Why I am falling in love with yoga again

by Liz Doyle Harmer, Afterglow Studio Co-Owner

When most people think about yoga they think about flexibility. 

They often come to their first class looking for a way to create more freedom in their bodies – to stretch legs tight from other sports or a back sore from sitting at a desk too long. And yes – yoga is an excellent way to become more mobile. One of the reasons I was first drawn to yoga myself was to help stretch my hamstrings, rendered tight from running.

But what I have found over time is that yoga offers so much more than flexible legs and a long spine.

Yoga is an ancient practice ideally suited to our modern times.  

What I’ve found to be more profound than the effect yoga has had on my muscles is the effect it has had on my nervous system.

Our nervous systems were not designed for our modern world. We have evolved to maintain short bursts of sympathetic fight or flight activation followed by lengthy periods of parasympathetic rest and recovery. 

For many of us, bursts of stress are chronic and consistent, and our periods of rest and recovery are too short and shallow.

Over time, if this continues, we get burnout. Our nervous systems and bodies can only handle elevated amounts of stress for so long.

I learned this the hard way. 

Due to the pace of my family life (four young kids busy in activities) and the start of a new business (one I love but not without stress), as well as recent personal family concerns, my nervous system was overloaded and went into shutdown. It became fragile and sensitive — I’m still working daily to get it back to optimal health. 

It’s one of the reasons I have recently returned to a more consistent yoga practice. What I have learned the hard way is that we need to have some kind of regular practice to take care of our nervous systems.

It involves self awareness — learning about our own automatic and embodied stress responses — as well as self care — learning what we need to soothe, calm, and regulate our systems — so that over time we can increase our capacity to deal with stress.

If you can’t reduce stress, you need tools to handle it.

The truth is that reducing stress is often not as easy as it sounds. I have four kids; I can’t reduce stress unless I get rid of them! (not happening at least not on most days). But I need tools and resources to help me deal with elevated levels of stress. 

The more I learn about how to care for my nervous system, the more I see that yoga has inherent aspects meant to help achieve just that.

Yoga can help.

Dristhi, asana, pranayama, chanting and mantra are tools to help us manage stress.

Stanley Rosenberg, a cranial sacral therapist based in Denmark, and author of Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve has found in his practice that simply having clients change the direction of their eye gaze can help tone the vagal nerve. (A key cranial nerve responsible for helping to shift the body out of fight or flight)

In yoga we call eye gaze drishti.

Stephan Porges, a professor of Psychiatry and author of The Polyvagal Theory has found that listening to soothing sounds or working the muscles of throat (through singing or the playing of wind instruments) can help tone the vagal nerve and cue the body to relax. 

In yoga we play with chanting.

And numerous forms of bodywork including Feldenkrais, The Alexander Technique, and Structural Integration have found that removing kinks and curves from the spine, learning to support its optimal alignment can help cue the nervous system (whose perceptive fibers run along the length of that said spine) that the environment is safe and the body can relax. 

In yoga, as we bend, curve, and move ourselves into various asanas what we are really trying to do (above and beyond any fancy inversions or arm balances) is support the optimal alignment of our spines.

 

Additional ways that yoga supports our nervous systems are mantra (ex: I AM SAFE. I AM LOVED) and breath-work, particularly exercises focusing on both a full and complete breath as well as a longer exhale.

 

These are just some of the reasons I have fallen in love again with the practice of yoga. It offers so much more than just flexibility; it’s a prescription and a tool to help a person not only cope, but thrive, in our modern world.