Should yoga be emotional or detached?

“It looked like you were coming a little unraveled.”

Tim Miller said that to me nearly a year ago, following a particularly emotional — as in I was blubbering by the third Suryanamaskara — Mysore practice during his Maya Tulum retreat.

It was a typically gentle Tim thing to say. (It also probably explains why it seems to happen all too often around him!)

Has anyone not had one of those practices? The emotions and tears might not come until a really deep back bend, but they come, and they come, and they come.

They shouldn’t, though, right? If you have your dristi correct, if you’re controlling your breath and have your bandhas locked, your mind should be free of all that extra emotion that yoga has a tendency to wring out.

As Ashtanga practitioners, we’ve all heard some version of that, right? A recent version is via Kino MacGregor’s blog from Mysore, recounting a Shararth conference:

The breath can be the regular breath or fluctuating based on the emotional state. Often the breath reflects the state of mind, for example, with anxiety the breath becomes irregular. If you have anger the breath is totally different than when you are calm and happy. When you have any strong emotion your breath is totally different. Too much emotions, for example, during the asana practice means that some students will cry when they go into asana. That means that before doing pranayama they first need to stabilize the mind. Sharath said, “Life is like that, sukha/dukha happiness and sorrow is part of our life. How we can handle these things is very important. Nobody can escape this in life. If you want to relish sukha you have to go through much dukha.” When doing asana practice the asana will bring out the previously held dukha and then the breath also goes in different, irregular ways. In order to purify the body we first need to stabilize all this through the breath. That stability comes from a strength and steadiness of mind.

As I read that, he’s saying (and I’m stealing this from Eddie Stern): Check yo’self.

Seane Corn, via

But not everyone agrees.

As you might have been aware, Yoga Journal just wrapped up its conference in San Francisco. (David Swenson was there.) From its coverage, comes this about a new Seane Corn workshop: “Yoga for a Broken Heart.” (Imagine the playlist?!)

A few sections:

This morning, I had a chance to watch her bear witness to her own deep grief—and to ours—in one of her relatively new workshops, Yoga for a Broken Heart.

“When my father was dying of cancer,” she explained, “he insisted that I begin teaching this class. He even came up with the name.” A yoga teacher himself, he wanted his daughter to help others process the grief that can burden their bodies, their breath, and their hearts. And I would venture to guess that he knew Seane would find a way to process her own grief about his own death by leading this intimate workshop, which blends her own personal stories, group discussion, and a breath-centric vinyasa practice—all designed to bear witness to, and even honor, the transformational quality of grief.


Throughout the class, she asked us: “How do you feel in your body?” The answers came: “scared,” “checked out,” “angry,” “sad.” Over and over, she asked us to take in a deep breath, and exhale fully, to release some of the emotion that was building up inside. And although it may sound elementary, it was exactly what we needed.

Next, she led us through a comforting vinyasa practice, which featured nurturing warm-up poses, Sun Salutations, and a few classic heart-openers such as Camel Pose and Pigeon. “Let’s dedicate every movement and every breath to the story of our grief—to our lovers, our parents, our children and our pets—all the beings that have brought us to our knees, who have opened our souls,” she said. “They are our teachers, our spirit guides, and we wish them nothing but peace and happiness, forgiveness and strength as they continue forward in their journey.”

I can’t imagine what it’s like to lead a class for people who are grieving that is based around the stories of your own father’s painful illness and death. But I admire Seane Corn’s courage and her willingness to share what she’s learned about yoga and grief with others in the yoga community. “Grief transforms us,” she said. “It will make you love better than anything you ever have imagined.”

Pretty much the exact opposite of the Ashtanga practice, no?

Now, I recognize that there are many facets to yoga — both in the narrow “asana” definition, let alone the broader “eight-limbed” one — and so I’m not going to judge one of these routes against the other. There are many paths to god, or union, or the divine, or what have you.

I do wonder, though, if yoga really is so broad as to be able to contain both of these very different paths. And if it is, or isn’t, how does that affect the thinking about yoga as just asana, yoga as something that some Hindus feel they need to take back? (Can a workshop on yoga for a broken heart break a person’s body?)

Perhaps what I’m wondering is: Is there a point where “yoga” becomes something else? Is it something that calls for a stable mind and heart or can it be the release, the fulcrum for letting emotions go?

Is there a “pure” form or is it open to wide interpretation?

And where does Pattabhi Jois’ version fit in?

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “Should yoga be emotional or detached?”

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