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I used to think of catharsis as a dramatic event, in which we experience an intense releasing or purging of emotions. Indeed, Aristotle’s Poetics spoke of catharsis in this way, referring to a spectator’s experience of tragedy. When I was growing up, Korean dramas provided that kind of cathartic function for me. It was such a relief to cry so freely and intensely about the stories that unfolded on the screen — I could tap into my own grief, anger, pain, and longing for meaning, and let them out in an unrestrained way. But this experience was contained within the parameters of watching the drama. After the screen was shut off, I could return to my daily routine.
If we do normally understand or experience catharsis as the intense purging of emotions, it is easy to associate those emotions with negativity. That is, we would consider it the cleansing or purification of negativity from “inside” ourselves to the “outside.” This understanding implies a dualistic vision of the self. In this philosophy, there is the self — our individuality or subjectivity — that stands autonomous and separate from the rest of the world, even our own emotions. In this understanding, there are emotions that are unwelcome and that therefore need purging. If catharsis is a form of purification through cleansing, then we can think of it as the practice of returning to the pure self, which still remains separate from the outside world.
I was raised in the Korean Protestant church, where I was taught to seek out a self that is cleansed from the impurities of worldly sin. I was taught to be “in the world but not of the world.” Having grown up in America and Korea, I was confused about my identity as both a “Korean” and an “American,” so this Christian worldview provided solace and a sense of self throughout my childhood. And for a long time, I professionally pursued a deeper understanding of the source of self. This pursuit led me to a doctorate in philosophy of religion, but it also drove me beyond academia. My worldview began to unravel as I studied the history of Christian theology and Western philosophy, and the painful link between Christianity and colonialism in Korea. Yet in the process, I forgot about my body as a gateway into another kind of understanding and experience.
I began practicing yoga while writing my dissertation. I needed an outlet to turn off my brain. But in what I thought was a merely physical practice, I encountered another kind of understanding through a more heightened awareness of my body, especially the breath. In the philosophy of yoga, I encountered another kind of metaphysics — that of oneness, rather than dualism. The word “yoga” comes from the root yuj, meaning “to yoke, to join,” or “union.” Yogic philosophy not only addresses the union of our individual mind and body; our individuality (our self) is actually a gateway into the oneness of all things, the oneness of being. And the breath is the pathway into experiencing the deep interconnectedness of our individual life force to the life force of the world.
This philosophy of oneness has revised my experience of catharsis. I no longer think of it as a purging of negative emotions. I used to think that especially in practicing yoga or meditation, it was a process of releasing those feelings or thoughts of agitation from inside of me in order to reach a state of peace and quiet. But I’ve come to realize that the negativity is actually not located within those emotions; negativity resides in my own relationship to those feelings, especially unwanted ones, including anger, resentment, bitterness, anxiety, or fear. Thus, in the practice of yoga, especially when we are invited to bring our awareness to our breath, we awaken the observer within. And in coming back to the breath, we could perhaps begin to observe the range of our emotions, as well as our thoughts, which come and go. And if we notice, with compassion, thoughts that are usually unwanted or unwelcome, such as anxiety or fear, the more we allow ourselves to connect with our inner observer. We could perhaps begin to change our relationship to those thoughts. Perhaps we could even begin to include those thoughts as part of our human experience.
It is still, in a sense, a practice of release, in which we are invited to let go — not of our emotions, but of our expectations. Rather than framing it as a dualistic purging of that which is “inside” to be released “outside,” what if we are invited to let go of our expectations of what we “should” feel or think? In so doing, we may allow space for the full range of emotions and thoughts, also recognizing that there is the observer — a higher self — that does not have to be overwhelmed by those thoughts. This is also the recognition that our identity is not in our thoughts. The recognition that we are not our thoughts.
There is a common phrase within and outside of the yoga community: “Getting out of your own way.” I now wonder if that is the experience of catharsis — the surrender of our ego. Catharsis is by no means an individual experience; it is an experience that seems deeply relational, so that we can be more connected and aware of the oneness of all things. Becoming more present to this connectedness is to become less distracted, to direct our attention to the sensations that connect us to ourselves and to the wider world. In that sense, we may in fact surrender our sense of ego to connect with our higher self.
This release and surrender can begin with the simple awareness of our physical experience, like grounding our feet on the floor. In fact, let’s practice now. Stand up if you are sitting. Stand on your two feet and feel all four sides of both feet — shifting your weight forward to the ball mounts of the feet, then the heels, then the outer edges, and finally the inner edges. Consider your sense of gravity. This is how we arrive into our bodies, how we feel sensation, softening the calluses that may form around the feet and perhaps even in the heart. And here, bring your awareness to your breath. Let’s experience catharsis together, with this simple practice: close your eyes, or bring your eyes to a soft gaze. Begin noticing your breath. Begin to notice the rhythm of your inhales, and the rhythm of your exhales. Soften the space between your eyebrows, your third-eye center, the space of intuition. Begin, very gently, to deepen your breath. Fill your heart and your belly as you breathe in and let it all … go.
Hannah Amaris Roh is a culture writer, religion scholar, and yoga teacher. She received her PhD in Philosophy of Religions from the University of Chicago, and a Master of Divinity from Yale University.