One of the aims of all Yogic traditions is to help us identify and change harmful habit patterns – known as samskaras . This could be poor posture, shallow breathing or a tendency to think negatively about yourself. Through Yoga, the aim is to create new samskaras or ‘grooves’ of healthy habits, using yoga postures and sequences, breathing, relaxation and meditation techniques.
Just as with physical habits, mental habits need to be practised regularly to create these new ‘grooves’. I know if I haven’t been for a swim for a few weeks, when I go back to the pool, my muscles will be stiff and sore the next day! Or when I don’t complete my ‘gratitude’ diary for a few days, negative thoughts start to creep into my mind…. Just like brushing your teeth, forming a ‘regular’ yoga practise, even if only for 5-10 minutes a day, will help you to create healthy ways of being. As B.K.S. Iyengar said, “Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. the better your practice, the brighter the flame”.
The Stress Response
Humans have evolved to react to danger with a survival response we call the ‘fight-or-fight’, we either run away from the hairy mammoth or stay and fight. Whichever option we choose, our autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks in, providing us with the quick-release energy to act. However, in modern-day stressful situations, it is not always appropriate to run away or stand and fight, and this excess energy becomes trapped in our organs and body systems, and can, over the long-term lead to both physical and mental dis-ease.
Here’s the science bit! When something stressful happens or we think a stressful thought, our autonomic nervous system and endocrine system work together by stimulating particular endocrine glands to release hormones. The hypothalamus part of the brain signals the pituitary gland (also in the brain) to tell the adrenal glands (on top of the kidneys) to release cortisol and adrenaline which cause our blood sugar to rise, providing fuel for our muscles, switching off blood supply to non-vital systems like digestion (hence a tight feeling in pit of stomach).
This stress response can lead to 4 different behaviour patterns which may, over a prolongued time, lead to physical or mental dis-ease:
- fight (aggression / anger)
- flight / flee (fear and anxiety)
- freeze (paralysis, numbness of emotions)
- fixation (addictions such as food, alcohol, drugs)
In the Bhagavad Gita, the mind is described as being “difficult to control as wind” and often we find ourselves in a state of excessive stress, anxiety or low mood, especially in the modern world with all its demands, and more especially this year with the Covid-19 pandemic raising global anxiety.
A few weeks ago, we had strong overnight winds in Derbyshire, and I noticed in our garden the next morning a stem of the buddleja plant had snapped off, but the maple trees were still intact. The key to coping with stress if to be like the maple tree – strong and grounded through your roots, but flexible enough to bend in the storms of life without breaking. Yoga can provide a way to strengthen the mind and body yet at the same time foster suppleness and flexibility in the way we move and think. Flexibility in our body and a mind that is free-flowing enables us to be emotionally agile and resilient, meeting stressful events and thoughts in an optimum way and coping with healthy patterns of behaviour.
Why zebras don’t get ulcers
We’ve all seen those wildlife programmes, haven’t we, where the zebra is being chased by a hungry lioness, outruns the predator, then continues to calmly continue munching on grass as if nothing had just happened! A perfect example of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems being in harmony. It is the sympathetic part of the ANS which causes the ‘fight-or-flight’ response when the zebra sees the lioness, causing increased heart rate, increased breathing rate and muscle tension enabling it to run away quickly. After the danger has passed, the parasympathetic part of the ANS switches on, having the opposite effect; slowing down the heart and breathing rate, and allowing digestive and other organs to function optimally, helping to calm the mind. This flexibility of the ANS is why the zebra doesn’t get stomach ulcers due to grumbling levels of stress and sympathetic part of the ANS being active for prolongued periods. Yoga can help to increase this flexibility in our ANS, so we can cope with stressful situations. Autonomic flexibility and cognitive flexibility go hand-in-hand, and are both signs of mental wellbeing.
The Vagus nerve, polyvagal theory and co-regulation
Neuro-biologist Dr Stephen Porges has researched the role of the vagus nerve (one of the cranial nerves) and devised a ‘Polyvagal theory’ to explain how we react to stressful events or thoughts, by focusing on two branches of the vagus nerve, the ventral and the dorsal. The Vagus (‘wandering’) nerve leaves the brain and travels throughout the body, supplying the throat and facial muscles, the heart and lungs, and digestive organs.
Porges outlines 3 different ANS responses to stress/survival instinct:
- Social communication and social engagement – co-regulation (ventral vagus)
- mobilization / action / exercise / work (sympathetic nervous system as above)
- Immobilization / withdrawal / freezing / fainting / numbing /passive defense (dorsal vagus)
In a stressful situation, social communication is the first choice, then action, then immobilization as a last resort. The ventral vagus helps us cope with stress by cooperating with others (tend and befriend), acting to reduce sympathetic nervous system activity, allowing us to regulate our heart and breathing rate, with physical and mental flexibility, switching on our parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response). Yoga can help to increase ventral vagal tone which can strengthen parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) responses after a class. When the PSNS is in balance, levels of dopamine and seratonin (feel good hormones) and cortisone and adrenalin (stress hormones) are harmonised, promoting both physical and mental wellbeing.
Yoga for Mental Wellbeing
Not all yoga practises are helpful however. For example, if your mind is racing with worry or anxiety, starting a class in relaxation will only give you more time to think and ruminate, and will not help. The following aspects of Dru yoga promote mental wellbeing and ventral vagus tone:
- Starting with dynamic movements (activations), progressing to some strong standing poses or sequences help to ground the body and mind, especially if the focus is the lower three chakras.
- Stretching large muscle groups such as the hamstrings is another good way to release physical tension.
- Shorter relaxations, often repeated through the class rather than a long relaxation at the end, are easier for keeping the mind from wandering or worrying, especially if the focus is on the breath or the physical sensations (such as Waves of Peace relaxation).
- Abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing and Ujjayi breath techniques can help slow the breathing and heart rate. Ujjayi breath can also lower blood pressure. Lengthening the exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming body and mind, which is why many breathing techniques in yoga focus on lengthening the outbreath.
- Chanting promotes ventral vagal tone, and lifts the mood, especially if done within a group. The humming bee breath is an easy way to start chanting if new to the practise.
- The use of affirmations (positive statements or intentions), mudras (hand gestures) and visualisations can sometimes help to balance the parasympathetic nervous system, depending on preference for auditory (affirmations), kinaesthetic (mudras) or visual modes of learning.
- Certain yoga postures or breathing techniques aim to balance flow of energy through the nadis, or energy channels, allowing energy/prana to rise from the base to the crown, giving mental peace and clarity. By balancing pingala (right, active, Sun energy) and ida (left, calming, Moon energy) nadis, yoga can help to balance the autonomic nervous system and energy flows freely through the sushumna (central) nadi, in the spine. Techniques which balance both sides of the body and brain such as the alternate nostril breath, heaven and earth breath in EBR 3, or the cross-patterning movements in EBR 7 and the Complete Spinal Alignment sequence are examples. Of course, any posture we do on one side of the body is repeated on the opposite side, contributing to this sense of harmony and balance.
- Specific to Dru are the Energy Block Release (EBR) sequences, which are heart-centred flowing sequences of postures, with affirmations, visualisations and mudras, designed to release tensions from the joints, muscles, and organs or the body, and balance the emotions and improve the health of the spine. EBR sequences which are accessible and are especially good for activating the parasympathetic nervous system are: EBR 1 (the ‘stress-buster’, EBR 2 (focus on being in the present moment), EBR 3 (breath focus), The Earth Sequence (harmonising breath with movement), and EBR 7 (dynamic relaxation).
- Dru sequences which are great for promoting mental wellbeing include: The Salute to the Four Directions, Fearless Flight sequence, The Moon Sequence, the Water Sequence and the Sacral-Lumbar Release.
- Postures which work specifically on balancing the nervous system include: Warrior poses (grounding and use of large muscles to aid relaxation response), spinal wave movements such as the bridge, and the cat. Back bends and forward bends to activate the kidney area and help the functioning of the adrenal glands (source of those stress hormones), such as standing forward bend, sphinx, and child pose. Twisting poses benefit the health of the whole spine, and hence the nervous system, as well as digestive organs. Crocodile pose is particularly good for enhancing abdominal breathing, calming body and mind.
- Classes from the Dru Healthy Back Programme have been shown in Ned Hartfiel’s research at Bangor University to have improvements in mental wellbeing as well as reduction in back pain. In a HBP taught by me in 2019 for Derbyshire Community Health Services, over 80% of participants had equal to or higher wellbeing scores at the end of the programme than at the start (assessed using the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale).
Techniques you can use in your yoga practise to strengthen ventral vagus tone:
- Create a rhythm. Repetition and consistency of practise is calming for the busy mind. The mind likes rhythm, and creating a regular practice at the same time each day, or working with a particular sequence several times a week can help to ‘train’ the mind to relax.
- Lower your eye-gaze. Keeping the gaze towards the floor as you practise can help balance excess vata dosha, and help to keep us grounded.
- Keep relaxations short. Keep your relaxation less than 10 mins, or try putting several short relaxing poses within your yoga session. Relaxing postures such as crocodile, and child pose can help the body and mind to benefit from the movement which has gone before, and allow time for the parasympathetic nervous system to help relax you.
- Make sure you are warm and comfortable. When we are cold, our sympathetic nervous system engages to increase our heart rate to warm us up. Layers of clothes are useful for regulating temperature.
- A slightly faster pace or flowing sequences will keep your mind in the ‘here-and-now’, rather than worrying about the past or the future when holding a pose for too long.
- Learn something that challenges you. Trying a new style of yoga or a new sequence or posture that stretches your mind as well as your muscles will give you a sense of achievement and positive feelings about yourself.
- Join a group class, even if on-line if in-person yoga is not viable for you. The social connection will help to increase ventral vagal tone (co-regulation).
- Have fun! Laughter, especially if shared with others, is an excellent way to boost the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxation response. Doing a style of yoga you enjoy, that puts a smile on your face and brings you contentment (maybe with a few jokes) means you are more likely to continue with it.
- Connect with nature by doing some of your yoga practise outside will help to ground you and have a calming effect on both mind and body.
- Self-care. Self-compassion or ahimsa is one of Patanjali’s core principles of a healthy yoga practise. Make time for self-care every day. Get enough sleep, eat well, move more and do activities which help you relax.
Dru Sequences and techniques to nurture mental wellbeing:
The following links take you to FREE Dru yoga videoclasses.
The following CDs and DVDs are available to buy from Kath’s Dru Yoga (DVDs £10, CDs £6, plus £2.80 postage). Message me at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07586 298809. Payment via Paypal.me/KathrineParkerStead
- Calm Clear and Relaxed (DVD) – includes Earth Sequence and EBR 1.
- Energy in Motion (DVD) – includes Salute to the Four Directions and Waves of Peace relaxation.
- Easing Back Pain CD – gentle sequences and postures to calm the spine and nervous system.
- Dru Yoga For Stress Relief CD – includes EBR 1, cat, sphinx, bridge.
- Awakening the Heart CD – includes EBR 3
- Health and Harmony CD – includes EBR 1
- Total Health CD – EBR 2 parts one and two
- Dynamic Relaxation – EBR 7