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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Yoga for Emotional Competence

Aug 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Mila Burgess
Emotional competence is a set of personal and social skills that helps us recognize, understand, interpret and respond appropriately to emotions in ourselves and others. It is the capacity to feel our emotions fully, express them effectively, assert our needs, and honor our emotional boundaries as well as those of others. 

People with emotional competence can distinguish between reacting to present situations and being triggered by past events. They are aware that acknowledging and satisfying emotional needs, rather than stifling them, leads to enhanced well-being. 

Being emotionally competent can also be good for our health. It minimizes stress that results from having suppressed emotions. Emotional competence fosters the free expression of feelings, which leads to improved relationships. Studies show that strong relationships are linked to numerous health benefits, such as lower rates of depression and anxiety, improved immune system, shortened healing time, increased mental and physical resilience and increased life longevity. 

Emotional intelligence—sometimes referred to as EQ— is the foundation of emotional competence. EQ has to do with knowing oneself and understanding the impact of thoughts and feelings on behavior. Emotional competence is the ability to use that knowledge and apply it to actions. Another difference? Emotional intelligence focuses on controlling emotions while emotional competence is the ability to express emotions appropriately and effectively.

In his book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, Dr. Gabor Maté describes how suppressed emotions ultimately manifest as physical ailments. He believes that people need to develop emotional competence in order to protect themselves from the dangerous effects of stress and to bolster mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. 

Yoga is For More than Stress Reduction

Yoga is recognized for its stress-reduction benefits, and it is increasingly being used to address stress-related illnesses and concerns in clinical settings. In fact, several stress-reducing techniques, including exercise, breath control and mindfulness are integral to many forms of yoga. Less obvious is the fact that yoga also helps practitioners develop their emotional competence.


Yoga is a practice of presence; connecting breath to movement keeps students in the moment. It is also a practice of awareness: From the very first moment on the mat, yogis notice how they feel physically, energetically, mentally and emotionally. They listen to their bodies and bring awareness to their physical sensations to make choices about alignment, modifications and progressions. 

B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar yoga, is famously quoted as saying, “The pose begins when you want to leave it.” The practice of asana, or yoga poses, creates opportunities for yoga students to lean into physical sensation. Whether moving through a strength-based practice that requires challenging muscular engagement or a surrendered practice that works to deeply stretch areas of tension in the body, yoga teaches practitioners to notice what’s happening—without trying to immediately change it or flee from it. 

When faced with these edges on the mat, yogis don’t just learn to be aware of what they are feeling, they learn how to stay present and use the breath to soften around the edges. As such, yoga helps cultivate equanimity—even when faced with challenging life circumstances. 

Emotions Start with the Physical

Every emotion begins as a physical sensation. For example, you might identify the feeling of nervousness only after those tell-tale butterflies begin to flutter. Anger is readily identified by a change in heartrate, temperature and perhaps redness in the chest or face. It might take the brain a split second to identify an emotion, but it only happens after the physical response begins. 

Yoga provides fertile ground for developing emotional competence by giving students opportunities to identify, acknowledge and fully feel their physical sensations without trying to squelch them and to make mindful and intentional decisions based upon the body’s feedback. 

According to neurologists, the physiological lifespan of an emotion is 60 to 90 seconds. The lingering effect of emotion is fueled by the mind, living in the mental narrative of what could or should have happened, what could or should have been done, or what someone or something should be. 

Mindfulness on the mat allows students to become aware of the thought patterns they create around those sensations in addition to the physiological sensations they experience. It helps students see things as they truly are, such as how emotions are expressing themselves, while creating space around the experience— separating physical feelings from the thoughts about and reactions to them. 

Anicca refers to the concept that nothing is permanent except impermanence. Yoga emphasizes the transitory nature of bodily sensations, which mirrors the transitory nature of emotions. The idea of anicca, therefore, is used to encourage students to stay steady and nonreactive while they’re in a pose because it, and the edginess associated with the physical and/or mental challenge of the pose, will not last forever.

The Seven A’s of Healing

In his book, Maté discusses the seven “A’s” of healing—seven steps that help rid the body of stress and its associated illnesses—and suggests that people can cultivate greater emotional competence by following these steps. Not surprisingly, several of the “A’s” are naturally woven into the fabric of yoga. 

1. Acceptance. The first step to achieving emotional competence is to accept oneself. Yoga is a practice of self-acceptance. The initial check-in time on the mat is intended to encourage practitioners to let go of judgments and expectations and accept themselves as they are in that moment.  

2. Awareness. Awareness of the body’s messaging is the crux of a yoga practice. Practitioners learn to listen to the body empathetically to cultivate greater self-awareness and make decisions based on the body’s feedback. 

3. Anger. Maté says that allowing oneself to experience anger when it bubbles up is beneficial; trying to imprison it within the body will ultimately manifest itself physically in one way or another. While yogis don’t specifically work towards cultivating anger on the mat, there are certainly confronting moments that students experience internally as they face challenges and obstacles. Yogis learn to fully allow, experience and acknowledge those feelings and then assuage them with breath and mindfulness. 

4. Autonomy. Maté believes that cultivating autonomy of thoughts and actions gives people the ability to create and maintain healthy boundaries, thus leading them to a place of greater healing from stress. On the yoga mat, teachers nurture student autonomy by encouraging them to make the practice their own— as needed or desired—in order to choose how to best honor themselves and their personal practice. 

5. Attachment. While the practice of nonattachment is frequently referenced in yogic endeavors, Maté’s reference is specifically about human connection, relationships and unconditional love for others. Yoga nurtures and improves relationships. It begins as a relationship between the mind and body, but ultimately, as students turn progressively inward, they develop a deeper and more meaningful relationship with their true selves. This radiates outward, and many practitioners find that their relationships with others are bolstered by living their yoga off the mat. 

6. Assertion. Assertion is a statement of being—the ability for people to say, “I am who I am, as I am.” Maté says that assertion is a positive valuation of oneself. As people gain confidence in who they are, they become more confident in saying “no” to what no longer serves them. What yogis practice on the mat, they carry with them out into the world. The yogic idea of aparigraha, nonattachment, teaches students to take and keep only what serves them. Additionally, yoga helps practitioners build self-acceptance, determination and grit, which empowers them to assert that they are who they are, as they are. 

7. Affirmation. Maté says, “When we affirm, we make a positive statement; we move toward something of value.” He suggests there are two basic values people must attend to that support the healing process. The first is the creative self. Everyone has a desire to create that should be honored. Yoga nurtures creativity by enabling practitioners to move and breathe organically, to create the choreography of breath, movement and flow. The second is a connection to the universe, a reminder that one is never truly alone. Connection helps dissipate feelings of loneliness and isolation and is an important part of reducing stress. Not only does yoga connect practitioners to a ready-made community of like-minded people, it reminds practitioners that they are a part of something much bigger. 

The practice of yoga provides students with a variety of stress-reducing techniques to implement on the mat. And, off the mat, it fosters the development of emotional competence, which boosts overall health and well-being. ❧

Mila Burgess, E-RYT 500, YACEP, teaches at LifePower Yoga in Sandy Springs. She is the owner of Metta Yoga, offering workshops, private lessons, virtual classes, teacher trainings and retreats. Contact her at [email protected]


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