The autonomic nervous system regulates body processes such as blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. It works without the need for conscious effort. We can, however, intentionally work with our nervous system to alleviate suffering and maximize potential growth and development.
The breath and movement practices we do on Monday and Thursday are grounded or flavored by this understanding. Although having an understanding of the nervous system can help, you don’t need to memorize or even understand the system in order to develop your own practice with numerous benefits.
This post is a basic summary of my understanding of polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges. I came across the work of Porges as a result of working with myself through my yoga practice.
Three Parts to Remember
The autonomic nervous system is divided into three parts that function to regulate the body. These three parts work in a hierarchy or ladder that impact the way we relate to ourselves and one another. Being able to sense which part of our autonomic nervous system is dominant at any point of our day allows us to not get stuck in a state of paralysis or flight or fight. This is true not in the moment of crisis, but after an event has happened where we have down regulated toward flight or fight or immobilization.
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve that reaches all the way to the belly. It is the largest of the cranial nerves that gives shape to many of our nervous system responses. Vagal in the next sections refers to the vagus nerve.
Ventral Vagal Circuit (Social Engagement)
This is the pathway that provides safety through connection and social engagement. The poet Auden writes in “September 1, 1939,” “We must love one another or die.” Though not connecting with others in a loving and safe way may not lead to our immediate death, it does lead to a diminished life and ultimately to poor health. The ventral vagal pathway allows us to feel calm and feel connected with others. Ventral refers to organs above the diaphragm. In this case the heart, lungs and face. For this reason the chest and face are important areas of the body we train our attention as we do many of of the practices in this course.
Our early experiences with our mothers or caregivers sets us up to continue to develop a sense of safety and connection with others. If this was missing for us, becoming aware that we can move toward a more ventral state is important. If this is new information for you, take time to explore and test.
Safety is critical in enabling humans to optimize their potentials along several domains. Safe states are a prerequisite not only for social behavior but also for accessing the higher brain structures that enable humans to be creative and generative.
This is a particularly difficult time because of the restrictions around the pandemic. I don’t know what kind of conditions you are in with regard to safe social interactions. I’m imagining that these are even more stressed than before and you, like me are wrestling with issues of safety that often are unclear and still are consequential.
Because of that challenge, it becomes even more important to do the practices with others. Remembering that we are not alone is a powerful antidote and a way to call up the power of the ventral vagal pathway.
The next state I describe takes over when social engagement is disrupted or downgraded. This is a common state for most people in and out of prisons to be in. It seems to be the groundwork for all of the aspects of our modern society.
Sympathetic Circuit (Flight or Fight)
When we find ourselves unable to be in a ventral vagal state because our social engagement is compromised, we step down toward a sympathetic state or response. When faced with danger or threat, our heart rate increases. Our breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Our focus becomes narrow as pupils constrict. The body prepares for action. We’ve entered a sympathetic state. The first option when we are in this state is escaping or fleeing the threat or danger. When fleeing is not an option, fighting takes place.
These two responses are automatic. When the threat or danger is life or death, the nervous system down regulates further and moves into a dorsal vagal circuit or response.
Dorsal Vagal Circuit
The dorsal vagal pathway refers to the role of the vagus to regulate the organs below the diaphragm. When activated, we experience paralysis or immobilization. This response is something that was gifted to us by our reptilian ancestors. When faced with the possibility of death, reptiles and mammals often become immobile. You may have seen this in nature or in nature shows where the lion grabs the impala and instead of providing a fight, the impala goes limp. This may not seem like a smart thing to do, but, in fact, it is a way to conserve energy and a possible way to confuse the predator to believe they have captured an already dead animal. This may allow the prey to escape.
For us, the pathway is still at work. When faced with a dramatic situation where our life or someone else’s life is in danger, we may freeze. This is an involuntary response. We don’t control it. When facing constant threat or danger, we may be going in and out
of a dorsal vagal state. We may find ourselves unable to move, get out of bed, or make decisions. We move from anxiety to panic attacks and our life enters a level of suffering that restricts us from being our whole self.
Why This Matters?
Understanding where we are on this hierarchy or ladder at any given moment allows us to work with our situation and become more responsive rather than reactive. When we respond, we exercise our choice and freedom. This is not the case for reaction or reactivity.
If we are in a constant state of dorsal vagal or sympathetic activation, there’s little possibility for growth and change. This challenge becomes greater when the environment we are in is punctuated or dominated by insecurity and danger. Being able to identify where we are on the ladder or tree, especially when we are in a classroom setting, provides a pathway toward healing and freedom from reactive emotions and actions.
Identifying or naming where we find ourselves allows us the power to understand and step away from judgment and into the possibility of reversing the pattern of down regulation and moving back to social engagement. Even if we can’t change the outward circumstances of where we find ourselves, that understanding or meaning making changes our inner resources.
From this vantage point, liberation involves not only an outward process but an inner process that has a foundation in self-awareness. This is important because we may be physically free but live within the prison of our reactivity. We may be physically bound but find ourselves in the freedom of our hearts and minds. (The person that comes to mind in this regard is Nelson Mandela.)
The breathing and movement practices we do during our community yoga sessions are meant to help us move back to social engagement if we have dropped down on the ladder. These sessions are powerful not merely because they train the body physically–increasing strength, flexibility, and mobility–they also have a powerful impact on our mental states, helping us find ourselves back to one another and our precious hearts.