Not too long ago, I received a panicked email from a student asking me whether it’s normal to feel anxious after yoga. After all, wasn’t it supposed to be relaxing? Were they doing something wrong? Everyone else seemed to move effortlessly while they wrestled with uncomfortable knots that only got tighter with every posture and breathing exercise.
Now, yoga has a well-deserved reputation for improving well-being. It modulates stress by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and promoting healthy respiration. Plus, studies show that it reduces cortisol levels by triggering the body’s relaxation response.
However, this isn’t the complete picture. As a teacher, I see an extraordinary range of reactions in class, from elation to rage. Some people leave feeling much better, and others break down in tears for no apparent reason. When I practise, I never quite know what will come up. I ride through a spectrum of emotion — apathy, joy, resentment, fear, confidence, force and surrender. Afterwards, I usually feel mellow and beat-up, stronger somehow but totally rinsed.
So yes, it’s normal to feel anxious after yoga (don’t let the blissed-out hippies on Instagram fool you). It’s normal to cry. I’ve left plenty of classes feeling a little violent (so much for ahimsa). But why? What’s going on here? The answer could lie in yoga’s effect on our energetic body.
What is the energetic body in yoga?
Eastern wisdom tells us there are several layers of being, known as koshas, which include the physical body, mental body, intellectual body, spiritual body, emotional body, subtle body and energy body.
While different traditions focus on specific layers more than others, all recognise the energetic body as being supremely important. According to yogic literature, we have a complex network of 72,000 channels in our body (known as nadis) which distribute energy (known as prana) around the chakra system.
Seven chakras run along the spine, where multiple energy channels intersect. They include the:
- Root chakra (muladhara) at the base of the spine: basic needs and feelings of stability
- Sacral chakra (swadhisthana) in the lower abdomen: abundance, creativity and sexuality
- Solar plexus chakra (manipura) in the stomach: self-worth and confidence
- Heart chakra (anahata) in the heart centre: joy and love
- Throat chakra (vishuddha) in the throat: communication and honesty
- Third-eye chakra (ajna) between the eyes: wisdom, intuition and imagination
- Crown chakra (sahasrara) at the top of the head: spiritual connection
By practising yoga, we move energy through the chakra system via the nadis, switching them on and clearing them out. It’s heavy and tiring work, much like gutting drains to let water flow (not a particularly pleasant image, but equally as messy). There are also postures, breathing exercises and meditations designed to stimulate each chakra independently.
We’ll tie this together with an example. I’ve always struggled with feelings of instability (root chakra), so I tend to get emotional after hip openers (which move energy around the lower body). Similarly, backbends often cause tearfulness because they open the chest area and stimulate anahata (heart chakra). Although the extremity of backbends is enough to bring tears to most people’s eyes, some believe the feelings of overwhelm are a result of working through emotional blockages concerning our relationship to self and others.
Granthis and psychological blockages
Wouldn’t it be lovely to experience a free flow of energy? We’d light up our chakra system like a Christmas tree, bringing ease and balance into everything we do. However, nothing’s ever that easy. Say hello to granthis — a Sanskrit term roughly translating into “a difficult knot to untie.”
Granthis prevent prana from rising through sushumna nadi the central channel of the energetic body located within the spine. They stop us from nourishing our chakra centres and moving forward with our personal and spiritual development.
The three granthis are:
- Brahma granthi located in the lower body (root and sacral chakra): caused by anxiety about survival, food and shelter, fear of death, lack of stability and preoccupation with physical pleasure.
- Vishnu granthi located in the midbody (solar plexus, heart, and throat chakra): caused by unhealthy emotional attachments, obsession with power and an out of control ego (confidence that turns into aggression).
- Rudra granthi located in the upper body (third eye and crown chakra): caused by feelings of separateness and a lack of connectedness to others.
Before we’re able to bring our energetic system into balance, we have to pop these knots (which is just as painful as it sounds). We do this through a complete yoga practice which includes asana (posture), pranayama (breath-control), meditation, the study of the yamas and niyamas (yoga’s ten commandments), mudra and chanting. Basically, we try to implement the eight limbs of yoga.
Unlocking granthis with bandhas
Another way to untie granthis is by focusing on bandhas (three inner body locks) in your asana practice. As well as making your postures stronger and more stable, yogis believe the intensity of engaging the bandhas burn-up energy blockages.
- Engage mula bandha (the root lock) by contracting the pelvic floor. Alongside giving you an extra lift when jumping forward and back in sun salutations, it focuses the mind on the first chakra, directing energy from the pelvis upwards.
- Engage uddiyana bandha (the abdominal lock) by contracting the stomach muscles. Not only does the activation protect your lower spine in backbends, but it also directs energy up towards the sixth chakra.
- Engage jalandhara bandha (the throat lock) by contracting the front muscles in the neck. You’ll do this naturally in some postures where the chin draws towards the sternum (for example, shoulderstand), or by using ujjayi pranayama which is an audible breath.
Why else might I feel anxious?
Energetic body aside, there are plenty of reasons why you may feel anxious or stressed after a class. The quietness of the space gives us time to chew over painful memories and experiences (eventually, we learn to sit with these feelings rather than drown in them). Then, the focus on introspection can feel exceptionally uncomfortable for people prone to busyness (without distractions, then what?).
Sometimes, we may feel betrayed by our body. We might compare ourselves against our neighbours or against what we could do yesterday. However, frustration and preoccupation with progression (which isn’t linear) only prevents us from fully enjoying the process. How can we move past this? By letting go of expectations and exercising santosha (contentment). Wherever you are is perfect, and remember the yoga we see online isn’t an accurate representation of the practice as a whole.
Finally, certain breathing exercises and meditation techniques can feel claustrophobic. Much like challenging postures, it’s best to build-up to them slowly. If you’re new to meditation, these tips will help you start.
Lead with compassion
Above all else, and no matter what your personal beliefs are, lead with compassion. Honour whatever comes up, and remember any reinvention often involves getting swallowed, chewed-up and spit out.
While yoga should never feel unbearable (it’s giving at its core), its most profound teachings are tied up in its tribulations. When something feels challenging, leaning into that intensity may even reveal some essential truths that’ll deepen your practice and personal understanding.
Originally published at https://ashleighmayesyoga.com on December 17, 2020.