Your Brain on Scary Emotions and Breath

Let’s explore a familiar situation:

You’re in sukhasana (chair pose), a one-legged balance pose or even an intense-feeling forward bend.  There is sweat dripping,  muscles shaking and a struggle to keep focus. This is usually the part of the class where the yoga teacher calls out, “Remember to breathe!”  Ah, there it is.  The reminder to turn inward, find your center, overcome what feels in that moment overwhelming by remembering to breathe.  So deceptively simple; you do and it works.  By concentrating on your breath your focus is redirected away from bodily sensations associated with the difficulty of executing your current asana.  In doing so, you exert control over how swayed (externally and internally) you are by the physical and mental circumstance.  You succeed, sustain the pose or find calm even if you fall out of it.  Job well done, congratulations!

Typically, at the end of such a class comes savasana (corpse pose).  Now you are directed to lie comfortably (with or without props), but still.  “Follow your breath.  Don’t try to manipulate it. Just observe.”  Oh, that’s WAY different then what you were doing earlier.   This is where you practice letting go and just sit with what you feel.  Not as easy as one would think especially when uncomfortable physical and emotional feelings come up (New Yorkers HATE THIS PART).  But this work is just as important as learning to find calm in the storm like you did by regaining a sense of control earlier.

We spoke a bit about prefrontal cortex executive function vs. the primal limbic system function in this post.  The limbic system can be generalized as the emotional part of our brains.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brains that manages the emotions and puts the brakes on them when necessary.  To put it more elegantly, I turn to Leslie Kaminoff, co-founder of the Breathing Project in NYC. In one of his recent clinics he explains, “The limbic system is timeless.  When you’re feeling scared or anxious it doesn’t care how good the prefrontal cortex is at analyzing a situation and that it might say ‘It’s ok, this won’t kill us.’  No matter how old you are the primal brain does not understand that whatever emotions you are feeling will pass or that the extremity of emotion is not appropriate for the situation.  It doesn’t get that the next breath is coming.”

This is more easily understood in this context of your Savasana.  Imagine yourself lying there after a great class of opening and exploring many parts of yourself.  Hard to believe that the aftermath of that work doesn’t find you confronting some deeply buried “stuff” that you’ve not been paying attention to or been trying not to.  Now your job is to allow your limbic system free reign as you just sense and observe what sensations come up.  No matter how uncomfortable it gets just stick with it and breathe.  Leslie says this is, “Unwinding the limbic system.  Undoing the imprinting of extreme and reactionary emotions.”

How one reacts in this practice is quite telling.  Try it and see: Does your breathing change in the presence of those uncomfortable sensations?  Does it stop completely?  How long before it returns to a smooth and relaxed rhythm without you forcing it?  Getting to know yourself and how you react while getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is really what a yoga and pranayama practice are about.  As Leslie neatly sums up, “Breathing is the operations of the soul.”  Do you know what yours are?