Have you ever heard your yoga teacher say ‘emotions are stored in the hips’? or that our posture is an indication of our state of mind? Whilst it may sound a little ‘woo-woo’, our bodies really do hold on to a huge amount; from memories to emotions, trauma and stress, we don’t just feel emotions in our minds, but in our cells and muscles too. The idea that our bodies hold emotions and stress was the basis for some of the most ground-breaking mind-body work to come out of the last few decades, thanks to scientists and therapists like Bruce Lipton, Gabor Mate and Bessel Van Der Kolk, who all reason that our early life experiences, beliefs and thoughts can be physically stored in our bodies, and that the way we choose to move, breathe, sit and interact with other people can give direct clues as to the traumas we’re holding on to.
Before we explore how the body holds emotions and stress, take a moment to check in with yourself; how are you breathing? Is your jaw clenched? Are your shoulders hunched? What type of posture are you sitting or standing in? Sometimes we may not even realise our bodies are stressed until we take a moment to step back and observe. We all have different patterns of holding stress, or different ways of breathing when we feel strong emotions, so identifying your patterns is a good place to start when it comes to releasing what your body is holding on to.
How Does The Body Store Stress?
Since you were born, your body and brain have been constantly taking notes about your experiences, and helping you develop behaviours and habits accordingly. One important aspect to note, is that whatever your body is doing (whether that’s holding lots of tension in the neck muscles, shallow breathing, causing constipation or altering hormone balance) is all intended to keep you safe. The body is designed to want to survive, and every action and reaction we experience is all intended to help keep us alive. For example, if you often experience constipation due to stress, this can often be the body’s way of diverting energy away from the digestive tract, and towards the heart, lungs and muscles of the arms and legs, so that in case of danger or an emergency, you can fight or run away and protect yourself. Digestion and elimination simply aren’t a priority in times of extreme stress, so if this sounds familiar to you, understanding how to use your yoga practice to regulate the nervous system is a valuable way to help keep you ‘regular’ too.
Another way the body holds emotions and even trauma is by changing the way we behave. Our posture, daily habits and even the way we deal with stress were likely all learned at a very early age. If you grew up in a home in which a lot of anger was present for example, you may have spent a lot of your childhood in a fearful state. You may have used specific tools to help yourself feel safe, such as hunching over and hiding. You may have even subconsciously altered your behaviour so as not to cause anger in the home, such as being very quiet, or not expressing yourself. Your body may have also tried to help keep you safe in those situations by pushing you into the ‘fight or flight’ response, whereby blood is again moved away from the parts of the body that aren’t vital at that moment (such as the digestive system, organs of elimination, reproductive system and immune system), and towards the heart, lungs and muscles, causing muscular tension and shallow breathing. If this happened repeatedly in childhood, it may become your go-to habit in adulthood, and you may find yourself shallow-breathing and very tense when confronted with stress, anger, or angry people.
Bringing awareness to your stress responses is the first step in changing them and releasing tightly held emotions and stress from the body. What are your go-to stress responses? Using a journal to keep a note of your responses to stress or strong emotions for two weeks can give you valuable information on what your body is holding on to.
How Emotions Are Stored In The Body
Thousands of years ago, ancient healing traditions such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) understood how emotions were stored in the body, and that by using techniques such as massage, pressure points, breathing and stretching, we could release the physical and emotional tension. Bessel Van Der Kolk – author of The Body Keeps The Score – specialises in post-traumatic-stress (PTSD) and explains in his work that Yoga is one of the best practices to help soothe and resolve these types of traumas and stresses. In an interview on his books, he has said; “We just did a study on yoga for people with PTSD. We found that yoga was more effective than any medicine that people have studied up to now. That doesn’t mean yoga cures it, but yoga makes a substantial difference in the right direction”.
To begin making a substantial difference in how we feel then, let’s look at some of the ways TCM and Yin yoga understand how the body holds emotions, and where you could be holding stress in your body too.
Meridian Lines & Emotions
According to the ancient wisdom of TCM, each of our organs corresponds to a specific emotion, and psychological issues with these emotions could show up as physical issues in the organs. Our organs also correspond to meridian lines; channels of energy that run along the body. A blockage in any of these meridian lines can link to issues with emotions, and can also show up as physical symptoms. If you were to visit an acupuncturist for anger issues for example, they may use points along your liver meridian line to help rebalance or un-block the emotion, as this is the energy channel and organ related to anger. In Yin yoga, we practice holding stretches along the meridian lines to release physical and emotional tension in the body; if a strong emotion arises in that posture, it may be linked to the meridian line you’re stretching. If it is safe to do so, we’re advised to stay in the position and remain with the emotion as it arises – observing it, acknowledging it, perhaps coming to understand it, and letting it go. These are organs that link to each emotion according to TCM:
- Sadness and grief: Lungs
- Joy: Heart
- Anger: Liver
- Worry: Spleen
- Fear: Kidneys
Yin Yoga Stretches To Release Emotions
To help release stored emotions, we can practice stretching along the related meridian lines. Here are five stretches to help release emotions and stresses held in the body. In each position, ensure you are breathing through the nose (if possible) with slow, calm breaths, and stay in each posture for 2 minutes. Come out of the position if it becomes uncomfortable:
- Chest-Opener For Sadness And Grief
The lung meridian line runs from the thumb, along the inner arm and into the chest on both sides of the body. To practice the chest-opener for sadness and grief, use the Yogamatters Hemp Rectangular Buckwheat Bolster. Lie back on the bolster so that your spine is supported by it. Keep your knees bent and feet on the ground. Take your arms out to the sides and rest them on the ground with the palms facing up, so you can feel a stretch across your arms and chest. If your arms are uncomfortable, use a cork block to support each arm.
- Heart Opener For Repressed Joy
The heart meridian line runs from the little finger, up the inner arm and into the chest on both sides of the body. To practice the heart-opener for repressed joy, sit on the Yogamatters x Emma Alviti Meditation Cushion – the designs for these collaboration cushions are inspired by the joyful moments in life. Clasp your hands behind your back, roll back your shoulders and stretch your arms back until you feel a stretch across your arms and chest. If your hands do not come close enough to clasp, use a hemp yoga belt and hold part of it in each hand.
- Side Stretch For Anger
The liver meridian line runs from the inner big toe, along the top of the foot, up the inner leg, to the pubic area, where it continues up along one side of the abdomen on both sides of the body. To practice the side stretch for stored anger, sit in a comfortable position on the ground, using a cork block or organic cotton chambray zafu cushion to support yourself. Straighten both legs in front of you, then bend one knee and bring the sole of the foot in contact with the opposite inner thigh. Turn your body to face your bent knee, and gently side-stretch in the direction of the straight leg, reaching one arm up and over alongside your ear. Repeat on both sides.
- Backbend Stretch For Worry
The spleen meridian starts at the big toe, runs along the inner edge of the foot and up the inner leg. It continues up the front of the body towards the chest. To practice the backbend stretch for worry, sit on the Yogamatters Organic Cotton Bolster with your knees bent and toes pointing back behind you on the ground. If you require padding to protect the knees, use a knee mat pad or soft cotton yoga blanket. Gently walk your hands back so that you are leaning backwards, until you feel a stretch along your thighs and abdomen. You may want to use a pair of cork blocks to support your hands.
- Seated Stretch & Massage For Fear
The kidney meridian starts at the outer edge of the little toe, before running along the sole of the foot, around the inner ankle and heel, then runs up the inner thigh and into the tailbone. To practice the seated stretch and pressure point massage for fear, sit on the Yogamatters Organic Cotton Restorative Yoga Mat with support from a cork block or cushion if you like. Bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together, allowing your knees to drop out to the sides. Gently fold forward towards your feet until you feel a stretch around the inner thighs and perhaps your lower back. Using your thumbs, massage the soles of your feet, paying special attention to any areas that feel tight.
Now you know a little more about how emotions are stored in the body and the stretches you can use to release them. Practice consistently to notice the biggest benefits. Which emotions do you feel are stored in your tissues?