Yoga is meant to be an emotional release, but to find out why certain yoga poses can trigger the waterworks, we turned to the experts
It could have been any number of things. The yoga class was overcrowded, and the room was stuffy. The only available spot for me was crammed against a wall, where ants crawled out from a crack and onto my hands during downward dog. I had just moved to a new apartment the day before, and I was tired and overwhelmed by the mess. The teacher was stretching us into a weird twist I had never tried before, and I was sweaty and my feet were slipping and those ants. A tear slipped out. Then I was just quietly crying throughout the rest of class. (Yoga is just one of 19 Weird Things That Can Make You Cry.)
If it had been the first time I'd cried in yoga, I would have shrugged it off. But it's happened before. Yes, I'm an easy crier, but the waterworks don't hit when I'm on the elliptical or taking a barre class—it's just yoga that brings out my weepy side. Is that normal? I had to consult the experts.
"Yoga, at least how I teach it, is about experiencing yourself in the moment," says Elizabeth Plapinger, the director of Yoga for Mental Wellness. "It's about pausing, and listening to yourself, instead of overriding that information." She explains that most of us don't spend our days in quiet self-examination—we have families, friends, chores, jobs—so when we're completely focused on ourselves during a class, some emotions might bubble up that would otherwise be held at bay, or even squashed down. (That's why there Is Such a Thing As a Good Cry.)
"Yoga is self study," says her colleague Yuko Hanakawa, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in New York City. "You are feeling things that are usually put aside." Both women wonder about what it is exactly that I'm trying to suppress in my regular, day-to-day. Hmmm.
Talking to Plapinger and Hanakawa makes me wonder if I need to book an appointment on a psychologist's couch, stat. But Rachel Allyn, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist in St. Louis, calms my fears. "A well-sequenced class is made to push you deeper, and elicit that release," she says. "I have some clients who wonder about what's wrong with them. I think it's great! You're getting deep, you're getting emotions out." And all for the price of my gym membership.
All three women suggest I examine which poses, and which teachers, trigger this weepy response. "Different people respond to different poses differently," explains Plapinger. "You're supposed to do forward folds to calm down, but that's overly simplistic. Some people get very agitated in forward folds, because they feel claustrophobic." As a teacher, she's a fan of props like blocks or blankets, and she's noticed how her students will clearly, visibly relax if she quietly places a blanket under their ankles during savasana. "Whenever I prop someone up in a way that they've never been supported before, they go into a deeper resting place," she says.
For me, the emotions usually bubble up toward the end of a class, in the more relaxing and restorative poses on the floor. "During the active poses, you're staying in that busy mind. How can I make it through the next chaturanga?" says Allyn, referring to that tricep-killing push-up pose. "When we're going deeper into our tissue, that's when crying often happens. Pigeon can be one of the main triggers." She also points to heart-openers—like cobra, bow, camel, or anything else where you press your chest to the sky—as another way to, yep, open up your heart. (Psst... These Chill Yoga Poses Ease Anxiety.)
Allyn calls my tears "an opportunity," and I think she's right. Yoga is indeed like therapy for me. After a good class, I feel calmer, more connected, like my brain has been scrubbed clean. And if my tears ducts have been cleared out, too? All the better.