Updated: May 6, 2022
By November 2020, 8 months into the pandemic, my mind and body were a complete mess. Burnout, Chiari malformation and syringomyelia aside, my body was feeling oooolllllldddd. Stiff, creaky and crampy. Every time I changed positions, I creaked like the rusty Tin Man and groaned like Sam Fox.
In reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., I realized that my nervous system had been in a fight/flight/freeze state for months (if not longer). Born with a damaged nervous system, I have always had an advanced understanding of its intricacies. And yet, I was shocked to learn the relationship of emotions, trauma and the nervous system.
I was blown away by the concrete and severe impact of a nervous system under stress, learning that people with trauma histories have an increased likelihood to suffer from fibromyalgia, autoimmune disorders, digestive disease, heart disease, cancer and so on. Whether or not I have a trauma history is still up for debate in my mind, but it seems clear that constantly experiencing an aroused state = bad news.
Dr. van der Kolk’s willingness to dedicate an entire chapter to the benefits of yoga, enticed me to experiment with the practice as a tool for my recovery from burnout as well as improving the strength around my spine.
I find the physiological benefits of yoga incredibly fascinating and invite you to geek out with me:
Balances the sympathetic (accelerator) and parasympathetic (decelerator) parts of our nervous system by activating the brain stem and limbic system
Dr. van der Kolk explains,
One of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with the body. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations.
Our emotions and the resulting sensations are signaling to us our body’s needs. If we can’t hear, distinguish, or interpret those messages, we are not able to care for ourselves. In a culture that teaches us to ignore our bodies, Yoga reacquaints us. Yoga also teaches us that all sensations, pleasant and unpleasant are temporary. It also activates our brain’s ability to use language to change the experience of typically unpleasant sensations. You’ll often notice that yoga instructors use the terms “heat” or “energy” during a more strenuous pose. They will also preestablish that the sensation is temporary, for example, “we will build heat for 3 breaths." The process reminds me of a quote from Magdalena Weinstein:
Expanding our window of tolerance also allows more capacity to notice when we need to switch from 'doing' to 'being', to take time to integrate what we have done or processed, to appreciate all the fruits of our labor, that we have done enough , that we are enough, and to rest and recover.
When we engage with our Self, the seat of consciousness and what each person is at the core, several parts of the brain “light up” at once and look a bit like a mohawk. Yoga’s paring of breath, movement and awareness engages the Self parts of the brain.
Completes the Stress Cycle:
Fills the Reward Cup with Rhythm
Activating certain neural networks gives us a feeling of pleasure and reward. Our bodies attempt to self regulate by seeking to activate these "reward circuits". We have a minimal level of reward in order to feel regulated and avoid distress. When we have access to and choose restorative rewards, we are better regulated and more fulfilled.
One of the first ways we activate the rhythm reward is when we use rocking or bouncing to soothe a baby. Children and adults that are constantly in motion are often instinctively using rhythm to soothe their bodies. We can consciously find rhythm with walks in nature, swimming, dance, music, tai chi and... yoga!
Starting My Yoga Practice:
Going to a studio or a gym regularly has never proved to be a sustainable activity for me. Plus… pandemy. But I also need a bit of structure and guidance in order to maintain a practice. As it turns out, YouTube is a big win for at home yoga. My favorite channel being, Yoga with Adriene.
Adriene is goofy, awkward, compassionate, and insightful. She regularly reminds me that I already experienced the hardest part: showing up. She reminds me over and over that my practice is about Finding What Feels Good and nothing else.
After a few fits of starts and stops, I committed to a daily yoga practice. I aim for 20-30 minutes a day but on tough days, I’ll play a video from the “under 10 minutes” playlist, looking to simply maintain my practice. Adrienne has videos for virtually every situation including when I feel sick, hungover, or
generally like crap.
Within only about a month of beginning my daily practice, I began to see all the benefits Dr. van der Kolk touted. It has become a vital tool for me to maintain a sense internal balance (however tenuous) through the internal and external rollercoaster of life. And side bonus... I no longer worry that standing up will crack off a limb! 🙃
With about 10 months of a daily practice under my belt, I’ve laughed, cried, raged, and grieved “with” Adriene. I am not sure if it is the daily yoga practice or specific to Adriene or both, but the practice has built a muscle of self-compassion and patience that has allowed me to explore facets of life I never have before. It has allowed me to ride the waves of elation down to heartbreak and back up again. Yoga has made me brave. Allowed me to tolerate ice cold fear. Enabled me to know how I am.
Note: I have since transitioned to the FWFG subscription app. I find it easier to quickly grab the “right” video for me on a given day.
Disclaimer: This is a "one woman shop"! I was not blessed with proofing nor spelling super powers. If you spot a mistake, comment, email or DM me! I thank you in advance for your compassion and grace. ❤️