December 10, 2016

How to Avoid a Fight-or-Flight reaction in Yoga class.


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

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Anneke Bender Aug 26, 2018 4:11pm

Such a rich topic, about which our scientific understanding is growing exponentially! Thanks all for the article and comments. I also think that sympathetic reactions can be unintentionally activated when a student is cued to try to feel something that they are not feeling. Cueing to "relax and open the heart", for instance, may be threatening for a person who has difficulty doing that, can set the mind in opposition to real-time feeling states. That type of verbage is not wrong, per se, but I often prefer to direct both students and myself towards an observational attention, where one notices what is, developing acceptance and room for all emotional states (Rumi's Guesthouse), over time developing a friendlier relationship with internal experience.

Dee Wagner Aug 18, 2018 3:17pm

Thanks, Donna!

Dee Wagner Aug 18, 2018 3:16pm

Thank you!

Donna Nelms DeLuca Jan 9, 2017 1:35pm

It's great to see such succinct and accurate validation for the need for teachers to actively support their students individuality. As the living art of yoga evolves from an ancient to a modern practice, it's critical that we integrate contemporary science into our practices as teachers and students. In my roles of health coach and teacher, I often encounter people who reject yoga because of the kind of negative experiences described here, when a more individualized and informed approach would allow them safe, successful access. This is a wonderful addition to the literature.

Caroline Gebhardt Jan 9, 2017 3:57am

As someone who is interested in practicing yoga based on modern neuroscience and psychology, I was delighted to see you noted the importance of teachers empowering the students by encouraging them to listen and respond to the body's cues. From my experience, many trainings and teachings tend to offer "this way or that way" from alignment to philosophy, and I believe for yoga to work - to connect us back to ourselves and, therein, each other - we have to taste and play with the flexibility of trying different options within certain boundaries to see what fits our own unique path to wholeness as well as a sustainable, expansive practice. Thank you.

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Dee Wagner

Dee Wagner has worked as a licensed professional counselor and board-certified dance therapist at The Link Counseling Center in Atlanta for 22 years. With John Cargile and Kathy Jernigan, she created the book/workbook Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Online Dating. Find her on Facebook.