A tiny fragment of nucleic acid wrapped inside a thin protein coat has turned our world upside down. Not technically a living organism itself, it has wreaked havoc on our lives. Even as we do our best to protect ourselves by wearing masks and by social distancing, we are all too aware that millions of our fellow humans have contracted the virus and there is no guarantee that we or our loved ones won’t fall ill as well. There is so much that is out of our control. Our fate is uncertain. We feel frightened.
In the face of this fear, our sympathetic nervous system, acting outside of our conscious control, kicks into high gear, releasing a cascade of chemicals into the bloodstream, stimulating a “fight, flight or freeze” response. This chemical storm is designed to aid us in physically defending ourselves against perceived threats. But our tools for fighting this virus by physical means are limited. We cannot fight it with spears as our ancestors fought the wooly mammoths; we cannot even fight it at present with the modern weaponry of vaccines. Neither can we flee from this virus any further than into the relative safety of our homes, nor can we protect ourselves by freezing in place and pretending to be dead as our ancestors did when being stalked by predators.
When we cannot respond externally, what is left to our sympathetic nervous system in its reflexive drive to protect us is to play out these fight, flight and freeze responses internally. Unfortunately, when these powerful protective mechanisms are turned inward, they are not only ineffective, they can actually cause harm.
When the fight response is directed inward, perceived threats give rise to repetitive cycles of heightened but inefficient mental and physical activity. We have difficulty relaxing, difficulty pausing to connect with ourselves long enough to determine what we really need. Not knowing what we need, we engage in behaviors which are harmful to us. We literally become our own aggressors.
The flight response primes us to run from danger, but fleeing inward, there is nowhere to run. The flight response revs us up, keeps us on high alert, if not actually running, at least ready to run, but all to no useful purpose and all at great price to our well-being.
When neither fight nor flight is an option, the sympathetic nervous system has one more trick up its sleeve, the freeze response. In the wild, the freeze response renders the body motionless so as either to go unnoticed or so as to be thought dead by a predator. When the freeze response is turned inward, it causes contraction in the body, as if immobilizing and shrinking the body might allow us to escape danger. Yet another maladaptive response to threat, this contraction diminishes both our capacity to move and our capacity to feel, over time, quite literally rendering us frozen and numb.
So what’s a person to do?
Fortunately, we do not have to remain hapless victims of the “well-intentioned” but counterproductive activity of our most primitive protective mechanisms. In addition to the sympathetic nervous system, we also have a highly organized, complementary parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is responsible for the “rest-and-digest” activities which take place when the body is not under threat and is at rest. It is a calm, nourishing and reparative mode which allows us to relax deeply, to attune to our inner experience, to be vulnerable and to heal.
While these two branches of the nervous system are both always operating, at any given moment there is a predominance of either sympathetic or parasympathetic activity in our system. For tens of thousands of years, the parasympathetic mode has been the predominant mode of operation in humans, just as it is in animals, with only occasional brief bursts of sympathetic dominance in times of perceived danger. But in our fast-paced, modern lives, our nervous systems are bombarded by unprecedented levels of stimulation. Whether we are consciously aware of this bombardment or not, our sympathetic nervous system reads this continual barrage of input as an assault on our system and ramps up its activity in response. As a result, we now spend far more of our time in a state of sympathetic dominance than at any other point in human history. Add to the baseline stress of modern living the extraordinary stress of a pandemic and it is no mystery why we might find ourselves not merely in a state of sympathetic dominance, but in a state of overwhelming sympathetic overload.
What does all of this have to do with our yoga practice?
When we come to our yoga mat, our first priority is to down-regulate our nervous system, to transition from a state of sympathetic dominance to a state of parasympathetic dominance. We do this by slowing down our body movements, working in silence, often with our eyes closed, focusing our attention inward on the breath and bodily sensations, not engaging with the “self talk” of our discursive mind. In this way we allow our system to shift organically, effortlessly into a state of relaxation which is sustained throughout our practice, even in the midst of working with intense physical sensations. Encountering contraction or rigidity, we bring our careful, focused attention, not provoking aggressive or painful sensations, not pushing through but rather being with our experience. This respectful attunement to our experience communicates a message of safety to our entire system, allowing us to drop even more deeply into a calm, restful state where we can touch our own vulnerability with kindness and where the process of healing can occur. Not forcing anything but allowing everything, we create conditions in which we can trust in our very being that to be here, moment by moment, breath by breath, sensation by sensation is enough. In this way our body itself becomes our refuge, a place where we can truly shelter in place amidst the many uncertainties of life.