Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Anger and Yoga: Interview with Dr. Lynn Somerstein

Nina: Thanks so much, Lynn, for the interviews you did with me about yoga and anxiety and yoga and depression. Today I’d love to hear your thoughts about anger.

From your perspective, what is anger and what causes it?

Lynn: I am an anger expert. I grew up with people who were angry all the time and whose retaliatory rage caused me to hide my angry feelings. Suppressing my anger both from myself and from my family was my self-defense, not healthy, but the best I could do at the time. I was often depressed growing up.

Later, when I lived on my own, stored-up rage streamed out of me and I could be destructive to myself and to others. After each of my fits of rage I felt ashamed and unhappy, until the next thing made me mad. It took a long time to stop blowing up.

There are so many reasons to lose your temper. Anger can be a defense against fear. Stressors, such as work, family issues, financial problems, alcoholism, and depression, ignite flareups. Hurt feelings can cause rageful reactions. Or, you could react to something seemingly trivial—someone gets in your way as you walk along a path, for example—and that links up with an unconscious problem.

Rage is rajasic, a primordial energy that fuels anger but can be tempered and used for growth. The power of my anger felt monumental and unmanageable, but a growing awareness of connections to other people was the key to self-control. I’m still working on it.

Nina: Do people tend to experience more anger in times of change? If so, why? And are you finding levels of anger to be particularly high for people dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Lynn: Our memories of the way things were seem like a dream, and the present world is unrecognizable. Our plans and hopes are scattered like sand to the winds. The future we had envisioned has disappeared, making us feel scared, cheated, bewildered, and angry as we fight against an invisible and implacable enemy. Covid-19 has one goal only, which is to survive, and that survival sickens and kills human beings. Pandemics follow their own laws.

Those who can accept that we’re in a different time, a war-like time, are better able to handle the fallout. Others try to fight it, and they get very angry. The instances of child and spousal abuse are quite high these days, as we are locked in together and taking that anger out on ourselves and on one another.

Nina: What are some of the problems caused by being frequently angry?

Lynn: People who are frequently angry lose their good judgement and loosen their connections with life. They are rageful, irritable, and unable to participate in deep relationships, blind to the evanescence of being. Love and beauty disappear. Tenderness is replaced with sadism.

Nina: Are there other emotions, such as resentment and jealousy, that we should consider as forms of anger and which should be approached in the same general way?

Lynn: Resentment and jealousy are two different but related forms of anger.

Resentment can be an outgrowth of anger. Person A feels “I was supposed to get that, and B took it away.” A feels angry and bitter.
Jealousy is a bit more complicated because it is a three-person interaction. Let’s say A loves B, and B loves A, until C comes along and steals B’s affections. Now B and C are together. A is alone, hurt, angry, and jealous.

Resentment can become characterological and cause chronic bitterness. Jealousy’s lack of trust in the other prevents the full development of relationships. In either case these feelings make connections hard to achieve and maintain. Awareness and acceptance of the emotions is the first step towards dealing with them. Sit with them quietly and let them stew and see what stories might come up. These stories are yours to accept and perhaps modify for the future. Consider changing the plot.

Nina: In general, how can yoga help people who are feeling a lot of anger and/or related emotions?

Lynn: Yoga brings you closer to your body, feelings, and mind. Thich Nhat Hanh said it best, “Breathing in, I know I am angry. Breathing out, I know that the anger is in me.” The first step is to recognize and befriend your feelings, and then ask yourself why and how you are angry. Know that you are human, and the person you’re angry with is human, too. Anger is the connection between you.

Nina: What are some specific yoga practices and/or poses that you recommend or suggest for cooling these fiery emotions?

Lynn: Let’s start with the basic breath. Follow the breath, take long, deep, slow breaths. That will help control anger’s fierce rajasic energy and lead to self-knowledge.

There are many physical practices that are calming, such as the three-part breath (Deerga Swassam), an Integral Yoga favorite. Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati), a purifying breath, can release anger. Twisting poses can help, too, as can restorative yoga sequences. One of my favorites restorative poses is Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle pose). To do this pose, lie on your back, palms face up near your body, and bring the heels of your feet to touch. Prop your knees with blankets or yoga blocks. You might place a rolled-up blanket under your back, beneath the bottom of your shoulder blades, where they meet the middle back. Close your eyes, lie still, and breathe.

Nina: Are there any yoga practices and/or poses that people who are feeling anger and/or related emotions should avoid?

Lynn: If you find that a particular style of practice stokes your anger stay away from it. This, of course, is an individual matter. Remember, let your body do your yoga, don’t force your body into what is depicted as the ideal yoga pose. There is no such thing.

Nina: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers about this topic?

Lynn: Neither expressing nor suppressing anger lead to a positive outcome. Instead, feel in your body and your heart what you are about, and where your spirit leads.

 Lynn Anjali Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, LP, RYT, is a licensed psychotherapist and yoga therapist in private practice, specializing in anxiety, depression and PTSD. She is also the author of numerous articles about yoga, anxiety, attachment issues and psychotherapy. Lynn is grateful to her many teachers at the Integral Yoga Institute and the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis who offered her extensive and deep training in yoga, yoga therapy, and psychoanalysis. See for more information about Lynn.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow
 co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

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