According to the system of the Mahābhūta or 'five great elements'; the 5 elements of the living world correspond with our own 5 human senses and their dedicated sense organs. Therefore, in the same way the living world alchemically balances itself through seasons, storms and forest fires, us humans can use practices such as yoga to balance our own ecosystem. This mostly pertains to the physical alchemy yoga can provide; such as the lengthening and strengthening of muscles, the densifying of bones, the increase in lung and cardiovascular capacity, but what then of the emotional alchemy yoga can provide?
A lot of us, historically myself included, would be happy to stop with the physical. Once you see an improvement to your physical health, that tends to have a positive impact on your mental and emotional health also; great, job done right? Not quite, because whilst you might be standing on your head with little to no effort and answering your phone with your foot placed to your ear, if you're still shouting at your work colleagues, you ain't doing yoga.
Rage and anger are palpable at the moment and rightly so; we have an incompetent government and news cycle that do everything to stoke fear about refugees despite the numbers of displaced peoples in the UK being amongst the lowest in Europe, social media promotes extreme binaries that drive divisions ever deeper, our friends in over 50% of US states have just returned to the dark ages with the overturning of Roe v Wade, the cost of living is rising which is terribly hard in and of itself, and an unfortunate byproduct is the creation of scarcity mentality, which of course serves only to divide us further. It is an infuriating time to say the least. So how does downward dog help us out?
In short, it doesn't, but the lessons you learn (if you're willing to hear them), whilst in the pose, are where it starts to become useful. To give you a little bit of background on me: my emotional default was always anger. Many therapists and body workers had told me that said anger was actually masking sadness, and I believed them, but I also needed to know how to convert this emotional overload into something useful. If we return to the concept of Māhabhūta for a moment (the 5 elements), we can associate anger most closely with fire. How does fire behave? It alchemises. It can either melt dead weight (whether emotional or physical), or it can provide catalytic energy for something powerful. If it gets stuck, it burns out. You will have likely felt this burnout at some point in your life. This could even be as simple as the physical sensation of heartburn or indigestion; when the digestive fire isn't working optimally and you feel uncomfortable as a result. It can be energetic burnout, when you've been 'burning the candle at both ends', which often results in a feeling of wired exhaustion. If angry, this can manifest as a meltdown, which will certainly do harm to you and probably someone you don't intend to hurt. Fire is powerful and needs to be used wisely.
It would be nice to 'love and light' anger away by assuming that if you keep doing yoga, it will all just disappear effortlessly. Not so. Yoga isn't passive; yes it is a state as well as a method, but a good deal of discretion is required within the method to reach the true state of yoga (union with Self and all that is). This discretion or 'discernment' comes in at the level of what is known as Vijnanamaya Kosha or 'the wisdom sheath', one of the 5 koshas or 'sheaths' of being. This layer is the higher mind that transcends the more base level of ego and pure sensory satisfaction. It's the level that takes you from "I'm going to lie in because my bed is warm" to, "I'm going to get up and do my yoga practice because I know it's good for me". It's the layer that takes you from reacting to responding in moments of conflict or unrest. We enter into this layer when we are able to really listen to the signals our body sends us, both when on and off the mat, and pay attention to the thoughts that arise, even if we do not like them. To look in the mirror and reflect before blaming how we feel on another.
In taking our yoga off the mat, it is important to acknowledge the truth that, whilst we might all be 'one' we are not the same. If we fail to recognise this then we risk getting annoyed easily when people and things don't do as we would like them to. What's more, when you do encounter a person behaving in a way that elicits an angry response in you, as a yogi, you have the choice in how to respond. You don't need to bypass their behaviour because they are 'part of your soul family' or some other similar claptrap, nor do you need to fight them and drive further separation. Firstly, when you feel anger arise, even if it is directly triggered by another, you need to first look at how it is showing up in you alone.
I have found yoga asana to be a powerful tool for managing anger, because it allows for something called embodied wisdom. When you feel the sharp stab of anger arise in your being, usually the first reaction is to turn to blame; probably of another person, a situation, or even berating yourself. Whilst all of these are normal responses, they are not helpful. Anger needs to be felt as well as analysed. When I feel anger arise now, I try to locate it in my body and send my awareness and breath there. I acknowledge the story attached to the feeling of anger, but I don't only try and analyse my way out of the feeling. If I do, the feeling won't be able to be processed and what happens is that it might come up on a later occasion and catch me off guard. This is why it is not uncommon, when practising yoga poses, to have a strong spontaneous emotional outburst, such as crying in a hip opener. That outburst is usually something historical that has been lodged in your connective tissue from past suppressed emotion. This seemingly inexplicable moving of a deep-stored emotion is an example of that embodied wisdom; letting the wisdom of the body, a well that runs much, much deeper than that of the thinking mind alone, releasing.
I think that when we are able to own the emotions that present more of a challenge, we can use them for the greater good. Anger, sadness, grief etc. are not inherently bad, they serve a function, but if not processed properly they cause harm, both to the person experiencing them and others. Yoga can be part of that processing, but we have to be willing to go there; to keep the line of self-inquiry open even if and when it becomes uncomfortable to do so.