Sensitivity, Yoga, and Mental Health: A Personal Discovery

By Rachel Workman for Yoga Medicine.

Increasing sensitivity is encouraged in the yoga practice. You are invited to tune into subtle engagements, explore energetics, notice thoughts, and experience emotions. It is thought that a continuous practice will increase awareness and sensitivity in all aspects of the human condition so up until recently I had wondered why, after 10 years of dedicated practice, I still felt disconnected from my emotions.

When I began practicing yoga, I was drawn to certain components that were missing from a regular workout regimen. Yoga allowed me to explore something that I had long forgotten — sensitivity. I enjoyed the deep relationship to my physical body that yoga provided, but as others were sharing experiences of emotional release within the practice, I became aware of how long it had been since something had warmed my heart or allowed me to cry. Although I remembered being a sensitive child, I realized as an adult I felt emotionally numb.

What happened to that sensitive kid? How could I feel so disconnected to myself when I was the most connected to my body that I had ever been?

Introducing Nature vs. Nurture

Recently, I found my answer rooted in both the Western and the Eastern world. This summer at the Mental Health and Wellness module with Yoga Medicine, we explored the concepts of nature and nurture. Nature refers to the biology of our genes which can also be thought of as what we inherit and Nurture is the perception that our minds are a “blank slate” and that we are molded by our childhood experiences, lifestyle choices, and our ‘life as a fetus’.

At this training, teachers Valerie Knopik and Diane Malaspina shared that “what makes us who we are” has often been thought of as nature or nurture dichotomy, but when in reality it is a combination of both. Our genetic make up, perceptions, environment, and our sensitivity factor into who we become and how we behave.

Although we are born with a specific genetic code, it can be altered by environmental factors like stress, lifestyle, community, and maternal exposure. The study of these changes that modify our gene expression is called epigenetics.

As I considered our environment’s effects on gene expression, I realized that I may have come to the practice with a genetic predisposition to be sensitive, allowing me to connect to the physical aspects of the practice more readily, but my lack of emotional connection could be a conditioned response to past traumatic events.

Connecting the Past and Present

I grew up in a home that had little tolerance for being emotional. Most of my parent’s time was spent on making ends meet. My dad worked and my mom tried to make what little he made stretch to cover all of our basic necessities. The lack of space for expression of fear, anxiety, worry, and sadness when the outcomes were less than desirable, eventually took a toll on my mother.

When I was 12, she suffered her first nervous breakdown. No longer was she able to cope with life’s challenges. It was intense. The person I had known—the one who had been so good at hiding her anxiety, fear, and worry—was now an emotional wreck. My mother had finally succumbed to the environment where she was not able to openly express her emotions. Instead, she bottled them up and as financial circumstances worsened, she would ultimately break under the pressure.

I believe I was conditioned for that very moment because the years of seeing my mother hold in her emotions prepared me to do the same. Instead of breaking down at the thought of losing her, I became stoic. I became numb. As one break led to another, as one diagnosis was replaced with another…depression, schizophrenia, mania, anxiety… I shut down. This was the only way I knew how to cope with what was happening.

Gaining Clarity

Fast-forward 25 years and I am beginning to see that my mother’s nervous breakdown was a combination of genetics, environment, and sensitivity. Studies show that everyone carries genes that contribute to mental health disorders. Research on epigenomes has proven that environmental factors like stress effect gene expression and that our vulnerability and susceptibility can create a better or for worse outcome. Before my mother’s illness, I had always thought of her as “tough as nails.” Now looking back, I realized she was incredibly sensitive but wasn’t allowed to express herself.

Adapting to Survive

This childhood experience translated into years of creating boundaries to insure that I would not end up like my mother. There were long stints away from home in those early teenage years and as I grew older, I ignored phone calls to avoid her ruminations on past events or worries about the future. Without realizing it, I was reducing my exposure to an environment that I was highly susceptible to. I was living in survival mode.

So, what happens when the dysfunctional environment no longer exists?

Unfortunately, the past experiences that helped me adapt to dysfunction in my youth continued to play out into adulthood. I associated being emotional with my mother’s nervous breakdowns so I thought that if I let myself become emotional, then I would eventually lose control. I learned to be afraid of emotions and the result was to subdue my own and avoid anyone else’s.

Putting It All Together

I lost my mother August 1 st , 2018, six days before I was to attend Yoga Medicine’s myofascial release training. I told no one for fear I might not be able to control my emotions. As the week went by and we worked deeper into the connective tissue, I could no longer ignore the connections emotions have with the tissues of the body. I cried more at that training than I was capable of at her funeral.

Now, after years of practicing and studying yoga, I’m beginning to truly understand why I am so drawn to yoga and its lessons on life. I am slowly rediscovering that sensitive kid I spent years learning how to protect through avoidance. The simplicity and familiarity of the asana and pranayama practices are teaching me how to feel again before I realized that I was missing this capacity. I went to the mental health module expecting to gain insight and affirmations about my mother’s illness. However, I left that training with the fledgling understanding of how her illness affected my own mental health and emotional development as well as influenced the lessons within my yoga practice.

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