Yoga and emotional intelligence – responding versus reacting to situations

I believe we would be in a much better position as a society if all people learned since childhood what the difference is between reacting to a situation or responding to a situation they are experiencing. 

What is the difference then anyway?

I think that most people would like to act more responsibly, feeling that they acted according to their personality, beliefs and convictions. That however requires that you can create sufficient space between the observation and your response, so that you have sufficient time to consider what you really would like to do. That is the true ability to respond meaningfully. That does not necessarily mean that the delay needs to be long, you just want to be able to think about your response before you act. That is what “masterful living” is all about! 

Our objective in life should be to never regret what we said or did. While this might be a lofty goal, I think you would agree that it would be beneficial if we could get closer to this ideal. Let’s now explore this a bit further.

Let’s start from the beginning. Behaviour is a result of our thoughts and feelings. Every action that you take, even seemingly automatic, has a related thought and feeling attached to it. 

Following that reasoning, if we have full control over every thought, we are able to control our actions, behaviours and patterns that play out in our life.

Chemically the brain’s processes are driven by our thoughts and feelings. Being consciously aware of our feelings is vital. If we are able to label our emotions (called emotional labeling or emotional literacy) we are in a much better position. It is chemically proven that being able to admit out loud or through internal verbalisation the right chemicals are being released in our bodies to cope with the reactions in our body. 

The challenge comes in where we have to train ourselves how to behave in certain situations that might be challenging us either through external (YAMA) or internal (NIYAMA) stimulation. One of the aims of Yoga is to teach us how to be able to respond to these situations rather than just react.

In ordinary day to day life in every situation we have the choice of to react through fight or flight.

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to react in a split second as it would mean the difference between life or death (motor accident, dangerous situation)? As humans our brain has a built in fail safe button (Amygdala) that kicks in if our life is in danger. 

The Thalamus acts like the air traffic controller, the Cortex is the translator and the Amygdala is the emotional headquarters of the brain. Senses enter the brain at the Thalamus which then sends the impulses to the correct places. Normally impulses would be send to the Cortex for processing before it is sent to the Amygdala which would turn the impulse into an action based on prior patterns. Some patterns which could be identified as “high stakes” are stored directly in the Amygdala. The Thalamus sometimes identifies that information needs more rapid response and would send the impulses directly to the Amygdala. The result is action without Thought (mental hijack).

There is also a fascinating scenario called “mental hijack”. Have you ever been in a situation where a conflict ensued and afterwards you had no idea why you behaved so strongly. As a human race we have evolved but we have also been conditioned through past experiences (past lives) which often leads to these mental hijacks. Understanding this opened my mind. I could never understand why I responded so out of character time after time. 

When we REACT our thoughts and feelings merge in split seconds with the action that we deem would save our life (literally or figuratively speaking). 

Each of us have our own mental hijacks. If you spend some time reflecting on your life and experiences you will start recognising those patterns. For e.g. inability to keep a stable job or relationship, unhealthy addictions, consistent conflicts in relationships etc.

Tracing back and reflecting you will find that there is certain triggers which activates thoughts and feelings associated with your behaviour which are steering some of your patterns and behaviours. For e.g. people without integrity, being treated with disrespect, vulnerable people being treated unfairly, etc. 

If you can identify those thoughts and reframe them, you can make changes in your life which will lead you to new behaviours.

Reactions are based on thoughts and feelings that are allowed to lead to unchecked actions and behaviour. In order to change that what is required is synthesising of thoughts and feelings into a best response for a particular situation. 

Normally what is required is a few deep breaths. Oxygen allows the thoughts and feelings to catch up with each other in order to make an informed decision on the course of action to take. 

Yoga teach us to be in touch with our breath as part of the Pranayama practice as well as our Asana practice. Our breath is the life force and we keep returning to that. Hearing our own breath proves that we are present within that moment.

Yoga asanas also teach us to be comfortable with the discomfort we might be experiencing as we know that it’s temporary. It teaches us the resilience (mental, physical, spiritual) we require for the modern day lifestyle and challenges. 

Challenge yourself this week ahead by:

  • Develop a good understanding of your authentic self, how you want people to see you. 
  • Develop an understanding of your own values
  • Start to feel and label your emotions
  • Take stock every morning / evening to see which situations in your day lead you to react      and under which situations you responded. Evaluate how this made you feel.
  • For the situations where you identify that you were reacting rather than responding, try   to reflect on your associated thought patterns with that. Once those thoughts have been identified, try to reframe them to be able to achieve a more desirable outcome. (Thought, Feeling, Action – this method is called the TFA methodology)

Karin Schoombee – YTT200 March 2018

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