Yoga and Emotional Intelligence

It was Howard Gardner’s 1983 book Frames of Mind that began to blow open notions of intelligence within psychology.  Gardner made the case that intelligence was much broader and applied to many more categories beyond just our reasoning or intellectual capacity.  In 1990 Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer created a model of emotional intelligence that extended over 5 categories: 1. knowing emotion, 2. managing emotion 3. motivating oneself 4. recognizing emotions in others and 5. handling relationships.   Daniel Goleman furthered this work in his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence. Goleman states ““self- awareness – recognizing a feeling as it happens (emphasis his) – is the keystone of emotional intelligence”.  The overlap between yoga and more mainstream psychological approaches to emotional intelligence can be seen in this one point alone.  The yoga sutras are rife with reference to awareness and the cultivation of our inner “Seer”.  Eventually the yoga sutras implore us recognize the difference between the Seer and the objects seen.  In terms of emotional intelligence this means remaining unidentified with emotions (as inner objects) as they arise and rather stepping back and becoming aware of them.  An emotionally intelligent yoga practice emphasizes this capacity to be aware of rather than identified with emotion.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the point is to become stoic or unaffected by life.  The point is to HAVE emotion as opposed to BECOMING them outright.  To have emotion is to have access to the dynamic life blood of human existence.  The passions – as emotion has been called –  are indeed the substance of a passionate life.  Emotionally intelligent yoga creates a safe and grounded container to experience these passions – to indulge in their juice and energy without being swamped.  Through our yoga practice we come to see, know, relate and express our emotions in safe and life giving ways.

There are, of course, teachers and practitioners of yoga who are already attuned the effects of yoga on emotion and mental health.  However, the overall trend continues to push in the direction of the purely physical practice.  This is partly because the rate at which students are pushed through and out of teacher training programs does not allow for the time and subtlety required to engage the emotional landscape through practice.  It is also, I believe, because working in the realm of emotion is daunting and there is not the skill and knowledge to help people navigate this realm safely.  And yet, we must.  What a shame it would be to have a tool such as yoga and only use it to it’s partial capacity.  In my practice as a Psychologist it is obvious that the hearts of people are screaming to be touched, moved and supported.  And here we have the ability to do this through embodied breath, movement and attention.

Shifting the focus from purely physical to emotional requires a willingness to slow down and sense the subtle speech of the heart.  The heart talks in many languages and tiny gestures and contains within it the whispers of our deeper identities.  The pace is slow but not necessarily easy, with emotionally intelligent yoga, for we are building something.  Beyond building strong muscles or flashy instagram images, we are building a relationship to ourselves.   Such an intimacy cannot be experienced in yoga practices that are based upon external standards of form and performance.  And while the path of the heart is not glamorous, its fruits are ripe with the juice of a deep connection to self and life.