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Fri, August 23 2013

The Yoga Sweat: How Our Glands Process Emotion

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Did you know that you really can smell fear? I once presented a paper at a conference in front of the very writer I was discussing in my paper. He also happens to be one of my literary idols. I walked out after the talk sure that my armpit stains were of a different quality (and perhaps even color) than anything triggered by the Edmonton summer heat. This sweat was greasier and more aggressive: I stank of sheer, unadulterated terror.  

Luckily, I had a change of clothes on hand before it was time for drinks with said idol, and no one ever told me they could “smell my fear” that night. After all, only supervillains say that out loud . It turns out, though, that it wasn’t just my imagination: emotional sweat really is different. 

Eccrine sweat glands are located all over the body, and excrete mostly water with the simple intention of cooling us down. Apocrine sweat glands are located in only a few areas including the groin and the armpits, and these glands involve the undetectable smell of pheromones stimulated by emotional stressors like fear and desire. Sweat doesn’t actually start to smell obviously until it’s been broken down by bacteria, but even then, the apocrine sweat gets stinkier. 

Any exercise will get us sweating, but only in yoga have I felt a similar spurt of strange sweat alongside waves of emotion. I get into a certain posture and I feel like big globs of sweat are popping off me like someone in a cartoon strip in the morning papers. 

It’s long been understood that yoga is a practice for body, mind, and heart. We often talk about chakras in yoga, and how certain emotions may be stored in specific places in the body. More literally, perhaps, yoga moves our bodies into positions that have intuitive emotional resonance, and we can’t help but respond emotionally. 

For example, say you’ve been having an issue with a coworker. Every time you come to work, you wonder whether or not you’ll see him or her. You get a lump in your throat and your shoulders tense up just thinking about it. 

Later in the day (or year) you are in a yoga class, and you do Camel pose: your shoulders roll back, your throat opens, and the body’s emotional reflex to tighten up and hide the vulnerable heart and throat are reversed. The body realizes it’s been holding this tension and the emotion that stimulated it in the first place comes rushing back. Cue cartoon sweat spurts—and maybe a few tears, too. 

As the body heats up, eccrine sweat glands release water, sodium, and toxins from the body. At the same time, apocrine sweat glands are stimulated to release through emotion. Many times I have felt that yoga is a practice that detoxifies both physically and emotionally.  When I haven’t practiced in a while, I get irritated and frustrated, as if my anger is stuck inside and can’t sweat out. The body and the mind process experiences differently, and while I think there is absolute value in talking about your experiences with friends or therapists, sometimes what I really need is to cartoon-sweat spurt my emotions onto my yoga mat. 

Then, of course, there’s the shower. If you do have something to sweat out during yoga practice, shower mindfully afterwards. Knowing that the water is rinsing away both eccrine and apocrine sweat, you can imagine any old or stuck emotions flowing down the drain—and you don’t even have to know what they are. By the time you dry off, you will be cleansed from the inside out, ready for a fresh start. 

JC Peters's picture

Join yoga teacher JC Peters on a thoughtful, personal, hopeful exploration into the real life of yoga—how the philosophies and experiences of the practice can help us laugh at ourselves, deal with our deepest shadows, and move through life with grace, gratitude, and wonder.