5 Ways to Soothe Your Nervous System During Yoga Practice
You may have been hearing a lot about the nervous system in wellness circles recently - and for good reason. The baseline state of your nervous system determines everything from how you perceive the world (generally threatening and scary? or generally welcoming and friendly?) to the emotions you're more likely to feel (anger, panic, joy, shame...) to physical indicators such as digestion, heart and respiratory rate, and chronic muscle tension.
There are many factors that influence the baseline nervous system state for each individual, including regular stress levels, past trauma, and the nervous system states of the people we spend the most time around. That is to say, the nervous system is more complex than we can do full justice to in this short blog post. So here are the super-condensed cliff notes...
A healthy, regulated nervous system moves through waves and combinations of its three main phases:
• sympathetic (activation, energized, fight, flight)
• parasympathetic / dorsal vagus nerve (shutdown, dissociation)
• parasympathetic / ventral vagus nerve (safety, present, mindful, curious)
All phases of the nervous system are necessary - there are no "bad parts" - but as you can guess from the descriptions above, ideally your baseline is the ventral vagal mode of the parasympathetic. That's the place where we feel truly relaxed and at ease, where we can have genuine connections with other humans, where our compassion and joy of living reside. So no matter where else you go on that spectrum, you want to be able to access that part of your system.
Again, there are so many reasons and different ways that we can lose touch with our seat of inner safety, but living through a global pandemic and the accompanying uncertainty, worry, and grief is enough to create some havoc even in the healthiest nervous system.
I think we can agree that we could all use a little (or a lot) of extra
soothing right now. So here are some strategies you can use in your personal practice or your teaching to help regulate the nervous system:
Let's start with this one because, well, yum. Feeling good is not something we have the luxury for when we are in true, immediate danger. So anything pleasurable will send signals of safety. Especially effective places for massage are the feet, hands, shoulders, and auxiliary breathing muscles around the upper chest and under the collarbones (relaxing these muscles helps the breath to deepen naturally without forcing it).
2) Humming or vocal toning
The inner vibrations of making sound (it doesn't have to "sound good") will stimulate the ventral vagus nerve, which will send signals of safety up to the brain. Bhramari or Bee breath is good for this, as well as repeatedly chanting Aum, or singing any other chants or songs you like.
3) Balancing on one leg
You know how you have to be completely present to balance? How one distracting thought can knock you right off kilter? That's the idea here. To bring the ventral vagus online, we only have to be safe in this moment. Repetitive loops of anxious or doom-and-gloom thoughts are always focusing on a potentially unsafe future. Interrupt them by standing on one leg to bring yourself right into the now. (If balancing on one leg isn't enough to break the thought cycle add an extra challenge like moving around or closing your eyes or placing a block on top of your head.)
4) Slow down and rest
Other than the suggestion above, in general you want to think of slowing the practice down to calm the nervous system. Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall) is excellent for this, as are all restorative poses, and any smooth and repetitive movements.
5) When in doubt, hug it out
The feeling of being held is incredibly reassuring. You can create this with a self-hug (place your right hand under the left armpit, right beside the heart, and your left hand to the right shoulder). You can also use props to cover and swaddle the body. A sand bag or bolster on the belly and being covered with a blanket or two is an excellent option. Another way is rolling blankets and tucking them in all around the body in Savasana, like a body outline.
I hope these resources are helpful for you or your students. As always, sending you encouragement, determination, and blessings on the path.