What Happens When You Stop Beating Yourself Up with Yoga?
A while back a regular student (I’ll call her Jan) who works in the mental health field, approached me at the end of class and told me her story. She had struggled with disordered eating since she was in college, but had found that after coming to my classes for the past 2 years or so, her body image and eating issues had quieted down significantly.
“Before, every time I did yoga, I pushed myself,” she said. “I used yoga to beat myself up – like all my other exercise. But now I see a totally different way of being with myself. It’s like I’m retraining my nervous system.”
Over the years many students have told me they’ve had similar epiphanies. As I’ve deepened my studies of the neuroscience behind the practices, a few key points stand out about the mechanisms at work here:
- Nervous System Training
As Jan said, slow, mindful movement is a great way to train the nervous system. The nervous system needs to be able to easily dance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation and, when you are in default mode (for example, just sitting here reading this, or calmly focusing on your work, or talking to your teenager 😉), the optimal state of your nervous system reflects a parasympathetic homeodynamic balance. That means that your nervous system is carrying out all it’s tasks with ease and can fluidly adapt to changing needs.
The nervous system dance is complex and highly changeable – that’s why the word “homeostatic” is not really accurate. “Homeodynamic” makes more sense. It’s this ability to adapt that underlies our capacity for resilience.
If all activities are done on the far sympathetic end of the spectrum (the fight or flight response) – work, relationships, rushing around, furiously exercising – then you end up relying on habits like wine and/or weed to cope with the imbalance.
My suggestion is that slow, mindful yoga practice is a lot healthier. And, rather than simply coping, it actually helps to build a more resilient nervous system in the long run – wine and weed don’t.
- No pain, no pain
Let’s say you have a persistent injury in your left shoulder. Old school thinking might tell you to push through it, get over it (you big baby). But what we now know about the nervous system and about pain science leads us to seek other approaches. For the most part, if you try to maximize the range of motion in that shoulder and “push through the pain,” it will backfire – the body will tighten up to protect. It doesn’t like being forced into stretching.
Pain begets more pain. To interrupt pain signaling, we need a different approach.
We need to send the opposite signals to the brain, signals of kindness, easefulness, pleasure, ability, capacity, confidence etc. You can do this, kind of simply, by backing off on range of motion and finding comfortable ranges – even if it means only imagining movement without actually doing it! This approach is much more neuroscientifically sound than “pushing through pain.”
This is particularly important for those with hypermobility who often feel like they aren’t getting anything out of movement until they push to or beyond their range. Sensation signaling (interoception) is often dysfunctional in folks with hypermobility (specifically those with Ehlers Danlos syndrome).
So learning to be okay with smaller, more nuanced sensations is important.
Over time, pain can diminish, range can increase, strength can return – but through a much healthier process.
- Less is More
What naturally follows from an approach that forgoes maximizing range of motion and celebrates ease, fluidity and compassion is the idea that less is more. Smaller movements, even micro-movements (or what I sometimes call micro-asanas) are a way to find pain-free ease and even pleasure in movement.
And this is exactly what the uncomfortable body craves!
You can explore this by shortening stances in standing poses, by using blocks and bolsters for seating and supine poses (and some standing poses), by saying bye-bye to binds and most binding strap poses, and by moving much…more…slowly – all around.
- Follow the Breath
Breathing is an incredibly complex process that emerges from a variety of physiologic and psychologic conditions and patterns. And, that being said, there is a robust body of research which suggests that slow, mindful breathing activates the parasympathetic response.
The breath is the gateway to the nervous system. So when breath is linked to movement, movement starts to sync with breath and catalyzes the nervous system benefits. So, allow your movements to follow your breath. Breathe slowly and mindfully, move slowly and mindfully. This is the key to nervous system re-training!
Not everyone can get there right away – it may take a lot of self-kindness and compassion. Once you tip over into frustration, you lose the benefits. Better to forget about breath completely and let yourself know it will come eventually than to hyperfocus on it.
- Feel In
The capacity to feel into the body and then make good behavioral choices based on what you discover is called “interoceptive awareness.” Researcher Norman Farb has said that poor interoception may lie at the heart of many chronic diseases. Lots of interoception is subconscious, but plenty of it is available to the conscious mind. Interoceptive awareness is a skill that can be developed and improved upon.
Slow, mindful yoga practice is one of the very few ways we have available to us in our culture to improve this skill. Since chronic diseases suck up 90% of all health care dollars (yes, you read that correctly), I would suggest that this way of practicing should be considered essential in any effective public health strategy.
- The Psychological Benefits of Kindness
Jan let me know that a kinder approach to her yoga practice had changed her psychology and improved her body image. This kindness to the body approach translates to self-compassion to the mind as well.
When you have been individually and culturally programed to treat your body like it’s some sort of ill-mannered, rebellious, unruly pest, you forgo any kind of meaningful,productive relationship with it and end up in a ceaseless battle. But the body is just you – it’s the most concrete of all the kośas or layers of self. It’s a reflection of the mind, it’s the temple of the soul.
When we offer ourselves a few minutes each day (and hopefully 30+ minutes a few times a week) of slow, mindful, easeful, pleasurable movement, we start to treat the body with the dignity it deserves. We ease pain and discomfort. We increase support and pleasure. And we start to retrain our nervous system in a mindful, considerate, and compassionate way that results in increased resilience.
You know what they say about oxygen masks on airplanes – relationships benefit too. (oh, how I wish world leaders would commit to practicing Subtle Yoga together before any meetings!)
The world needs these practices desperately. Being able to give folks concrete reasons why they should regularly practice slow, mindful yoga is essential.
Feel free to share this blog with your friends and students – let’s get the message out there!