illustration by @ksenia_sapunkova

How to Use Yoga Cues to Help Balance the Nervous System

The nervous system is getting a lot of hype these days, both in the yoga community and in general. The world has experienced a whole new level of stress and anxiety since the global pandemic started, and most of us are still riding it out. The ups and downs, the uncertainty, and trying to strategically plan for a bright future while the ground is being ripped out from under us have our circuits fried.

One of the reasons that I teach yoga is because I want to help alleviate the burden of unnecessary stress in our world. I’m not here to position myself as an expert on anxiety, or to promise anyone that I know the answer. I’ve been riding out emotions and processing my own layers of experience for years now, and it’s life’s work. However, creating a growing level of understanding about how the nervous system works, and learning about what is happening inside my body has been a huge respite for me.

The ancient teachings of yoga passed down for thousands of years tell us that we are part of a holistic existence. That our mind, body, and spirit function as an integrated whole. We live in an exciting time where a growing body of research and scientific study shows how it all relates, bridging the gap between science and spirituality. I’ve known for years that yoga has the power to shift my perspective and my inner state, and recently, I’ve started to gain more of an understanding of HOW and WHY.

We live in an exciting time where a growing body of research and scientific study shows how it all relates, bridging the gap between science and spirituality.

As someone who practices or teaches yoga, or even as a human trying to navigate your way through the ups and downs of your own experience, understanding what it means to balance and regulate your nervous system is an incredible tool.

Nervous System Basics

The human nervous system is a system within our bodies that carries information from sensory receptors to the brain and spinal cord and conducts impulses to other parts of the body. Our nervous system is similar to other mammals and has two main parts: the central nervous system (CNS) which is made up of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which consists of the nerves that carry impulses to and from the central nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a division of the peripheral nervous system that influences the function of the body’s internal organs and systems. The autonomic nervous system acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, respiratory rate, and digestion. This system is the primary mechanism in control of the fight-or-flight response: the body’s response to stress.

The autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic nervous system is often considered the “fight or flight” system and the parasympathetic nervous system is often considered the “rest and digest.” In many cases, both of these systems have opposite actions where one system (SNS) activates a physiological response and the other (PNS) inhibits it.

The state of balance and harmony in our body relies on a continuous interplay and synchronicity between these two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Darwin identified these two systems as “reciprocals”, as one manages the expenditure of the body’s energy, and the other manages its conservation.

What is Nervous System Regulation?

It seems to be a common understanding that ongoing stress activates the survival mechanisms in our nervous system. Many of us also know that “fight-or-flight” is an automatic and often subconscious response to a threat—and this response can be activated in the same way by perceived stress as it is by actual danger.

This understanding is valuable, and it helps paint the picture of how much our body chemistry can end up in disarray from our thoughts alone. It brings awareness to the mind-body connection and the importance of being clear and intentional about which thoughts we give energy and attention to.

There’s also a growing collective understanding of the importance of managing stress in our lives and, in many cases, a growing body of evidence that shows the link between chronic, unresolved stress and disease or imbalance in the body. This can show up as hypervigilance, heart disease, chronic pain, anxiety, and more.

The problem with this understanding of the nervous system isn’t that it’s untrue; it’s incomplete.

This story creates a misconception that challenges, adversity, and stressful situations are harmful and should be avoided. That these adverse effects on our well-being can be resolved if we just “calm down”.

What’s missing from this picture is the “freeze” response and a true understanding of what it means to increase capacity and resilience in the system. With greater education and understanding, each person can find balance and regulation in a way that suits their unique individual needs.

In a healthy and balanced nervous system, the parts of the ANS work together to create a state of balance. An ideal state occurs in the body when the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system are able to work together, in sync.

Our inner state and the level of activation in the branches of our nervous system is constantly adapting and changing. A regulated and resilient system will allow us to encounter stressors in our lives (physical, mental, or emotional), and the stress response will flow through to completion, returning to a balanced state.

When dysregulation and imbalance occur, the stress response can become blocked in hyperarousal (“fight-or-flight”) or shut down (“freeze”).

The surrounding environment, the body’s needs, and the perceived level of safety will determine the level of activation at any given time.

Building Resilience & Capacity Through Practice

There is a lot more to this picture, and truly understanding the intricacy and function of the human nervous system requires hours… years… a lifetime… of education and practice!

In this article, I’ve done my best to bring together some of the key principles and concepts, so we can learn to use responsible, informed language to facilitate health and regulation in the bodies of ourselves and our yoga students.

Get this—a healthy nervous system doesn’t always come from rest and relaxation. To increase capacity, resilience, and adaptability it’s necessary to experience a healthy amount of stress.

What falls under the definition of a healthy amount of stress is unique to each individual. It depends on their life experience, stored trauma, and the current capacity of their nervous system to move fluidly through the stress response.

Your body will always prioritize what it believes is essential for survival. When we understand and respect this incredible intelligence within us, we can learn to work with it rather than against it. The human nervous system has three responses to threat, each engaging different parts of the autonomic nervous system.

1. Initially, if we are able, we will turn to social engagement and interaction. For example, calling for help.

2. If this attempt to find safety is unsuccessful, the “fight-or-flight” response becomes activated.

3. Lastly, if we are unable to fight or flee to save our lives, the “freeze” response is activated. Essentially, we “play dead” or function in a low metabolic state that preserves the body’s resources.

Understanding this process helps us realize how stress gets stored in the body. Every time a stressor is unresolved – whether mental, emotional, a perceived threat to our identity, or an actual life-threatening situation – if we are unable to find a resolution at the moment, our nervous system may resort to “freeze” or “shut down”, which leaves incomplete and unresolved stress responses inside.

This means that each time we are unable to complete the stress response in our body, there is the potential for this energy to be “trapped” inside. It can be trapped as “fight-or-flight” (high activation and overproduction of stress hormones which can lead to heart disease, anxiety, hypervigilance, and more) or as “freeze”. If the stress and challenges in our lives are too much and become unmanageable, our body responds by shutting down, and can function in a low metabolic state, or “functional freeze”.

The more unresolved stress is stored in the body, the less space there is for new and current stressors to be processed. This is why each individual’s capacity is unique and ever-changing.

So how do we know the state of each person’s nervous system and how to help them restore balance?

We don’t. To truly get this and work at this level is the role of a nervous system specialist or somatic experiencing practitioner.

The more unresolved stress is stored in the body, the less space there is for new and current stressors to be processed. This is why each individual’s capacity is unique and ever-changing.

Instead, we can start to engage in our own education and practice, learn how to read the signs and signals from our bodies, and carefully share this awareness. As teachers, we can be aware that students may be coming from different places and need different things in their practice to restore balance, and therefore provide options and variations so they can choose what they need.

We can teach practices that minimize or decrease external stimulation, providing the opportunity for unresolved trauma or incomplete stress responses within the body to surface and be released—this is one of the reasons I love Restorative Yoga and Yoga Nidra!

What does it look like to create an experience that encourages building capacity and resilience instead of only trying to “find calm” or “access inner peace”? It starts with understanding what these words mean and knowing that each person’s individual journey is distinctly their own.

Using Intentional Language to Create Awareness

Language has the capacity to express, heal, harm, and bring our deepest intentions to life. This includes your inner dialogue in your own practice!

One of the greatest gifts we can give is to help others cultivate sensitivity. This means increasing inner awareness by inviting people to feel, to be in their experience, including sensations, emotions, the subtle flow of the breath. Guide students deeper into their own self-inquiry. Help them understand their own sensations and to make their own decisions.

To help facilitate nervous system regulation and balance we can focus on building capacity and resilience while encouraging students to stay present and embodied throughout the experience.

So, what exactly do these words mean anyway?

Resilience: The capacity to recover and return to a state of balance or homeostasis, i.e. our ability to ‘bounce back’ after stress.

Capacity: The ability of the body and nervous system to make space for stressors, to process and release current or past stressors, and to regulate throughout our life experience.

Embodiment: Staying mentally and physically present. Being connected to your environment and internal state while experiencing sensations, emotions, thoughts, and actions, etc.—no matter how intense or activating these bodily experiences are.

Resilience, capacity, and the ability to stay embodied through an experience are fluid and will vary for each person. They will be in a constant state of flux depending on the body’s internal and external circumstances on any given day.

Instead of striving for perfection or even a specific result, we can learn to guide ourselves and our students towards a deeper connection and awareness of our inner state. Through this education and awareness, we access the potential to change it.

Teacher suggestion: as you learn about what these concepts mean for you in your mind and body, use them in class to see how they resonate and what kind of awareness they help your students create.

Facilitating a Practice that Supports Nervous System Regulation

The best way to facilitate a practice that supports nervous system regulation is to continue your own education and practice. Develop your own inner understanding about what this means, and how it feels. Educate and empower yourself so you can do the same for your students!

Here are few simple things you can start to add into your practice and teaching, to make the practice accessible to students who may have unresolved stress or dysregulation in their nervous system. Taking these steps and bringing a new level of awareness to your cueing and guidance can help students stay embodied, contained, and grounded as they process current or past stress in their body and mind.

  • Offer to close the eyes as an option, not an instruction; make it clear that they can practice with their eyes open. This can cultivate a sense of safety through being able to see their surroundings. Orienting to the current environment is also a way to stay grounded in the body and in the present moment as intense emotions or sensations arise.
  • Find alternatives to the words “safe” and “relax”. It’s important to start with what IS possible, and sometimes the cue “relax” feels inaccessible and creates strong emotion and resistance. Be conscious of creating a sense of safety, but choose other words, eg. “soften.”
  • Help students cultivate proprioception and interoception. Proprioception is the awareness of the body and space and we can encourage this by paying attention to the connection between the body and the ground or the surface beneath the souls of the feet. Interoception is the awareness of the body’s inner state. Encourage students to connect to this information network from within by noticing what they feel and linking that to their perception or internal definition of what they are experiencing (Eg. “I’m cold, “I’m hungry”, “something’s wrong…”) Invite an inner inquiry.
  • Understand that when we breathe more, we feel more. For someone experiencing a lot of pain or trauma, a “deep breath” might be too much. Options: change the language to breathe “slowly” or make your breath “long and calm”, instead of instructing a “deep breath”. Instruct students to watch the natural rhythm of their breath without changing it.

  • If an area of the body is very tender and holding trauma, touch may be too much, so offer other ways to create biofeedback. You may have students place an object on their belly or chest (a blanket, or a soft block) to feel their breath. This may be more accessible than having a hand there.
  • Encourage curiosity, exploration, through small and gentle movements. Moving in a gentle way can activate and awaken the nervous system slowly, in small amounts. If someone is in a state of functional freeze, this can “bring them back to life” in a subtle way without overwhelming the system and causing them to shut down again.
  • Include practices to stay embodied, like placing a hand on your thigh and gently squeezing.
  • Include practices that help to awaken the intelligent and evolved portion of the parasympathetic nervous system, eg. chanting, visualization, rhythmic, rocking movements.
  • Be aware that students could be experiencing nervous system dysregulation by being in a state of “freeze”. If this is the case, they will benefit from gentle, intentional movement to activate the nervous system in an intelligent way to help them find balance, eg. practice tense and relax through squeezing and releasing fists.
  • Remind students that they can choose their own depth and come out of the posture anytime. Empower them to make their own choices.
  • Subtle things can have a big impact on building capacity and regulating the nervous system. Easy access to a washroom or being close to an exit to the room can help someone feel safe if they feel the need to follow their impulses or leave. Sometimes letting students know they can leave if they need to use the facility, or reminding them to come out of the posture if it’s too much can go a long way.

The information here is like dipping your toe into all there is to know and understand about the human nervous system and our relationship to it through a yoga or movement practice. Do what is accessible and possible, without causing the nervous system to guard and protect. There is an art to this and it is a continuous practice, with open communication between you and the student.

It feels like there’s a massive call for healing and inner growth on the planet right now. Understanding ourselves in a greater way and how our inner experience gets projected onto the world is one small way that we can do our part! If this interests and intrigues you, keep digging, keep learning, and build greater capacity and understanding within yourself. As your own capacity grows and expands, your ability to show up and hold space for your students grows with it.

Want to learn more with Jodi? Check out our course on Restorative Yoga and Nervous System Regulation and learn how restorative yoga can support the nervous system.

Illustrations by Ksenia Sapunkova

Edited by Ely Bakouche

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