The Emotional Body: An Interview with Tias Littleby Lori Gaspar
Tias Little, expert on yoga, Eastern philosophy, bodywork, and anatomy, has become one of the yoga teachers I study with regularly—attending his workshops whenever he is in my hometown of Chicago, as well as his teacher training at his home base in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Over the past few years, Tias has presented intensives in Naples , Florida , at Studio 41, a wonderful yoga studio that I drop into when I am in town visiting my husband’s parents. This year I scheduled my annual winter trip to Naples to coincide with the weekend Tias would be there. I caught up with him at the home of Studio 41’s founder Lisa Anderson, and had the chance to meet his wife, Surya, and their delightful 5-month old son, Eno.
For the interview, Tias and I ventured onto Lisa’s front porch beneath a floral cascade of lavender-blue trumpet vines. Joining us were two wild ducks, Lisa’s gray and white cat, and an assortment of birds chirping away in the surrounding treetops. Sipping tea and warmed by the sun, I had to admit that interviewing Tias on a January afternoon in south Florida sure beat the last time I saw him–in Chicago during the dreary, overcast days of November.
My questions were a follow-up to some of the ideas that Tias presented in his training concerning the link between our habitual physical patterns and the emotional body.
Lori Gaspar: On the yogic path, there are five koshas, or sheaths, that move progressively inward toward the Self. The third sheath is the manamayakosha, or the emotional body. How do we access this layer? What do we do that is any different than accessing the first two layers: the physical body (annamayakosha) and the energetic body (pranamayakosha)?
Tias Little: Well, I think most students begin by working in the annamayakosha, the physical sheath, and working through the muscular/skeletal system—first, by opening up the connective tissue of the body, and then working progressively more subtle over time. Anna literally means “food,” so it is the food sheath, or the gross sheath, which is not to be neglected. A lot of yoga students end up somewhat fasting themselves and not eating sufficiently, especially yoga teachers, running from class to class.
LG: You mean not eating enough calories to get them through the day?
TL: Yes, right. The annamayakosha is so important to maintain. But I would say that the pranamayakosha is this energetic sheath just underneath it, which, I think, includes the emotional body as well. It is convenient to separate out the sheaths for the sake of understanding, but, of course, there is such a connected link between all of the sheaths—they inter-penetrate.
LG: What are some ways we tend to hold emotions in our bodies and some common armoring patterns that you see as a yoga teacher?
TL: In the muscular body, it is so common for there to be patterns of holding. In my teaching over the years, I have seen different types of tension—tension due to fatigue or exhaustion or tension that comes from athleticism, or tension that comes from a kind of fear, or different emotional states that get embedded in the tissues.
I think that the adrenal system is responsible for emotional response. It governs the fight-or-flight response. Really, the entire hormonal system impacts our emotional body. Yoga enables us to have some effect on our endocrine system, and a great goal to have in the practice is to be able to affect our hormonal firings. The adrenal system does govern this instinctual response of fight or flight—and I would add to that, collapse.
LG: In your anatomy training at Moksha Yoga Center last November, you mentioned this—that the body typically responds to emotional triggers in three ways: fight, flight, and collapse. Can you explain further?
TL: Collapse is not typically thought to be one of the adrenal responses—a going dead, or deflating or collapsing pattern. Peter Levine, in his book, Waking the Tiger, talks a lot about when animals are captured by their prey, they often play dead and freeze. This response happens in humans, as well, with all kinds of degrees of intensity. So the collapsing pattern can show up, say, as really flaccid tissue, lack of muscular tone, or a really unresponsive muscular connection.
LG: Like people that can’t activate specific muscles?
TL: Yes, what Thomas Hanna [author of the book, Somatics] calls “sensory motor amnesia.” It is the result of a kind of freezing, or locking, or collapsing. Collapsing is not the most common adrenal response. The fight-or-flight tendency, which I see a lot of, shows up as bracing—especially in the back body—feet, calves, hamstrings, buttocks, lower back, behind the heart, back of the neck. The back body is a real receptacle for this kind of bracing.
LG: Why do you think that is? Why the back of the body?
TL: Well, I guess we have to carry on. We have to stay present. So the back body ends up holding, like a buttress, in order for someone to stay in a situation—so that a fight or flight response can show up as bracing or gripping or really tight hamstrings. From a really young age, people are subject to threats of various kinds—physical, emotional, psychological, and the body tissues respond on an unconscious level. The threat goes right into the cellular structure as freezing or hardening or dehydrating.
LG: Dehydrating . . . meaning no liquidity, no flow?
TL: Yes, lack of blood flow, a tightening or hardening, a lack of sensory motor connection—what Thomas Hanna called sensory motor amnesia. I have always loved that expression.
LG: So fight, flight, and collapse . . . fight would be the bracing, the holding-on kind of a thing, and flight would be . . . ?
TL: The runners. Nonconfrontational people looking for the first escape possible. It is a type of withdrawal. Compared to the collapsing pattern, which can lead to real flaccid tissue, this running-flight response can lead to a lot of tightness, especially in the legs, hamstrings, and buttocks. So really, it is first chakra issues, survival issues. The adrenals are so connected to our sense of survival and instinct. And I think responses to threats at such an early age get set in our structure. Then we come to yoga at the age of 35 saying, “Oh, this looks good,” and we hit all this muscular skeletal tension. It is not something we readily think may be due to old patterns of holding.
LG: When do these habitual holding patterns begin?
TL: Some can begin as early as infancy as part of the startle response, but more often, I think, in grade school. Due to peer pressure and, of course, parental pressure and pressure from coaches . . . there can be a kind of armoring set up in response to a world that is challenging and complex and, at times, threatening. So I think the patterns can get set up really early, whether preverbal or preteen—which makes them even harder to move through in yoga practice. They can become such a part of our structure, and we completely identify with this structure. This is who I am. This is how I feel about myself. So that deep sense of self-identity is shaped by our environment, and I think that the straining patterns will show up in different ways. I mean tightness in the feet can really reflect issues of stability or lack of stability . . . lack of support in the family dynamic. Also, if one was in a family dynamic having to hold everything together, the shoulders, the upper trapezius, the midback end up really tight. So various parts of the body will be affected in differing ways, depending upon the source of stress.
There has never been anything comprehensive written about this. I think, “Wow, if someone is really tight in their hips—why is that?” Well, it could be their structure; it could be partly to do with their genetic makeup or cultural background; and it could be due to habitual holding patterns due to the fight, flight, or collapse response. And then, if a person is really tight in their shoulders? Yes, it could be due to one’s reaction to the environment, the kind of pressures upon them.
LG: In your [teacher] training [classes], you mentioned how, at puberty, young girls will slump their shoulders forward to hide their breasts. . . .
TL: And girls who grow really quickly. You know, usually girls grow faster than boys. And, so, especially if they are tall at an early age, it is very common for teen girls to slouch.
LG: In the training, you also mentioned that we hold our karma in our legs. What did you mean by that?
TL: Well, because we are always on our feet. Our legs are so much about our deep sense of self-identity—because they hold us up. These patterns of fight, flight, or collapse . . . they show up a lot in the legs. They show up in the arms, too, because the arms are so much about receiving, nurturance, and being held by the mother. But the legs are so much about holding us up and our foundation. The knees and feet relate to the foundational chakras . . . so karma-wise, I think patterns of holding get set up in the legs, which, of course, is why we do standing poses—triangle pose, flank pose, the warrior sequence—to unlock the potential of the legs. The feet tend to be the receptacles for a lot of strain—ankles and arches, the big toe—suffering, compression, collapsing. And there is that connection of the periphery to the core—that is, the hands and feet are periphery, and they really link back into the psoas and back into the core body.
LG: How do they link?
TL: Well, through dog pose, for instance, the hands and the feet, fingers, toes, wrists, and ankles—they help conduct the flow of energy up into the limbs and into the core. It is very common for people to hold tension in their extremities, especially due to fear, like crimping the wrists, scrunching the toes, sweaty palms, sweaty feet. You know, energy is not really flowing in and out of the body. It is getting restricted in the extremities.
LG: How do we know if an energetic block is caused by an emotional issue, a physical trauma, or an anatomical limitation?
TL: Oftentimes, they are so enmeshed that it is hard to parse out. Well, this is due to an emotional issue, this is due to trauma, because oftentimes they all sort of go together. You know, if you had a bad fall, it will be compounded by [your] emotional reaction.
I think through my own experience of many, many years of doing asana and really watching my breath patterns and observing my own rhythmic cycles, I can feel the difference. For me, fatigue tension is very different than, say, anxiety tension, which is different than tension that comes from skiing real hard.
And I think that emotional tension is harder to get to in the body because we are so good at covering [it up].
LG: Like masquerading or tiptoeing around it, you know . . . avoiding the issue?
TL: Yeah…we have to in order to continue on with our peers and our parents and everything else. So we become very skillful at burying, or hiding, tension. And it is a Pandora’s box . . . it is frightening to start to really open that. It is very powerful to do psychotherapy work combined with yoga therapy, that is, to not only have a deep understanding of our emotional holding, but to know where it may reside in our bodies and to know how to work with it in the asanas.
LG: What types of asanas are more effective for releasing emotional blocks? Or what about the length of time one holds postures—is it better to hold poses longer?
TL: It depends upon the severity of the emotional blocks. For example, when working with someone who is a victim of child abuse or emotional or sexual abuse, it may be better to do passive, supported poses like bridge pose on the bolster or supta baddha konasana [supine bound-angle pose] . . . this kind of thing. If there is an issue related to a certain chronic, systemic strain pattern, but if it is not at an acute phase, then you could do really dynamic standing poses. Standing poses can be really valuable.
However, if a student has some real holding in the body—that is, a lot of clenching and bracing, then holding poses too long could end up sort of driving the strain deeper in, as if [the student is] just hanging on for dear life. . . .
LG: You mean people just start to grip again?
TL: Yes. And, of course, our nervous systems are so good at doing that anyway—this forming an armor around armor around armor.
LG: Just creating another pattern for yourself to break through?
TL: Yeah . . . and, of course, the mentality of so many yoga classes is that the harder we push and the harder the pose is, the more one will advance. So bigger is not always better.
One last thought. . . . The last kosha is the anandamayakosha, the sheath of bliss. The emotion of joy and deep harmony is ultimately what the practice strives for. That joy, of course, is the sweetest emotion. Yet, along the way, it is worth acknowledging some of the more restrictive emotions before getting to that body of bliss. Acknowledging and, of course, working with them.
LG: You probably can’t really get the bliss if you are skipping over your issues, because, ultimately, they will hold you back. . . .
TL: Yes, that’s true.
Tias Little has practiced yoga since 1985. Today he is one of the foremost yoga teachers in the United States . His training is steeped in the classical yoga tradition, whereas his insightful and contemplative approach offers a contemporary perspective. His teaching reflects his expertise in yoga and anatomy, as well as his training in Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Vipassana, Dzogchen, and Zen Buddhism. He presents yoga and anatomy trainings and intensives nationally and internationally. With a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Eastern philosophy, Tias is a master of language—playfully interconnecting Eastern philosophies with our Western ideas, as well as revealing the relationship of the gross body with the subtle body. Tias is a frequent contributor to Yoga Journal and Yoga International magazines and has co-written the book sthiram sukham asanam (which means a position in which one can remain steady, calm, and comfortable) with his wife, Surya Little. Tias and Surya co-direct the studio YogaSource in Santa Fe .
Lori Gaspar teaches yoga in Chicago . She is an instructor in the Moksha Yoga Center Teacher Training Program, and she apprentices with Iyengar Yoga teacher Gabriel Halpern at the Yoga Circle , Chicago . You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 630.702.8908.
This interview was also printed in the March/April, 2005, issue of YogaChicago.