When the lump welled up in my throat and the tear trickled down my cheek at the end of my yoga class, I was not concerned. But then a week later, after my next class, it happened again. Why was I crying at the end of my yoga practice? And what could this tell me about exercise and my body?
As an exercise physiologist and personal trainer, I am accustomed to paying attention to and interpreting the signs and symptoms that occur before, during and after exercise, but I was befuddled by my own response to this unique and ancient form and wondered what it was telling me about exercise and the body, my body in particular.
The first episode happened after a 90-minute advanced yoga class at the Exhale Spa in Boston. I had been out of practice for what seemed like an eternity. The week prior, I had ramped up my activity level to prepare for my first photo shoot to promote my business. Not unlike most women, when I scheduled the shoot, I immediately began devising my “countdown to the day” diet and exercise plan. I lifted weights, cycled with fury and left food behind on my plate. But on this day, I showed up wanting, as the name of the spa promised, to exhale.
Not only did I exhale during that first yoga class, but I twisted and lengthened and pushed and pulled myself to my limits. It felt great. My body had been wrung out. And I felt as if I had been massaged inside and out and as I lay in the final pose – Savasana, I exhaled and began to weep silently.
I left that class feeling good. Both physically and emotionally, I had been renewed. I trudged forward into the second week of my “countdown to the day” diet and exercise program. I did not give my crying a second thought. Until the following week at Healthworks in Chestnut Hill, when after another 90 minutes of breathing and meditating and pushing and pulling, and twisting- it happened again.
This time, I was ready for it and I welcomed it and gave into it and explored it. It was not a sad kind of weeping, but nor was it a happy one. It was just a weeping. It felt like I was expelling some energy that had somehow built up within me. The combination of the sadness of the energy and the happiness of its exiting my body was what made this emotion neutral. It was yin and yang, and I left the class feeling balanced.
So I had energy built up and yoga was helping me to release it. Wonderful, I am all in favor of that. But putting my scientists hat back on, how was this happening and why?
Exercise is an intentional act. During exercise, the central and peripheral nervous systems send signals to the muscles to contract, to our lungs to increase filling and frequency of breathing and to our heart to fill more and pump faster. In my case, during yoga, my brain processes the instructor’s cues and sends lightning speed chemically-mediated instructions to my shoulder muscles to contract and hold up my weight in a plank position. While on another pathway, my brain simultaneously tells my lungs to fill more deeply as the instructor cues us to focus on our ujjayi breathing (pronounced “ooh-jy-yee”).
As these signals are being sent, and at the same quality of speed and accuracy, our nervous systems are sending signals from the periphery back to the brain. There in the brain, these signals are interpreted and an emotion arises out of our cells and into our consciousness and down my cheek.
In the end, a balance of east meets west thinking is what explains this quandary. And the relationship between the mind and the body is clearer and the role of exercise in that relationship emerges. During exercise, you tell your body to work and that work is returned to you in the form of sensations of pleasure and pain and yes, emotions. In my case, my double duty workouts had led to tight hips and thighs, tense shoulders and compressed vertebrae, and upon releasing that negativity, I felt elation and the neutral act of weeping at the end of my yoga practice was the expression of that connection between my mind and my body.
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