Yoga is a powerful tool for learning more about how our emotions can control our lives. Observing our breath as we practice helps us put just enough space between a powerful emotion and our experience of it.

The Dalai Lama also believes that a better understanding of our emotions can help humans overcome the suffering we create for ourselves. He told the New York Times that, “Even if you pray to God, pray to Buddha, emotionally, very nice, very good. But every problem, we have created. So I think even God or Buddha cannot do much.”

Every problem, we have created. By observing what we create as emotions rise, pass by, and rise again, we can begin to step off the emotional rollercoaster that can rule our lives.  

Developed by the Dalai Lama with Dr. Paul Ekman and his daughter, Dr. Eve Ekman, the Atlas of Emotions maps our five basic emotional states: enjoyment, anger, fear, sadness, and disgust. (Sound familiar? Paul Ekman consulted Pixar on the animated movie “Inside Out.”)

Perhaps an evolutionary development that helped ancient humans stay alive, is interesting to note that four of those five basic states tie to something we today often perceive as negative and push away while craving more enjoyment. But no state is really negative until we apply our judgment to the experience. For example, fear and disgust can drive us to seek safety, anger can lead to addressing a root cause of an issue, and sadness can help us seek comfort and connection with others. Even enjoyment can trap us by the expectation that things should always be amazing and anything less is disappointing. It is when we react immediately to our emotions rather than looking at what is beneath them that we create more suffering for ourselves.

Across all of our states -  enjoyment, anger, fear, sadness, and disgust – each of these base emotions is comprised of many emotional states depending on how intensely we feel the emotion. Our states can be triggered by universal or learned causes, and they may lead to actions.

The Atlas notes that our moods are longer lasting cousins of emotions, and can cause the underlying emotion to be felt more frequently and intensely. Try to make noticing your mood throughout the day and week part of your yoga practice, and notice the impact it has on your everyday life. Does it cause you to take actions? Can you identify any triggers?

But another feeling awaits as we move through our experience of each emotion along with its states and moods. The Atlas of Emotions notes that “a calm, balanced frame of mind is necessary to evaluate and understand our changing emotions.” Ideally, calmness becomes our baseline state, balancing our emotions that arise when triggered and then recede. It may be a work in progress for a lifetime, but through practice, yoga can help us learn how to stay in the eye of our own emotional storms.

Best viewed on a computer rather than mobile device, you can explore the Atlas of Emotions here: