As many of us know, yoga’s goal is to create harmony from within, union between the mind and the body. How we can reach this inner harmony and balance can be explained in various ways. Today I would like us to look at this path to inner harmony through the lens of Polyvagal Theory (Stephen Porges's Theory) and the impact of the nervous system on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. We will explore the function of the nervous system, its workings and the different nervous states that all of us experience. We will also have a look at how yoga can help us to soothe the nervous system so that we can feel more grounded, more connected, with a sense of mental clarity, confidence and openness to connect with others.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and its impact on our wellbeing
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for regulating the involuntary functions in our body including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion.
You could compare the nervous system to a computer. The nervous system is a complex network of communication between the body and the brain, the brain being the central computer. Its function is to keep us safe, alive and balanced.
The brain is the master conductor of the orchestra in our body that controls all the body’s functions. It does so based on the information from the body and from the environment. Some of the responses are instinctive and some are learnt throughout life. The way we respond to everything around us is based on how our nervous system was programmed especially during our early development years. Our experiences form our responses and impact our behaviours, thoughts, beliefs.
You can think of the nervous system as our body's programming, depending on our experiences the programming is different for each and every one of us. This programming affects pretty much everything that happens in our body (including physical, mental and emotional states). If there is a hidden stress in our nervous system, it will have a ripple effects on other systems affecting our health and wellbeing. This creates imbalances that will manifest in the body and mind as pain, illness, anxiety, depression, overwhelm, digestive problems, menstrual challenges among others.
Nervous States according to Polyvagal Theory
Freeze (Dorsal Vagal - Parasympathetic Nervous System)
This is the oldest pathway of response. It is a common response in prey animals. When there is threat to their life by a predator, they freeze and appear dead for a moment and then come back to movement again when it is safe to do so. Freeze response is their last resort.
When we feel hopeless, with no way out to escape, we move into freeze state. This could be a way to protect ourselves, for example you hear a noise in the house, and you freeze for a moment to make sure they don’t hear you and you can examine what is going on.
The problem with freeze is when we enter into it for long periods of time because of previous experiences of lack of safety, support and even abuse (physical, mental, emotional). We consider freeze as a safe place in the face of danger. This could have become true for us if caregivers or partners/family members didn't give us attention, support and space to express ourselves. The safe place becomes the one with no expression, no voice. This results in depression, isolation, and a feeling of hopelessness. This is a state of despair.
Fight or Flight (Sympathetic Nervous System)
This is the second oldest pathway of response. Our fight or flight response is the state of activation to mobilise our limbs and increase our blood flow in order to either fight or flight. We feel threatened and we get all of our energy to protect ourselves. If we think we have enough strength to beat the enemy, we will fight and if we don't , then we will run with all our might. This is a situation similar to running away from a lion - you know you stand no chance with a lion - so you choose to run! This involves releasing a lot of cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstream. This is a good thing for short-term scenarios. This is how we can save ourselves in dangerous situations. It is also a good state to be for getting things done in our life. We need some activation to get out of bed and work. The problem is that we all live in a society filled with over-stimulation, deadlines and even without life-threatening situations we can end up continuously operating from the fight or flight state, which leads to cortisol depletion, fatigue and a lot of anxiety.
Rest and Digest (Ventral Vagal - Parasympathetic Nervous System)
The Rest and Digest is the newest pathway of response. Here we feel safe, connected and we have space to think. We are creative, inspired, nourished and recharged. We have a healthy heart rate, blood pressure, immune system, good digestion, sleep. We also feel supported and heard. We can express ourselves, show up as we are and feel loved, This is the feeling you might get after a good yoga class. You feel good in your body, your mind and your soul is also nourished.
Yoga and Rest and Digest
Our mind and body are connected through the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system. The vagus nerve is a pair of nerves that emerge from the top of the brain stem and, after leaving the skull, enter the upper neck area behind the ears. It then passes down through the neck to the throat and vocal chords to the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, kidney, spleen, gallbladder, and pancreas, and finally to the small intestine and part of the large intestine. As it travels through the body, the vagus nerve regulates swallowing, vocalisation, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, immune responses, and the microbiome of our intestines.
Yoga tones the vagal nerve helping to activate and strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system, which means cultivating a state of relaxation, calm, and inner peace.
Here's how yoga works its magic on your nervous system:
Deep Breathing: Yoga encourages conscious, deep breathing, which is closely linked to the parasympathetic system. Deep breaths signal to your body that it's safe to relax and recover.
Mindfulness and Presence: Yoga reminds us to be mindful and fully present. This reduces stress and sends a signal to our nervous system that it is safe to relax.
Asanas (Yoga postures) and Relaxation: Many yoga postures involves stretching which tones the vagal nerve activating the parasympathetic nervous system . Relaxation techniques like Savasana/Yoga Nidra help to release tensions from the body. This signals to the parasympathetic system that it's time to unwind.
Meditation and Mantras: Both meditation and mantras help us move into Rest and Digest. Using our voice massages the vagus nerve which is connected to parasympathetic nervous system.
Befriend your Nervous System for a sense of Inner Harmony
Learning about your nervous system helps you understand your body's autonomic responses. The first step to recognise what is happening in your body, respect it and learn to respond in ways that are supportive and nourishing. In Polyvagal Theory, we talk about the 4-R's
- Recognize - Respect- Respond - Re-story -
Yoga is one of the tools that can help you soothe your nervous system and move into a state of connection and calm. Apart from yoga, you can also find some helpful tools in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicine, which is the sister of yoga.
Harmony Within : Ayurveda and Yoga for Balancing the Nervous System with Anna and Justyna on 25th November, 4-7pm in Conscious Dublin, Phibsboro, Dublin 7.
Leave comments below if you have any experiences or shares!