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Why We Sometimes Cry During Yoga

On days when my body feels like it’s made of cement and my breath feels stuck, my tears speak to frustration. Other times, tears of release sneak out in a hip opener or a forward bend. Sometimes the prolonged surrender in a Yin pose or the almost hypnotic state I find in yoga nidra elicits tears of unknown origin. More often, the tears come in Savasana. And, at times, the tears are because a perfect storm of elements—the pose, the vibe, the music, the words of the teacher—resonate so deeply.

Yoga possesses the uncanny ability to unlock our feelings, even the ones we don’t know we have. Teachers tend to explain the resulting tears by saying we store emotions in our bodies and that our practice can release those feelings.

But how?

What yoga teachers say about crying during yoga

“I remember being curious when a yoga teacher said we store our ‘issues in our tissues,’” says yoga teacher Ellen Mosko, who has taught Yin Yoga classes for nearly 20 years.

A common explanation often given by teachers is that we accumulate mental and emotional tension in response to everyday life, and those experiences linger in our bodies. As we settle into the rhythm of our practice by intentionally slowing our breath and aligning it with the movement of our body, we shift from the sympathetic nervous system (known as the fight, flight, or freeze response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming rest and digest response).

In this more relaxed state, the theory goes, muscles and connective tissues release physical and other pent-up tension. “Students begin to access these ‘stored’ emotions on a subtle level when both body and mind are relaxed and mindful in a yoga class,” says Mosko.

And this can bring up......stuff.

What science says about crying during yoga

The belief that emotions are stored in the body is also present in psychology. In The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist and trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk relates observations from his 30 years of research in neuroscience and clinical therapy with trauma survivors. According to Van der Kolk, there is an intricate interplay among our mental, physical, and emotional response to trauma.

His observations led him to believe suppressed emotions eventually manifest as physical symptoms, and he began to explore nontraditional treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including embodied movement such as yoga and certain forms of athletic movement.

Although not all tears are related to acute or chronic trauma, Van der Kolk’s research offers tremendous insight into the relationship between our emotions and our bodies. In particular, about the potential for suppressed emotional tension to be released through certain forms of movement, including the practice of yoga.

How your breath may be related to your tears

Although the exact mechanics of how yoga, in particular, can elicit an emotional response are not understood, research and anecdotal evidence suggest that the breath plays an integral role in unlocking our emotions.

“From my experience teaching tens of thousands of people for 27 years, I can say for certain that breathing patterns are the way in,” says Max Strom, an author and breathwork teacher whose Tedx Talk on the breath has drawn 3.5 million views. “A way in beneath the armor we wear for protection. It is the quintessential tool for emotional healing.”

Based on his conversations with neuroscientists, Strom says it’s not yet known how exactly breathing and emotions interact, and exactly where in the brain and body this happens. “We do know that the nervous system is in every part of the body, and it’s where we experience our emotions,” he says.

And there’s no question that the breath can and does calm the body by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. When we breathe slowly and in tandem with rhythmic and embodied movement, which yoga teaches us, there seems to be a measure of natural intelligence at play. “Crying is not a problem to be fixed,” says Strom. “Crying is genetically encoded.”

Whatever the reason may be, tears are cleansing and actually good for you! They are not anything to be embarrassed or ashamed of. Sometimes they just come. Maybe in a moment when you least expect them. That's okay. At Sunflower Yoga you are free to be who you are at any given moment. Good day, bad day, tired, exhilarated, sore, stiff or stressed - come as you are!

As Dale E Turner wrote in Different Seasons: "Tears are a safety valve of the heart when too much pressure is laid upon it."

Adapted from Yoga Journal: Why Do We Sometimes Cry During Yoga?

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