Yoga, attention, nuance, and subtlety

Joshua Spodek’s (PhD MBA) book, Leadership Step by Step, launched in February. He is an adjunct professor and coach of leadership and entrepreneurship at NYU and Columbia. His courses are available online at SpodekAcademy.com and he blogs daily at JoshuaSpodek.com.


A reader wrote to ask about my August 2012 post, “Three things I learned from yoga

“With yoga you can use your body alone to create many emotions and learn how to handle them.”

Have you written more about this?

I can only see me creating fear, determination, calmness, anger and patience. These don’t count to many, so I wonder what other emotions could one create?

I haven’t done yoga in years, mainly since I found burpees and other sidchas easier, more convenient, and giving results I valued more, but I learned a lot from it and am glad I did it. And I would still recommend my teacher for anyone interested in yoga. Her background in dance made it more fun and artful.

Looking back, I think more valuable than the number of emotions was two things:

  • Practicing emotional skills
  • Sensing and working with emotional nuance and subtlety

When you’re calm or feeling emotions you like, paying attention to emotions is easy. You can practice emotional skills then, but you don’t get much from it. You’re feeling the emotions you want, so what’s the value in awareness or skill in changing your emotions?

When you’re not calm and feeling emotions you don’t like, paying attention to them is harder. Most of us tend to pay attention to things in our environments we think are causing the problem. We aren’t paying attention to ourselves so we don’t notice our emotions so we can’t work with them.

That’s one of the main challenges of developing skills with emotions: when we don’t need the skills, we can work on them. When we need them, we’re too distracted to work with them.

Physically challenging activities overcome this challenge, though yoga’s combination of physical challenge and unhurried action promotes working with your emotions more than most, like playing a team sport or lifting weights in a loud environment. I’ve found burpees at home, cold showers, running, and rowing as effective without needing travel, payment, or coordinating schedules with other, which hold me from practicing daily. I’ve heard rock climbing and surfing have similar effects as yoga. Same with arts like dance and playing music. Meditation isn’t as physical but works. Every activity offers unique insight. I understand that many people find hunting and fishing comparable.

Anyway, yoga creates stress of whatever level you want, but also a context where you can pay attention to your body’s reactions. At least that was my experience. As I mastered a level of poses and moved to more advanced ones, the more I learned about myself.

When I started, messages from my body overwhelmed my senses and emotions: pain, fear, confusion, anxiety, and so on. I advanced by learning to handle these emotions, as well as my body.

When I could do this pose

which was for me advanced, then the messages for doing simpler poses were no longer overwhelming. In fact, they were calm and relaxed. In other words I turned something stressful in my life into something calm and relaxing. I improved my life by developing skill. I could use that skill anywhere, not just yoga. My having deliberately created the stress that I overcame didn’t stop me from using the skills where stress came non-deliberately.

Also, when I was more advanced and did advanced poses like the one above, the messages from my body weren’t as overwhelming as when I was a beginner doing beginner poses. As a beginner I couldn’t sense nuance or subtlety, just magnitude. When I advanced, the magnitude of stress may have been as great, but I sensed nuance.

Again, I could apply this level of mastery anywhere, not just in yoga. So when I was running or dealing with a difficult person, I could handle more difficulty more skillfully. I could also apply the skills to other emotions, not just signals of stress from my body, but challenges in relationships, in personal endeavors, and so on.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In summary

In summary, instead of answering the original question, I refined what I wrote. Yoga didn’t create a great range of emotions, though it created more than I expected before doing it. It created skill, facility, awareness, focus, and attention with emotions that I could apply broadly.

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