By Stefan ‘yogastef’ Podolczuk August 2020
What’s the theory?
1. What’s the theory?
Yoga traditions emphasise the heart as a significant part of the mind, not merely affected by it. The heart is a significant component of the mind and the face, voice and heart are intimately connected through the vagus nerve.
Steven Porges, who coined the term and developed the theory refers to the heart & face connection as symbolising the advanced mammal evolution of the vagus nerve as vital to maintaining strong community and social bonding.
A unique perspective to the theory is in offering a third category of freeze to the often two pronged fight & flight / rest & digest autonomic nervous responses. The vagus nerve plays a key role in the rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system.
Rest and digest can be paralleled into two facets, social and unsocial.
Without having a map & knowing where you are on it, how can you learn to navigate where you want to go… or know if you’re even on the path?
I’ll briefly cover what a map of the theory might look like and which ways we can navigate with it in yoga practice.
Poly vagal Theory is like a process of mapping the human nervous system which I deem a useful systematised approach of mindfulness / heartfulness / awareness practices. It draws very similar roots in the practice of directing body awareness through both visualisation and physical tools notably diaphragmatic breathing referred to throughout yoga traditions. Through Polyvagal theory this connected awareness practice is referred to as a vagal brake.
My primary direct poly vagal teacher was Deb Dana in London late 2019. She is affectionately known as the godmother of the theory having worked closely alongside Stephen Porges in it’s conception.
Deb’s is a way to understand the cues of the nervous system and to address therapeutic applications almost entirely on this level. Her interest is in doing so without getting sidelined in stories and intellectualisation during psychological treatment with her clients.
During the training we were encouraged to map where we felt we were on a symbolic ladder. She placed importance on therapists working together with their clients to a shared understanding of how cues are perceived.
As we undergo the process of self regulation we understand our own authority and autonomy for self regulation and in turn, how to hold space for others to do the same.
Of course yoga teachers aren’t therapists per say, but we can learn lots from this approach and many of us probably resonate already through how we observe experiencing yoga classes and how it is regulated in intensity and rest according to need, guided by emphasis on enquiry.
Quite often, the joy of yoga is witnessing profound transformation and much of it comes from being offered a new way to navigate the nervous system.
In plain language, practice can allow us to glimpse a fresh perspective of ourselves and how we view everything we experience and offer the chance of a perspective shift.
2. What are cues of safety & danger?
To map effectively we start to develop our own language in interpreting the cues the body is giving.
Cues can be notably recognised as those of threat or safety
To demonstrate the point, say if some kindly person or characterful place reminds you of a situation from which you have fond memories, you will receive cues of safety and the like resulting in a sense of ease.
Very much in our hyper stimulating world we are likely to experience the body more alert with more potential for tracking for danger or threat so we will direct a detailed hypothetical example to how cues of danger arise and play out.
Consider the great yogic parable of the rope mistaken for a snake:
Someone’s in a state of panic mistaking a rope for a potential danger. This wasn’t a clear perception clearly, though the fear response is real before and even after reality has dawned.
So a cue of danger was received from a preconditioned idea that the body was alerted to a snake even before the awareness of a rope became apparent.
Even though it wasn’t a real situation warranting the evolutionary fear response, the cue was still perceived by the nervous system as a threat and caused the body to react in fear.
Cues aren’t happening on a conscious level in the majority of cases.
Our bodies scan the environment for cues of danger and safety which may be individualised and seemingly illogical from one person to the next.
These cues after all, are subconscious responses which have a real life physiological effect.
And they’re happening all the time.
So the story doesn’t need to be as extreme as the danger of a snake but tuning in habitually to asking oneself, how does my nervous system feel about this?
A huge benefit of mindfulness is to recognise these cues while they’re alerting our attention and be able to settle the response with rational understanding of where these cues might be coming from and that they’re actually not in fact threatening, which the great majority are not.
Think for instance, if you get an intuitive feeling about meeting someone for the first time.
This can often be due to a prior condition whereby you’ve already met another who reminds you of in any perceivable way.
Sometimes it’s an imperceptible feature or trait of the person which presents your nervous system with a cue of safety or threat even before you’ve recognised it happening.
This can be behavioural, or concrete.
For instance if this person smells or sounds or looks like someone who made a big impression on you in the past. Your body has made that association prior to your conscious understanding.
There may be other reasons why this happens. For instance during a brief passing moment a very long time ago which was seemingly so insignificant you don’t even consciously remember, yet the body remembers.
So some people might have what seem like unusual and unfounded adverse reactions to seemingly insignificant things (say incense) for good reasons that either knowingly or not, they’ve made an association in the past about incense and perhaps also undesirable situations or encounters which the body and mind has stored.
Through directing our present conscious awareness to the autonomic responses to these cues, we can better navigate the map of our own present experience.
Even more subtly though, when we are closer to the sympathetic state, our physical brain is redirected and the access to higher brain networks is reduced down to prioritising checking for danger or threat.
In a nonthreatening situation this can still have an effect, and the rope mistaken for a snake can manifest as reading a loved one’s facial expression of confusion as anger for instance.
To form the habit of checking in to the nervous system until it becomes nature is a profoundly useful one which changes our perspective in the present.
Meaning we’re seeing the truth of our collective connection, and not snakes everywhere!
3. The science of nervousness
Moment to moment, cues can be observed in movements and postures of normal day to day life as well too in physical yoga practice. There’s a myriad of avenues from this but for the moment I’ll focus on the myotatic (stretch) reflex.
When a doctor pats the knee with their cute little hammer a quick shortening of the kneecap tissue sends a reflex which resultantly kicks the leg.
This is a stimulation response. This is happening prior to intellectual awareness.
It’s a safety mechanism of the body to prevent injury.
It’s a precognitive reflex to prevent potential harm to the tissues.
Though we do not consciously think about it, the body could very well attribute this reflex as a cue of danger as it’s part of the sympathetic response.
Now please consider, that many movements including slow intense stretches can also trigger the myotatic reflex and trigger a sympathetic response. So technically, when we stretch too much, you might not be aware but it’s actually triggering a physical cue of danger.
The higher functions of the mind deal with time, but the body doesn’t know this and it acts instinctively in the moment based on the behaviour it inherited genetically and behaviourally.
Therefore when you think about having a good big stretch, half way through the body freaks out and thinks it’s about to snap something, causing the feeling of stretch (myotatic reflex).
A body’s nervous system knows this, even if the yoga practitioner does not. One of the most common misconceptions about yoga is that it looks like you have to be flexible so the unsuspecting and uninformed student (and sadly many teachers) put emphasis on stretching, which is actually creating obstacles to a student’s entitlement to bliss.
By the time savasana rolls around it may be too late to settle into a deeply restful state if it was preceded by 60 minutes or so of stress on the body.
There are other cues happening and to an extent, it’s happening through all of the gates of the senses including eyes. This is where we can refine our approach to yoga practice to ensure we’re getting as much opportunity to sooth the body into a rest response so that meditation happens effortlessly.
4. A unique aspect of the ANS
(autonomic nervous system)
In Polyvagal theory we get a third pathway through the two pronged aspect of the autonomic nervous response.
The rope snake story nods to the stress response, named sympathetic (of stimulation). The other prong is the relaxation response for the parasympathetic (rest and digest).
Polyvagal theory branches the parasympathetic further into a third prong, in a word dissociation.
We must understand that the vagus nerve isn’t simply a magic button from which all good things arise.
It’s significance as a social regulator is in its regions above the diaphragm around the larynx and lungs, the areas of vocalisation and that primitive sub diaphragmatic (unmyelinated) part of the nerve in the digestive system deals more with a reptilian style freeze response.
The vagus is KNOWN AS the tenth cranial nerve and THE longest ‘wandering’ throughout the body.
It wanders around to the ears, heart, lungs and gut whereas the other eleven cranial nerves are centred around the head.
So mechanically it’s the only one to literally connect the higher centres and functions of the brain with the body.
Though there is significance more so in it’s functions with regards to posture when we look at blood pressure changes particularly in the neck which are important vagal responses.
What we consider with this system is a mapping of human connection through three primary symbolic autonomic nervous system responses.
Please understand these aren’t binary and there are many shades and depths along these symbolic extremes.
In each of these states our body gives us signals on where we are on the map.
signs like lack of body awareness, facial expression or interest in communicating socially might be signs the body is saying we’re likely closer to a dorsal vagal behaviour.
Signs like those of heart rate raise, THE need to run or move mentally or physically, are signs we’re operating from a predominantly sympathetic state.
The above signs point to cues the body has taken from the environment prior to to our conscious awareness.
And even though we may be with someone, who we know and trust, we still might not be feeling connected to them unless we vigilantly track what skews us out of a safe resting state.
the lack of social connection can be hidden under a veil of physical presence while having an inner experience of separation
Typically the harmonious and connected ventral vagal state isn’t so simple to dwell in and requires mastery to maintain one’s own mapping let alone reminding others of theirs.
Meditative practices prime us well for this journey interpersonally, though there are also direct aids of regulation through physical means.
A vagal brake is utilised to bring access to the higher centres of brain-body awareness and therefore interconnectedness through physical stimulation of the nerve at any of its points, notably at the diaphragm or from co-regulation with connecting to others as well as the more obvious, gentle conversation and shared facial expression.
This can afford us access to a sense of safety and connection through simple physical means to navigate the map of our autonomic responses, and self-regulate for the benefit of all.
This can be a physical gesture or another of the following yogic techniques.
We do well to appreciate that no one size fits all; this article alone isn’t going to adequately explain how to fully utilise the complex combinations of systems, but it’s a good pointer in the right direction to understanding mapping and the relationship to yoga practices.
One map doesn’t fit all according to Deb Dana. We have a home base outside of Ventral Vagal, unique to the individual but conceivable on the scale.
Meaning, often but not always, people will tend toward one or the other between stimulation states (Sympathetic) or withdrawal (Dorsal Vagal) states when they’re not blissing it up in Ventral.
To recognise when WE ourselves or communities are moving out of a ventral state is of major importance to the health of our self, the species, and the systems in which they balance.
Compassion is an adaptation of mammals’ centred around the evolutionary development of this nerve, according to Dr Porges. For example, lower reptilian responses are an ancient developmental artefact that our evolved human system still relies on for the motor responses of fight and flight.
Oh and it’s probably worth noting that according to Jon Kabat Zinn’s research, the threat response has much longer lasting residual effects than those of the relaxation response.
Meaning, we might easily create a build-up of negative body chemistry quicker than we can clear it out if we don’t have the awareness and the tools to address it powerfully and quickly.
Very sadly, this is how most people in the world live today. It’s no wonder many cultures place outsized proportions of effort and energy into buying and selling the ideas of material comfort and convenience.
The boomer generation particularly saw a huge rise in material living standards, and in all the excitement the bottom of the culture fell out when the immediate need of finding a personal bodily sense of safety and contentment was little met with the tools applied by more traditional cultures.
It’s well documented that palliative nurses report the biggest regret most people had at the end of their lives had nothing to do with not having found material comfort but in fact the remorse for not having spent more time with loved ones.
5. Polyvagal yoga practices
(Very) Slow breathing
Inversions (head below heart)
Abdominal pressure / release postures (e.g. mayurasana / twists)
Uddiyana bandha (with relaxed abdomen)
What strikes me as a yoga practitioner of almost two decades, is how similarly the focal points of the theory and traditional yoga systems place importance on purifying the human central ‘channel’ of energetic behaviour (vritti nirodha).
Traditional yoga has an emphasis on kriya and cleansing, many of which stimulate the vagus nerve at its many points in the major organs.
The vagus nerve itself after all seems to track the map of most of the seven commonly mentioned chakras.
Many parallels have been drawn between nerve plexuses and hormone glands, and between organs, yet there is still no clear reductive picture of what these chakras represent.
Powerful energy is observed and exercised in crossing boundaries of subtle and physical systems and in doing so creating the resilience to support and evolve.
Think of the single celled organism’ epic journey to eventually becoming the 40 (or so) TRILLION celled symphony that you are, reading this. Those single celled organisms needed to adapt to the environment and work together over time and space to become complex, communal.
To survive and thrive.
And this is what we’re being asked to join into.
It’s an infinite energy you’re already connected to.
You’re being asked to realise this.
This is what the theory and our practice can help us with.
Strengthen your connection to your communities.
Express your truth however it feels, whether connective or disconnecting.
Together we create a balance.
My biggest takeaway from the training is when we practice any form of recognition or inquiry into where the nervous system might be at a given moment, we have this ventral regulation quality which starts and guides us back in the direction of feeling safety and connection.
If we want to be the guardians for the evolution of yoga to help guide a world obsessed with blindly marching into oblivion on a sympathetic fuelled global consumerist binge, we have to cut to the heart of the matter and at all costs.
We must prevent the execution and proliferation of yoga as a means to hinder our interconnected liberation and guide it back from the path of disconnection which it is approaching in some corners.
Yoga without polyvagal appreciation can quickly move in the opposite direction of bliss!
Look at the state numerous lineages found themselves in with emphasis on the unhelpful aspects of physical practice. People falling to blind ignorance chasing individual liberation or consumed by power.
Remember, your practice is to connect, with self and other, to recognise they and you are experientially one loving, supportive and supported being.
So exercise this awareness daily.
Consciously soften your eyes.
Connect and facially communicate with others.
Move your body!
Be very alert to the cues your body gives, and discerning about the environments you choose.
Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience
Polyvagal Theory in Therapy – Deb Dana
Yamas : benefits of restraint, a translation for movement
New yoga alliance standards for teacher trainings