Understanding and embodying our emotions as self-care through ancestral medicine
Reprinted from the "Responding to Feelings" issue of Visions Journal, 2021, 16 (4), pp. 12-13
As we learn and grow, we are taught so much about the world around us. With technology, we can access a wealth of information in seconds. In contrast, while each of us experiences emotions, we learn very little about how they work, how to understand and experience them and their impact on our well-being.
Have you ever noticed how every emotion you feel has corresponding sensations in the body? When we are excited or angry, the rhythm of our breath is different from when we are sad or relaxed. The temperature or sensations that show up when we are nervous or anxious can feel like “butterflies” in the stomach or display as sweaty palms (and armpits). These are signals that our brain sends our body in order to process feelings. If you often avoid feeling those feels, you may be trying to override the body’s natural processing system by going straight to the head. In Āyurveda, the oldest form of holistic medicine, which was developed in India, we look very closely at the impact of emotions, feelings and thoughts on our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellness.
Our emotions are literally energy in motion. When we find ways to block the energy from moving through our body, we end up storing emotions in our cells. Some ways that we learn to bypass our emotions include dissociating, addiction, perfectionism, judging ourselves and being critical of others.1 Eventually, unprocessed emotions start showing up as physical symptoms or ailments.
Many of us have been conditioned through childhood experience to run away from feeling our feelings. Perhaps there was never a safe environment for us to express ourselves, or we were criticized, judged or reprimanded for being in our feelings. This forms trauma, which then informs the way we operate in the world. We continue this learned operating system as adults, including in interpersonal relationships.
Growing up first generation Punjabi in Canada, I spent a lot of years grappling with my emotions. Often there was little to no room to express the range of emotions I felt. This left me stuck in a pattern where I bypassed the complex thoughts and feelings I was having and defaulted to expressing my emotions in ways the people around me were more comfortable with. This included people pleasing, self-abandonment and suppressing my reactions to avoid conflict or criticism. Ultimately I felt depleted, exhausted and angry. The real depth of my emotions became stuck in my body and began to make me sick.
Suppressing, or finding private, sacred ways to express, anger, happiness and sadness can occur for many of us who were raised in intergenerational and immigrant families. In 2010, grief over my grandfather’s passing compelled me to rediscover ways to heal that I had always longed for, but that were not accessible around me. I began to come into my body and practice self-care through a daily sādhana (dedicated spiritual practice). I noticed how much healing I had to do; the aches and pains in my body were coming from a much deeper place. Feeling our feelings, the pleasant and unpleasant ones, is one of the most potent paths to healing.
I have now been practicing and facilitating yoga, Āyurveda, dhyāna (meditation) and prānāyāmā (conscious rhythmic breathing) for over 10 years and have learned a few things about making friends with my feelings and reclaiming power over my own well-being. These three practices are a few ways we can come back into our body, allow emotions to move through us and process feelings out of our nervous system. While these modalities are incredibly helpful, it is also important to start our journey from an authentic source that is rooted in a lineage.
By now, most folks are no strangers to hearing the words yoga or meditation. But until very recently, the origins of these practices were often bypassed and whitewashed by the dominant culture. This separation of yoga, dhyāna, prānāyāmā, Āyurveda and other ancestral healing modalities from their roots subtly perpetuates harm for BIPOC. Dealing with our traumas, getting in touch with our emotions and connecting to our bodies is deep and sacred work. It requires us to become deeply vulnerable. This vulnerability is the reason many folks choose to avoid the process altogether. Having teachers, facilitators and educators who understand the roots of this work and embody these practices can make all the difference in creating a safe container for us as we go through our own healing journey.
Āyurveda and yoga give us the wisdom and awareness to be in charge of our own health, rather than depending on something outside of ourselves. These ancient ways of healing alchemize our unpleasant feelings, negative thoughts and tendencies by raising our vibrational frequency. Just like we brush our teeth and shower every day, one of my teachers, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, says, we must also practice daily mental hygiene.
The easiest way to begin the journey is to acknowledge the challenging feelings you may be experiencing and literally sit with them. After some movement of the body, sit and breathe deeply through the nose for one minute a day, gradually increasing by one minute until you are able to sit for at least 20 minutes, twice a day. The more challenging it is for you to sit and breathe, the more important it is for you to commit to the practice.
When done with awareness of the breath, movement practices like sūryanamaskāra (sun salutations), a sequence of 12 yoga āsanās (postures), not only help to build strength, tone and stretch the muscles and detoxify the joints, but also help focus and bring clarity to the mind.
Feelings bring forward the rasā (juice to life). Without feelings, life would be dull and dry; our quest for deeper connection with ourselves and others would be increasingly difficult. When we learn to see feelings like waves in the ocean, simply coming and going, playing their role without us becoming attached to them, we can appreciate their beauty and lessons.
About the author
Navdeep (Navi) Gill is an Ayurvedic practitioner, therapist and holistic wellness educator. A primary focus of her practice is reviving and connecting womxn to ancestral wisdom and ritual as a form of self-care. She seeks to decolonize wellness by making ancestral wisdom accessible, particularly for BIPOC*
*Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour