Yoga Therapy: Theory and Practice

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only wanting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps every terrible thing is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

The Misunderstood Emotion

Anger is a misunderstood emotion. We feel instinctively, or may know from personal experience, that anger can be dangerous. We fear anger in others, and ourselves and given the apparent increase in random violence in our society, who can blame us? However, that fear can impair our ability to respond effectively to one of our most important survival tools.

Like anger itself, people with anger management problems are also misunderstood. To be clear, there is no justification for aggressive, intimidating or violent behavior. At the same time, people with problematic anger suffer a great deal, and their need for healing is crucial to the wellbeing of our families, communities and society as a whole.

In my experience facilitating anger management therapy groups, I find that most clients have been victimized, bullied, rejected or abused throughout their life. Some have endured chronic pain or illness, betrayal, grief, poverty, domestic violence, prejudice or social injustice. I usually find the root cause of their anger understandable.

However, their escalating and often misdirected efforts to be heard, to assert power or to pre-empt rejection creates unintended chaos. Often these actions lead them to lose employment, housing, relationships, custody of their children, or even their personal freedom if incarcerated. Worse yet, they may bear the guilt of harming another. Alternatively, some people suppress their anger, becoming extremely depressed and self-loathing. They hide from anger’s warnings and remain stuck in passive, indirect or victimized patterns. Aside from those with severe personality disorders (which is beyond the scope of this chapter), most of the people in my anger management groups feel powerless, lonely and ashamed.

“I’m a bad person, that’s just a fact. Why else would I act like this?”
“I know I should control myself, but sometimes I don’t want to!”
“I’m always judging people; I’m looking for an excuse to go off on someone!”

Teaching individuals to be skillful with their anger is life changing. When people can learn to listen and stay present to the ‘alert system’ of anger, then they can make empowered choices, and take effective action (or non-action). Most importantly, beyond any skill is compassion. Having the courage to know and love the terrible, helpless dragon within shifts the core struggle, so that one no longer need to fight or flee from others or oneself. This is the yogic core of mediating anger.

In this chapter I will explore how the teachings and practices of yoga facilitate empowered thinking, skillful action, self-compassion, and the sense of inter-connection needed to manage angry feelings in a healthy way. This chapter will use the “eight limbs” of yoga outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra as practical guideposts, and draw broader purpose from The Bhagavad Gita and Narada Bhakti Sutra.

The Anatomy of Anger

“Within this fathomlong body is found all the teachings,
is found suffering, the cause of suffering, and the end of suffering.”
Buddha

Anger is a physical event, an uncomfortable alarm system designed for rapid response. When the sabre tooth tiger threatened our caveman ancestor, he needed the boost of adrenaline to survive, commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Understanding this stress response is helpful to understanding how yoga is an effective intervention. In addition, providing psycho-education about the anatomy of anger to clients is extremely validating; it helps affirm intense emotions and universalizes experience. Instead of feeling like a bad person, one can realize that he/ she is simply an organism fighting (albeit misguidedly) for survival.

Today, there are no sabre tooth tigers chasing us, but our primal limbic system cannot differentiate between mortal danger and perceived threats- such as a close call on the highway or a passing stranger on a dark sidewalk. The threat may occur only in our mind, like a worry or insecurity, and may not even be happening in the present moment; the stress response can trigger even when reminded of past events such as in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Interestingly, social or emotional threats, like an insult or emotional letdown, draw on the same biological networks (Eisenberger & Liebermann 2004). This explains why people become inflamed by a negative look (or social slight).

Regardless of how a threat trigger starts, the amygdala activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the endocrine system. An ensuing surge of stress hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol increases the heart rate, dilates the and shunts blood to large muscle groups. The ‘stressed out’ individual now experiences increased heart rate and respiration, agitation, muscle tension, and perspiration (Hanson & Mendius, 2009).

While some systems are ‘revved up’, other non-essential functions shut down, such as digestion and libido. The prefrontal cortex function also decreases, leading to impulsivity, racing thoughts, negative perceptions and poor recall of events while under stress (Uyterhoeven, 2006). People with rage episodes often report that they ‘black out’ or can’t remember events clearly; I’ve commonly heard clients say, “I don’t know what happened, but, the next thing I knew, I was in the back of a police car.”

Though the stress response was meant for emergency use only, we are increasingly living in a state of SNS arousal. Our modern sabre tooth tigers are busy schedules, media overload, financial stress, long commutes, relationship discord, health problems, violence and social injustice to name a few.

Chronic stress and anger have been linked to 1) increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, insomnia, depression 2) decreased immune system, gastro-intestinal functioning, sex drive, mood and 3) correlated with cardiovascular disease (Wenner, 2008).

Fortunately, our body has the key to end this suffering through the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The PNS helps the body to maintain homeostasis; it promotes rest and regeneration (Uyterhoven, 2006). In this state, all body systems are functioning normally, including the cardio-vascular system, digestive system, and immune system. This state is characterized by a calm, positive mood state, and sense of safety and peace. For thousands of years, yogic practices have been used to achieve this equilibrium. Today, more and more scientific evidence supports the effectiveness of yoga to tame rampant stress hormones and create the relaxation response and in our bodies (Cobb, 2008; Granath et al, 2006; Hanson & Mendius, 2009; Lee, 2005; Simpkins & Simpkins 2011). Through yoga, we can access our body’s wisdom to end its own painful patterns.

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