Emotional Agility: 

How Yoga Helps Us Find It

By Jelayna Da Silva

How does yoga help build emotional health? Specifically, how can it help build ‘emotional agility’? A catchy turn of phrase coined by Dr. Susan David, Harvard PHd who wrote a book all about it. She defines emotional agility as “the skills of being healthy with ourselves”. It’s the ability to recognize thoughts, emotions and stories, including the difficult ones, learn to make peace with them, give them space, and teach ourselves healthy ways to manage our sometimes intense inner world. 

Dr. David uses the word ‘signposts’ to describe emotions. This is a total game changer. Emotions are indicators. They’re necessary, natural, temporary reactions to any given situation. To wit; emotions are data, not directives.

Feelings are valid. They matter. Processing them is key. It doesn’t mean they should always be acted upon. If we flew into a rage every time we were angry, we’d have high blood pressure and quite possibly no friends. If we suppress anger, turning it inwards and potentially against ourselves,  is absolutely no good either. The question then becomes, “How do we increase emotional awareness, allow ourselves to feel emotions, even the scary ones, and then choose how to appropriately act?” — Enter yoga and breathwork. 

Victor Frankl, psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Yogic breathwork teaches us how to find and lengthen this “space”. When you experience strong emotions, breathe your way through. Simple? Yes. Easy? Not so much. Worth it? Absolutely.

Sahita Kumbhaka is a state of suspension between the breaths. The practice is to inhale slowly, pause at the top of the breath, exhale slowly, pause at the bottom of the breath, finding stillness through focused breathing. It lengthens the ‘in-between moments’ where calm space resides.

Deep breathing during powerful emotions calms the nervous system, slowing down the fight or flight response. It provides peaceful, powerful space, granting time and clarity to identify feelings and choose our next move. This is internal agility.

No matter how acute and uncomfortable an emotion may be, it will inevitably pass. Deep breaths while quietly repeating “this too shall pass” is one way to self-soothe. You are not the feeling. You are what witnesses the feeling.

Anger, sadness, grief, frustration; emotions we’re all experiencing more of living through a pandemic are NORMAL, not ‘negative’. We’re not broken, bad, or failing, “Difficult emotions are a part of our contract with life”– Dr. S. David.

As you learn to make peace with emotions, be fiercely patient and kind to yourself. On paper it sounds practical. In practice, it’s friggin’ hard. Like all things worth doing, it takes time and effort. Trust that you’re worth the effort.

Jelayna Da Silva is a well-certified, passionate yoga teacher, currently offering public and private classes online to practitioners from all walks of life. www.jelaynayoga.com