In yoga classes these days, many teachers cue breath patterns that they say will activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
I am sure they say this to encourage those in the class to embrace these breath patterns. I assume they imagine that most of us have some idea of what the parasympathetic nervous system does for our bodies.
Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory of nervous system functioning helps explain just that.
Polyvagal theory is based on Porges’ studies of the vagus nerve which serves the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down. So why wouldn’t yoga teachers want to cue breath work that would activate that system?
Because one type of calming that the parasympathetic system offers shuts the body down.
There are two different branches of the vagus nerve, and they affect different parts of the body. One of the two branches offers two very different experiences. The dorsal branch—the one in the back—creates both restful sleep and shut-down.
Our bodies shut down when we feel no hope for survival. Shut-down offers the pathway to death and along the way, a possible holding place as we wait for any last-minute escape route before we die.
In a situation in which we sense life-threatening danger, our bodies first go into fight-or-flight mode. We shoot off a burst of chemical hormones that helps us fight off a foe or flee from danger. If we cannot fight our way to safety or flee from danger, we go into shut-down.
In a situation where we see no way to fight or flee, we may freeze. If there continues to be no escape route, we may feign death. Because we see possums do this, this parasympathetic behavior has been referred to as “playing possum.” When animals go into this tonic immobility, predators often lose interest. If so, the animal has an escape route.
In this shut-down behavior that feigns death, our bodies collapse. If we continue to be trapped and death is inevitable, our shut-down response makes death less painful.
So what can yoga teachers do to prevent shut-down?
When yoga teachers understand all the possible body states provided by our parasympathetic nervous system, they are more likely to cue their students toward the response the teacher has in mind. Understanding how the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems work together helps teachers understand when students get cranky rather than more peaceful.
Understanding the Argumentative Yoga Student
Our bodies are designed to come out of shut-down by shooting off fight-or-flight chemistry. That burst of hormones could be needed for a quick exit if an escape route presents itself.
If yoga students find themselves headed into shut-down by breathing techniques that lengthen and slow the breath, they may shoot off fight-or-flight chemistry and feel the need to attack someone or something. They may say crabby things to the teacher or rag on yoga in general. They may even attack themselves, thinking or saying things like “I suck at yoga” or “What the %!#$ is my problem!”
When yoga teachers invite parasympathetic activity, some students may feel irritated. A yoga teacher that understands this irritation in light of how the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems work is more apt to have some empathy for the students’ situation.
Yoga teachers who understand nervous system functioning more fully, tend to encourage students to listen and follow the cues of their body as first priority and the cues of the instructor only if and as those cues feel right. With the invitation to move as needed, students are less likely to feel trapped.
So, is activating the parasympathetic nervous system always a good idea? Yes, as long as the yoga teacher has good knowledge of the parasympathetic nervous system.
This article has discussed the two different states created by the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve. There is a third state created by the parasympathetic nervous system, a kind of active state we can find without shooting off fight-or-flight chemistry. Check out this article to learn more about this active state created by the ventral (front) branch of the vagus nerve.
Author: Dee Wagner
Image: Lena Bell via Unsplash
Editor: Callie Rushton