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The Unique Release of an Emotionally Cathartic Workout

A workout that makes you cry can serve as a healthy way to unload stress, process deep emotions, and emerge more balanced and self-aware.

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Martha Gold is many things—a respected magazine editor, a two-time New York marathon finisher, a fearless world traveller who’s explored many an uninhabited island—but a crybaby is not one of them. Yet there she was on New Year’s Day, bawling her eyes out on an indoor cycling bike.

“It was a first for me, I assure you,” says the Manhattanite, a tough-as-nails media type who doesn’t mince words and who usually heeds seventies songstress Melissa Manchester’s advice: “Don’t cry out loud/just keep it inside.” But not on this particular day.

“It was January 1, and I wanted to stay in and be depressed over a failed relationship, but I dragged myself out of bed for a SoulCycle class,” Gold recalls. Once there, “I was just going through the motions. Then I heard the first notes of the Eagles’ ‘Take It to the Limit.’ There’s something so wistful about the lyrics; thematically, it’s about wanting more for yourself. When Sue [Molnar, SoulCycle master instructor] told the class that it was the last song but just the beginning of the journey, and that she hoped we would all find our way in 2015, hot tears started streaming down my face. I couldn’t control it.”

While she was thankful for the cover of darkness in the dimly-lit Upper West Side studio—not to mention the glistening sweat, which masked the liquid pouring out of her eyes—Gold was also surprisingly grateful for the public breakdown. “It felt so good to cry in that moment and feel like I wasn’t alone,” she says.

All across the country, at places like SoulCycle, PureBarre, and Barry’s Bootcamp, more and more of us are seeking cathartic group workouts where we can ease our minds while engaging our muscles. With most of our waking hours given over to stressful jobs and/or the incessant demands of parenthood—both of which require us to almost always be “on” exercise studios are among the few places we can go to decompress and disconnect from the world and our multiple gadgets, if only for an hour. Recognizing this, many group-fitness instructors are responding with regimens that encourage a stronger mind-body connection, allowing us to sweat out the small stuff like road rage and clashes with co-workers, or work through major life setbacks such as divorce as job elimination.

“Many of these classes encourage women to ‘let it go’—release their preconceptions about what they can do [physically], their hangups about their bodies, even their inner emotions,” says Susan C. Vaughan, M.D., a leading New York City psychiatrist and author of Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism. “That let-‘em-rip attitude has everyone crying, as they release lots of pent-up psychological things they can’t get out anywhere else, except maybe at the shrink.” Vaughan adds that these classes “feel so good because it’s a chance to stretch your boundaries while exhausting yourself entirely—and it’s hard to be anxious when you’re exhausted!”

Of course emotional release isn’t only available in exclusive group classes. The simple act of getting your heart pumping and pushing physical boundaries can have profound effects on your mental well-being. If you want to tap into the emotionally cleansing potential of your next workout, consider the following advice from instructors and practitioners who use exercise as their therapy.

Push Your Physical Limits
An avid CrossFit-er, Kelley Vignes finds release through exhaustion and stretching boundaries. Despite describing herself as “not athletic,” the hospital case manager from Slidell, Louisiana, has surprised herself in the last 18 months by being able to climb 30-foot ropes, lift 92-pound barbells, and leap over a blazing fire pit, challenges that left her physically depleted but positively euphoric. “I’ve become emotional a few times, especially after facing down my fears—like, the rope climb was tough because I’m afraid of heights,” she says. “But, mentally, I felt great afterwards.” Plus: “You form solid friendships. It’s a super supportive environment.”

Quiet the Mind and Uncover What’s Buried
Traditionally, yoga has always been as much of a mental workout as a physical one. (The word “yoga” itself means “union of the body, mind and soul.”) Around the turn of the millennium, though, as the sinewy “yoga body” became an ideal physique, and Power Yoga a preferred practice, some of that was lost. However, with the spotlight currently on overall wellness and wholeness, the pendulum has swung back in a big way, and yoga’s purgative powers are a major reason why.

“I was in a flow class mixed with dance,” recalls Lyndsay Marvin, a Los Angeles healthy-living blogger known as the Balanced Brunette. “As I was expressing myself through the movements, I began to reflect. I realized I was afraid of people seeing the real me because of my lack of self-worth and self-esteem; it led me to realize much of my pain stems from my relationship with my mom. I let the feelings flow through my body, and tears streamed down my face. Instead of trying to hold them back, I let them go so I could truly feel them in my most raw state.”

Not everyone is comfortable with getting emotionally naked in front of others, though. After all, for years we’ve been told that tears equal weakness, and that we should bottle them up and only release them in our most private moments. No wonder Melissa R. Burton, a registered dietician from Pasadena, California, felt “self-conscious and embarrassed” when, during one of her first-ever yoga sessions, she found herself sniffling in Savasana. Afterward, ”I went to apologize to the instructor,” says the ValentineRD blogger. “I was shocked when she hugged me and told me not to be ashamed but proud that I was able to express and access some feelings unbeknownst to my conscious mind.”

Silence the Voice That Says I Cant
“Crying during and/or after workouts? You’ve come to the right guy,” says Los Angeles TV producer David Garcia, whose blog, Keep It Up David, chronicles his five-year weight-loss journey (he’s dropped—and kept off—more than 160 pounds). A nationally-ranked stair racer who’s tackled towers in Portland, Seattle, Vegas, San Diego, and his hometown of LA, Garcia says, “The prospect of racing up dozens of stories still seems so daunting, despite the experience I have doing it, that I’m often crying by the end—and I love it! It’s a celebration of what I’m capable of doing, conquering my own fears, and silencing the voice in my head that tells me I can’t.

“I have access to a downtown skyscraper where I’ve been training every other week,” he continues. “The stairwell leads to the 55th floor, which is unoccupied office space—a huge, empty room with giant windows on every side showing off the entire city. Every single time I make it to that floor and see the sidewalks 700 feet below, I tear up. I think it makes me stronger, because those tears honor where I’ve been, and where I am right then, in that moment.”

Set an Intention to Purge the “Sludge”
Sometimes, the harder the workout, the greater the emotional release. That’s the experience of Nathan (last name withheld at his request), a New Yorker who discovered The Class—the “life-changing,” butt-kicking, bootcamp-meets-yoga workout that’s also currently one of the hottest in the city—just when he needed it most.

“In the span of a couple months, I had my whole world turn upside down,” he begins. “My wife divorced me out of the blue; my father passed away from cancer with six months notice; my best friend left town; and I quit my job because it hit that I didn’t love it and life is too short. I was out of shape physically, mentally slow, emotionally blown to bits, spiritually dead, and I felt like I was sinking fast.”

In addition, his longtime yoga teacher was about to relocate to another city. But before he left, he introduced Nathan to Taryn Toomey and her killer combination of relentless cardio (think: more burpees than you’ve ever done in your life) and marathon mat work (leg lifts that’ll leave you sore for days). After a 90-minute session, Nathan and his Class-mates emerge totally drenched in sweat, yes, but they’ve also purged a significant amount of what Toomey calls “sludge,” as well.

“The sludge is unique to you,” explains Toomey, a certified yoga instructor (in The Class, she implores students to set intentions and be mindful of their breathing). “It could be the times someone has said something to you, it hurt you, you swallowed it as opposed to speaking to them about it. The way it gets pressed down…it happens again, you do it again, push it down again. The more you are pushing down, the more sticky it gets.”

Nathan had a lot of sludge, and he credits attending The Class up to four times a week with jettisoning much of it from his life.

“I have heard many people call it their ‘therapy’,” says Toomey, who just might be the Barbara Walters of group-fitness, she makes so many people cry—Nathan included.

“Usually half-way through on a day when it’s particularly physically challenging, the burn finally bursts and the emotional release just happens,” he says. “Sometimes I cry, sometimes I laugh—sometimes both.”

Embrace Your Own Style of Expression
If you’re someone who’s yet to dissolve into a puddle of tears during or after a workout, that doesn’t necessarily mean they haven’t been cathartic. “I am a believer in not holding things in—I don’t necessarily that means crying or yelling out, though,” says Lynda Salerno Gehrman, co-founder of Physio Logic Pilates and Movement in Brooklyn. “Everyone releases differently.”

A lifelong dancer and veteran Pilates teacher, Gehrman herself “processes life through movement,” while others may let out a barrage of expletives or, yes, even cry. “Sometimes people just need to process their emotions and thoughts. This is as valuable to those as actually crying is to others.”

The important thing is to not to ignore your emotions, advises her husband Rudy Gehrman, D.C., clinic director at Physio Logic.

“You’re getting chased by the tiger all day long,” he says. “You don’t have time to think about [your emotional health], you’re just surviving. Then you go to an exercise class or you get manual therapy—a massage or acupuncture—and it all comes flying out. Next thing you know, you’re crying. If you do feel like crying, let it out. If you get to a point that your body is telling you to release those emotions, you’re doing damage to yourself—ulcers, neck pain, you name it—if you don’t.”


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