Updated: May 23, 2020
Emotions can be felt in the body. This is well illustrated by common sayings such as: “I had a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach”- whereby anxiety is felt in the stomach. “I felt so choked up” or” I had a lump in my throat”- emphasising that sadness can be felt around our lungs and throats.
But how does an emotional feeling arise? It’s not uncommon to believe that an event produces a mental feeling that we call the emotion and from this follows a bodily sensation. Indeed, there are theories of emotion that follow this very idea (e.g., Cannon-Bard theory (1)).
However, in the 1884 an alternative hypothesis was proposed by the psychologist William James and then a year later by Carl Lang, which is now known as the James-Lang theory of emotion (2).
According to James-Lang theory we feel an emotion because of the physiological response within the body.
It's not to say we don't perceive or think about an event before the physiological response, this does occur (although sometimes on a subconscious level). But we have a subjective feeling of an emotion because of a our bodily responses not because of the thought.
I really enjoy the James-Lang theory of emotion. I like that he suggested the emotions were rooted in the body and not the mind, and it ties in well with the practice of yoga...
Yoga postures can induce physiological responses in the body. For example, backbends can be very stimulating and are often described as emotionally intense.
I'm prone to having a racing heart after a few deep backbends, a quick google search suggests to me that I'm not alone. There is a possible explanation for this- when we backbend we put our spine in flexion, which can affect the sympathetic nervous system (3). This is a part of the autonomic nervous system that is initiates the fight-or-flight response- an intense physiological reaction that is associated with a number of bodily events including an increase in heart rate.
An increase in heart rate has been linked with feeling of fear, anxiety and excitement . The negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are known to increase heart rate the most.
Backbends can be scary- perhaps because we've inducing a bodily response we've associated with fear? For others backbends may feel great perhaps because they’ve associated the physiological response with feelings of exhilaration. Some may not even feel much of an emotional reaction at all.
For some, the bodily sensations we're feeling could lead us to remember events in our pasts that we've been associated with the same physiological response. Suddenly we could find ourselves remember past emotional events in the middle of our practice.
Using the James-Lang theory it's possible to suggest that all sorts of emotions could come up in our practice. There are countless forms of asana and each could induce a unique bodily sensation.
Regardless of how emotions arise on the mat, the great thing about it occurring during practice is that we've given ourselves space for this to occur and for us to practice awareness of our bodily responses and emotional reactions.
About the Author
Dr Kathie Overeem works one-on-one and in group sessions with people who wish to experience the healing and transformational effect of yoga. She works with clients that have experienced stress, anxiety, complex trauma, PTSD, eating disorders, complex mental illness, and people in alcohol and other drug rehabilitation. Classes are offered online and in person.
To book a private session or attend a group class with Kathie Click Here
(3) Petty, N.J., Principles of Neuromusculoskeletal Treatment and Management: A handbook for therapists, ed. 2. 2012, London: Churchill Livingstone.
44) Schwartz, G.E., D.A. Weinberger, and A. Jefferson, Cardiovascular Differentiation of Happiness, Sadness, Anger, and Fear Following Imagery and Exercise. Psychosomatic Medicine 1981. 43(4): p. 343-364.