My motivation to write on this topic stemmed from students often asking us how to deal with surging emotions while in certain postures. In order to cater to this question, it is important for us to first delve a little deeper into the question of what an emotion is and how it affects our physiology and psychology.
Emotions can be positive or negative, pleasurable or sometimes painful. An emotion is the incarnation of a thought that leaves an impression on the mind, and this thought then trickles from the mind into the physical body, and hence is often felt in the body as muscular or nervous tension. An emotion could also be defined as a stir-up, a churning of the ocean of consciousness, that is an external stimulus activates a series of events and movements within the storehouse of memory which has been accumulated through experience.
The real problem is not emotions per say, but what has become of our relationship with emotions, especially the emotions that our culture and society have labeled as “undesirable”. For example, vulnerability is an emotion that is very unpleasant to most people since we are taught from our childhood to avoid it. Our parents have done this, their parents have done this, and so on. As a result, when such an emotion is felt, our first “re-action” is to hide it, ignore it, and avoid looking into it. The body says, “Ok, I’ll put this on hold until I am ready to look at it!”. So the emotion remains as an underlying tension, unresolved, waiting to live its full life, waiting to die. Nevertheless, some people never let go of these pockets of hidden emotions until just a moment before their death, when their whole life flashes before them.
Emotions are very physiological and sometimes certain emotional pains affect our nervous system very strongly, putting us in a state of sympathetic overdrive, which leaves us constantly in fight or flight mode.
Asana practice helps us move from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. Evolutionarily, the parasympathetic nervous system is the oldest part of our brain and is in the brain stem. The brain stem is about 320 million years old and is made primarily of parasympathetic nerves which contain the vagus nerve. This vagus nerve, which is the tenth cranial nerve, has bi-directional traffic. So it goes from the brain and influences everything such as facial expression, tone of voice, eye movements, heart rate variability, diaphragmatic movements, all the way down to the visceral organs, and goes back up to the brainstem. What scientists are learning now from the Polyvagal Theory of Dr Stephen W. Porges is that the tenth cranial nerve is the healing nerve in our body and every aspect of yoga stimulates the vagus nerve and selectively, its branches.
When the flow of information through the vagal nerve is interrupted by emotions such as anxiety, worry, stress or anger, it begins to affect our physiological systems which brings other problems such as digestive issues, problems with secretion of insulin, thyroid imbalances, immune system imbalances, etc. The vagal nerve also controls inflammation. The inflammatory response being compromised, a chain reaction of events takes place through the weakest links in the body. Therefore the best thing we can do is to strengthen these neural pathways. So Dr. Stephen Porges recognises that the four ways that are common among all religious traditions to create this free flow within the vagal nerve are:
Good Posture because even sitting up straight is going to stimulate the baroreceptors that wrap around the carotid arteries which are monitoring blood pressure,
Breathing because that is going to send messages of rhythmicity from the abdomen and the diaphragm up to the brain telling the parasympathetic nervous system that “everything is ok, you’re safe”
Vocalisation – such as singing, chanting mantras or speaking kind words will balance the tone of the vagus passing through the larynx, and the last is
Behaviour which are related to interpersonal neuro-biology, and are basically the yamas and niyamas. Appreciation, kindness, gratitude, all strengthen the vagal tone.
So when we look at the yogic practices, we use asana which governs posture, we use pranayama for breathing, we use mantras for vocalisation and we have yamas and niyamas for behaviour. So all the first four limbs of Yoga are directly affecting the vagal tone and the flow of information through the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps us to be in a non-defensive state which is a stepping stone to access higher levels of brain activity, access limbic systems and access the cortical regions where we express compassion and empathy so that we can have a fully coherent brain function rather than the fractured brain function that we experience in our daily lives otherwise. This is also being validated by neuroplasticity and epigenetics.
When there is free flow of information through the vagus nerve, there is self-regulation within the internal system, except that we are interfering with it. Yoga is a way to efficiently come back to the process of self-regulation and healing. Healing is the return of the memory of wholeness. Healing is waking up from sleep. The eight limbs of yoga are taking us there.
When these emotions are churned within the body and one becomes aware of them, we have a second chance at letting go and allowing relaxation and peace to prevail. If we avoid them, they remain. To move ahead we must understand deeply the effects of holding on to our suffering. Recognising an emotion, allowing oneself to feel that emotion, embracing it, allowing it to flower (yes! flower!) and finally letting it go, without judging (which is true intelligence) is a conscious choice. Can we be as attentive and caring with our emotions as we would with a newborn baby?
Sources of research and study:
1.The Polyvagal Theory, The transformative Power of feeling safe by Stephen W. Porges.
2. Interview given by Deepak Chopra explaining the Polyvagal Theory.