supported, I am OK. I can listen to that calm, yoga is supporting this. I think the emotional side of yoga has been really more important than the physical.

Female Stroke Survivor, upon completion of 10 wk yoga program


This quote is taken from a study my colleagues and I published in the scholarly journal Disability and Rehabilitation. In this quote, we clearly see the emotional struggle of living with a stroke-related disability.  


What is amazing to consider is the extent to which 10 weeks of yoga participation helped her to catch up emotionally after two decades of living with a stroke.  


While there is often a focus on the physical aspects of yoga, here we have a clear example of how yoga can help us to meet our emotional needs or at least to better understand ourselves through our emotions.


For us to understand our emotions, we need to first be clear on what are emotions. Describing emotions seems rather straightforward since we have all experienced them in our lives.  But it is actually very difficult to describe emotions in a way that we all agree on and relate to.  For example, is happiness a momentary feeling, a fleeting thought, an idea, a situation, a physiological response or something else?  We can all relate to the notion of happiness but ask 100 people to define happiness and you are likely to get 100 unique definitions.  


Our differences in specifying emotions are likely due to the very personal nature of our emotions.  In addition, differences in specifying emotions occur because of the fact that emotions are dependent on situations, experiences and importantly our perceptions.  So, ask one person to define happiness on 100 separate occasions and you will likely get 100 unique responses depending on what they are experiencing and how their present experience influences this person’s perception of happiness.


Emotions shape our lives and, considering the extent to which emotions influence us, you would expect that we would be quite aware of our emotions at any given moment. However, emotions arise from processes in the brain that do not rely on our awareness. Emotions can influence our thoughts, perceptions and actions even though we might not necessarily know or understand in what way they are influencing us.  


This idea is dealt with well in yoga psychology.  As part of the chakra system within the energetic body, yoga describes Swadhisthana chakra, or the sacral chakra, as being associated with emotions and the unconscious, especially unconscious desires.  The symbolism of Swadhisthana chakra includes the crocodile as the animal vehicle that takes emotions from the conscious surface to depths well beyond our consciousness.  It is at these depths that emotions exert their influence on us, both mentally and physically, without our awareness.


An example of the importance of awareness on our emotional experience comes from a 2010 study conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University.  


In this study, 2,250 participants were asked at random times of the day, using smartphone devices, to report three things: 

1) What they were doing at that moment?

2) What they were thinking? 

3) How happy they were at that moment.  


Their results indicated that for 47% of the time, people were not paying attention to what they were doing.  Further, they found that when people reported paying less attention, they also reported being less happy.  So, not only does it seem that people go about their activities on auto pilot for about half of the time but, in addition, when emotions go on auto pilot they have a tendency to be more negative. These negative emotions can then become the lens through which people perceive their activities and more generally, their life.


This brings me to my point.

Developing awareness is the foundation for knowing and understanding our emotions.  This is nothing new as yoga has taught this for thousands of years; nevertheless, it is worth repeating. Often we think that emotions must be controlled purposefully but in truth this approach can leave us feeling like we are always swimming against the current.  As the stroke victim at the beginning of this blog noted, instead of struggling against emotions, yoga gives us the tools to feel supported and empowered to be aware, or mindful, of our emotions.  Doing this from a place of calmness gives us an opportunity to observe rather than react.


In my upcoming seminar at Manly Yoga on Saturday 25 July, I will offer an overview of current understanding of how mindfulness training influences emotional wellbeing from the perspective of the psychological and brain sciences.  

We will explore meditative techniques that develop mindfulness and cover the western scientific understanding of how these techniques develop mindfulness and as a result improve emotional wellbeing.  

The scientific component of the seminar will be accessible will be integrated with the philosophy of yoga.  This seminar will be of interest to those who practise yoga, those who teach yoga or anyone interested in emotions and wellbeing. Maarten A Immink PhD


Related readings:

Garrett, R., Immink, M. A., & Hillier, S. (2011). Becoming connected: the lived experience of yoga participation after stroke. Disability and Rehabilitation, 33(25-26), 2404-2415.

Immink, M. A. (2014) Mindfulness: how to be in the moment … right here, right now. The Conversation, 31576.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932. 

About Dr Maarten Immink

Dr Maarten A. Immink holds a doctorate in motor behaviour from Texas A&M University.


He is a Senior Lecturer in Motor Learning and Control within the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia (UniSA).

Maarten has over 20 years experience studying, researching and teaching the physiological and psychological basis of human learning and performance. 

Dr Immink is an associate researcher with the world-renowned Sansom Institute for Health Research, an associated member of the Centre for Sleep Research, and a research member with the Exercise for Health and Human Performance research groups at UniSA. 

Part of his research explores the basic science behind factors that affect behaviour, including fatigue, stress, arousal and affective states.  He also investigates how mind-body training, including yoga and mindfulness meditation, mediates the influence of these factors.  He is an accredited yoga and meditation teacher in the Satyananda Yoga tradition.