How Yoga Affects Emotions

by Nancy Gerstein
Certified Hatha Yoga Teacher, Reiki Master Practitioner and Yoga Therapist / Excerpted from her book Guiding Yoga's Light: Lessons for Yoga Teachers

What we think, we become. —Buddha

When we awaken to the emotional side of yoga asana, we become more sensitized, perceptive, and responsive both on and off the mat. Ironically, the definition of yoga asana is a position that is both steady and comfortable, a place where one can feel completely present. From this silent backdrop, we watch the agitated mind. Practice then becomes a purifying method of listening to the inner workings of the mind and emotions. Don’t criticize yourself if you find that negative emotions seem to lead the way. There’s no place here for judgment. Just look, listen, and be aware. Pay attention.

Have you ever noticed the effect that your yoga practice has on your emotions? It’s like a welcome sense of spaciousness, as though we’ve cleaned a room in our inner selves so that healing, along with light, come shining through. Usually the positive emotions come to the surface: our sense of humor, patience, concentration. As we surrender and let go of frustrations, fear, and worry, we start to feel like our old selves again.

The flip side of this, of course, occurs when the negative emotions arise and stay with us. Naturally, if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing — cleansing and releasing — feeling our negative emotions is paramount to the process of renewal. When this happens, give yourself space to feel what you’re feeling. Instead of suppressing these emotions, realize that these feelings arose for a purpose. Then do your best to stay mindful of them, giving yourself enough room to eventually free these emotions from your spirit.

Our poses can strongly influence our emotional states. For instance, because of the expansive inhalation and opening of the chest, backbending, traditionally a stimulating practice, can elevate a low mood. Exhale-intensive poses such as forward bends tend to calm an agitated mind. In any balance practice, both inhale-oriented and exhale-oriented postures are executed in order to create equilibrium in the body and breath and to gain emotional harmony.

The following practice will focus on restoring equipoise, empowering ourselves to release emotionally and to make positive changes in our layers of consciousness:

Asanas for Deepening

Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) or halasana (plow) help reverse energy blocks— inflexible thinking, stuck emotions, and feelings of sadness.

Balasana (child’s pose) sends relaxing signals to both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Garudasana (eagle) offers relief to the scattered mind and works on the balance of the external and internal worlds.

Marichyasana (half seated twist) is one of yoga’s greatest harmonizers because it both calms the mind and releases sluggishness in the body.

Janu shirshasana (head to knee) relieves feelings of anxiety, fearfulness, and stress. On each exhalation, let the torso sink further toward the legs. Dhanurasana (bow) helps stimulate the inhale and arouses the adrenal glands.

Woodchopper assists in the emotional release of frustration and anger. While standing, lift your imaginary ax on your inhale, and with a forceful “Ha!” on the exhale, chop the imaginary wood between your legs.

Practice Off the Mat

Notice the situations that cause you to become tense. Are you an anxious driver, talker, or worker? When you cook or do the dishes, does your back feel strain? Whether the tension is in the shoulders, neck, back, or navel center, practice moment-to- moment body awareness. This will help you cleanse your negative emotions and trapped issues so that they don’t find a permanent home in your body.

Wise Words

Following the path of yoga cuts through the roots of suffering. Hatha yoga teaches us control of breath and control of body. Through awareness we learn concentration, control of our thought patterns, and emotional control. The serious yoga practitioner will cling less to life’s negative matters, permitting the practice to have a leveling effect on the emotional body.

Frustration in the Body

When we feel frustrated, it generally means that we’re not flowing with the experiences of our lives. Instead we’re pushing away or resisting something. Frustration then collects in the body. Many of us feel it in the shoulders, neck, low back, and hips. Problems in the shoulders represent irritability and resistance to change. Issues in the back can be related to a repression or restriction in your life, hurtful issues from the past, or the need to carry the weight of the world. Repressed anger creates tension in the neck as you force your feelings down your throat instead of saying what you want to say. You can literally experience a pain in the neck from something or someone who makes you angry. The hips are related to general frustration. Notice the person who often stands with her hands on her hips. This is a gesture of feeling frustrated and out of control.

Through a balanced asana practice, and particularly through the postures that work on these specific areas, many of our frustrations can be released. Let’s set our intentions for today’s practice on working out any frustration that manifests in any of these areas.

Please lie in shavasana. Breathe deeply into your belly, putting all of your awareness into the breath. Feel all the emotions of your respiratory system—the air in the nostrils, throat, and chest, the belly and chest rising. Feel the rib cage expanding to the front, to the sides beneath the armpits, and all the way into the lower back. Gently move your attention from your mental state to your breath so that you can more easily observe and step back from your emotions.

Asanas for Deepening

Reclining twist works on releasing frustration in the hips. Lie on your back. Stretch your arms out to the sides at shoulder height, palms down. Inhale and bend the left knee to your chest. Exhale and twist to your right side, releasing a deep audible sigh, “Ahhhh.” Inhale and return to the back. Practice three times to each side. This twist is also helpful for relieving sciatica, headaches, and low-back stiffness.

There are several variations of neck stretches to practice: ear to shoulder, look over the shoulder, drop chin to chest, neck rolls. Shoulder work can be done while seated or standing. Begin with arm circles. Hold a shoulder-width length of strap in front of you. Inhale and move your arms forward and up toward the sky. Exhale and bring your arms behind you, using the full range of motion in the shoulder joints.

Next move into arm pulls. Raise the left arm up, bringing the left arm alongside the left ear. Reach the right arm down and out, stretching through the fingers. Inhale and energize upward through the left arm. Exhale as you reach out your right arm and hand. Practice several breaths before alternating arms. Finish the shoulder work with the collarbone stretch. Interlace your fingers behind you. Open the chest, bend the elbows, and bring the knuckles to the right side of the waist. Feel the left shoulder blade coming in toward the spine. Roll the shoulders back while squeezing the elbows together. Switch sides. Cat stretch releases frustration in the back, pelvic floor, abdomen, and back of the neck.

Naukasana (boat) works on the acupressure points related to general bodily frustration, body aches, digestive problems, and fear. Lie on your abdomen with your chin on the floor. Stretch your arms straight out in front of you. Slowly and deeply inhale, lifting the arms, chest, head, and legs off the ground while arching the back. Hold for three to six breaths. Relax in child’s pose.

Practice Off the Mat

Body language has so much to do with how you express your emotions. Do you hunch your shoulders in an effort to protect or shield yourself? Do you often settle your hands on your hips? Notice your emotional frustration and then recognize how it manifests in your body.

Wise Words

The more we let go and release in all areas of our life, the more life unfolds itself to us.

With daily practice, patience, and faith, energy blocks will diminish, inviting health, healing, and life force into your being.

Each new breath is a new moment of life; the practice is to find the newness in each moment.

Embracing Change

Through the practice of yoga, we awaken to how life unfolds moment by moment. Things are constantly changing—the breath, your state of mind, the phases of the moon, the seasons. This can be both a profound revelation—life is like a flower that blooms continuously—and a harsh reminder that nothing lasts forever. Even your body will let you down in the end.

When we resist change, the ego will try to hold on to the body as it is. Consequently the body contracts and tenses, and the natural flow of energies slows down or may stop completely, creating blocks in the form of a tight hip or frozen shoulder. That’s why until we accept the changes that occur from day to day and from year to year, and until we surrender to the natural course of existence, little progress can be made along the path of yoga.

Asana practice shows us how our bodies, minds, and the world around us are constantly changing. Today, through breath, patience, and a watchful eye, we’ll honor our changes from movement to movement and embrace the reality of change.

Asanas for Deepening

From the first stretch of the morning to the more mindful and heated surya namaskara, we can feel and sense the immediate transformation in our bodies. Make sure you ground your awareness in the changes in breath, circulation (including body temperature), and muscle flexibility.

Psychologically, inverted yogic practices such as shirshasana (headstand), sarvangasana (shoulderstand), or halasana (plow) make us feel that the world is turned upside down. If we could get used to that feeling, we could adapt to change when it happens without warning.

Before taking the completed posture of parivrtta trikonasana (revolving triangle), twist from the waist, with the arms extending out to the sides, coming back to center several times until you sense the opening in the lower back and waist. Then take the full posture.

During ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana (half-bound lotus posterior stretch), as you exhale, stop when you feel the slightest resistance. Stay at this place until something changes, until you sense a new edge.

Practice Off the Mat

Practice being open and receptive to change. Something as simple as changing your hairstyle or wearing different-colored clothing can give you a refreshing perspective on the transitions of living.

Look at the twists and turns in your life. Recognize how life’s stages create new opportunities as well as new challenges.

Celebrate the changes of the seasons with a party on the first day of summer (June 21) or a vernal equinox tea on March 21.

Wise Words

Embracing change creates ease and freedom in your world.

The only constant is change.

Give yourself room for expansion. Give yourself room to change.

Allow change to happen to you. Don’t resist it.

Sunrise and sunset are obvious reminders of change.

May we learn to accept life’s constant changes.

Nancy Gerstein has been a student of yoga for almost 30 years and a certified hatha yoga teacher with the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Philosophy and Science. Ms. Gerstein is also a Reiki Master Practitioner And Yoga Therapist. As a wellness workshop speaker and freelance yoga writer, Gerstein shares her experience as a yoga teacher and student emphasizing the systematic integration of yogic philosophy into daily living, encouraging her students to take their yoga out of the classroom. She is a member of the Himalayan Institute Teachers Association (HITA), the International Association of Yoga Therapists, Midwest Yoga Teacher's Network, and Yoga Alliance. For more information contact visit or email her directly. Her new book has just been reviewed in this month's Yoga Chicago.