When I’m nervous, I forget things. So when I’m nervous and trying to teach a yoga class, it is very difficult for me. I forget that I like to teach. I forget that I like yoga. I forget people’s names and can’t make eye contact because I’m pretty sure everyone is there to judge and criticize me. I forget every yoga pose except for cat/cow, warrior I, II and down dog. I forget that people took the time in their day to practice yoga because they like it and want to be there. It is very difficult, and it doesn’t happen all that often these days but if you happened to show up to a class of mine when I was nervous (last night, say), then please come back and try again. I’m not always so awkward.
This nervousness makes it hard to connect and be comforted by other people. It makes it pretty much impossible to be creative and happy and at ease. This makes sense, right? The nervous feeling has something to do with our nerves and nervous system which is organized in ranks, maybe like martial law, so that one part of the system can take over and override the others if there is something out there that we need to be afraid of in order to survive the threat. When a survival feeling is in effect, the part of the brain that allows us to act consciously and speak isn’t the part that we are working from. There’s a more primitive part of the brain that has taken over. We can’t be bogged down in internal conversation or the details of how to survive a lion that is stalking us or those ferocious yoga students that just keep breathing at us, we need action and response. We need to fight or flee. But that’s not all. When the lion is about to pounce and we can’t escape, there’s also a part of the nervous system that registers a serious threat and instead of the body activating to fight or flee, it shuts down and immobilizes. This is our oldest, reptilian hand-me-down part of the brain and it is wired up to the Vagus nerve. Everything slows down so much that we don’t feel stuff and we pass out.
Sometimes this is helpful and unavoidable but sometimes it isn’t. Yoga is a way that we start to investigate the relationships between what’s going on around us, how we feel emotionally, how we feel in our body (what’s going on in the gut?), what we are thinking and then what kind of behavior comes out of that particular combination. We start to notice and pay attention to these things and slowly, over time, we can begin to self-regulate. We can use breath and awareness to slow our racing heart. We can study the yogic texts and learn from the great sages of yoga, like Patanjali and his yoga sutras, to better understand the process. We can use our asana to come back into our bodies when our mind tries to carry us off to nervous-town, U.S.A. We can teach the class that we are prepared for and actually enjoy when we aren’t in hyper-defense mode. Yoga gives us tools and experiences that help us to not freak out when it really isn’t necessary.
I think that Patanjali may have been reincarnated as the neuroscientist, Dr. Stephen Porges. Man, this guy rocks. For those of us who enjoy understanding the science behind why and how yoga can help us to self-regulate in the presence of others, Dr. Porges’ polyvagal theory offers a fascinating perspective, and it happens to be one that backs up what we yogis do every day. The polyvagal theory gives us neurological evidence that yoga (“self-regulation and the feeling of safety” is how he’d say it) is important for humanity. Not that we need the theory. Yoga is good with or without the scientific theories.
Dr. Porges and his polyvagal theory chart the evolutionary development of the nervous system. He illuminates us with details about the vagus nerves and how they represent both the earliest and the most recent evolutionary developments of our nervous system. The polyvagal theory asks that we expand the insufficient model of our nervous system as only a fight or flight (sympathetic), or rest, relax, and repair (parasympathetic) model to include this vagal-response, which is a parasympathetic/ immobilization response to a life threat. He talks about how important it is to develop the ability to self-regulate and feel safe in the presence of others and how extended exhales and the human voice and contact can help us to do that. This work has helped people to better understand and heal from trauma which is such important work. He says that fear keeps us from developing a broader sense of humanity because we are trying to protect and defend ourselves instead of finding connection and support from others. When we can feel safe and connected to others, we can learn new things and we can more fully connect to our creative Self. It’s a two way street. I feel a preschool circle-time song writing itself right now. Something like, ” I feel good, you feel good, we feel good togeeeeetherrrrrr.”
This stuff gets me really excited about science, yoga, and being a human. Who doesn’t like the occasional boost from outside the yoga world that says, “Keep at it ole’ gal. Your ability to self-regulate is helping humanity.”
If any of this interests you at all, read this interview with the man. It’s worth the 30 minutes. If you prefer to watch your interviews, here’s one produced by the “dharma café.” The dude doing the interview does his best to get Dr. Porges to talk metaphysics and it’s pretty awesome. I’m sure Patanjali would approve.