Last weekend I attended The Yoga Therapy Conference, which was about ‘the science of human connection’. I am still buzzing with inspiration – the programme was full of interesting talks by passionate speakers sharing their research findings, experiences and sparkling ideas. They helped me to understand yoga therapy from different angles, from neurobiology to yoga philosophy. In this blog, I have integrated some of these approaches to answer the question how yoga therapy can help to form safe relationships.
Connection is at the core of yoga
You might think of yoga as a purely individual practice. So how does this relate to the idea of connection? Actually, the word ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, means ‘yoking’, as in ‘joining’, ‘connecting’. It is also often translated as ‘union’, which has a similar connotation: all is connected, everything is one.
Connection can be interpreted in different ways. Human connection, the ability to form social bonds with others, is one of those interpretations. The ability to connect, to engage in relationships with others, also requires the capacity to connect to yourself. We need to cultivate a stable sense of self and a feeling of safety. When we feel safe, we are relaxed and open, and therefore a feeling of safety enables us to feel and to communicate. This is reflected in the state of our body and mind. This is where the neurobiological perspective comes into play.
The state of the nervous system during social bonding
Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory explains how the state of the nervous system corresponds with feelings of safety or stress. According to this theory, different states of the nervous system are linked to specific ways of responding to social situations. His research demonstrates that the human parasympathetic nervous system, which was originally viewed as simply the resting system of the body, has evolved into two different branches.
The parasympathetic nervous system is regulated by de vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem into the body, to different organs that are involved in the stress system. In mammals (including humans of course), the vagus nerve has two main pathways. The first regulates the most primitive response to stress, which is a freeze response, also called total immobilization. This is activated when we perceive threat.
The second pathway also triggers an immobilization response, but an essential difference is that this response does not occur because of stress, but when the environment is perceived as safe. This state of the nervous system leads to relaxation, as well as muscular activation in the upper body, enabling facial expressions and the use of gestures. As you can imagine, this physiological state is very helpful to communicate in social situations, and is therefore also called the ‘social engagement system’.
Yoga philosophy and the state of being
Polyvagal theory can also be understood from ancient yoga philosopy, as explained by Marlysa Sullivan, who has also published a more extensive article on this idea. While modern yoga practice often mainly focuses on physical postures, the most important purpose of traditional yoga is to understand causes of suffering and liberating oneself from these causes. In other words, the ultimate goal in yoga is to achieve a state of being free of suffering. In order to work towards this purpose, it is important to become aware of your current state of being.
This state of being can be explained in terms of natural qualities called the three gunas. The three gunas, in yoga philosopy, are sattva, rajas and tamas. Very briefly explained, sattva is described as the quality of balance, calmness and clarity. Rajas can be seen as a quality of action, movement and energy. Tamas is associated with restraint, stillness, heaviness. The three qualities all balance each other and they are in constant flux.
The interesting point is that the qualities as explained by the gunas can be linked to the three states of our nervous system. For example, sattva corresponds to the social engagement system, encouraging a feeling of safety, calmness, and tranquility. Rajas can very well be linked to the fight/flight response, the mobilization caused by the sympathetic nervous system. And tamas largely covers the state of immobilization caused by fear, being completely stuck and shut down.
Therefore, when observing your own state of being, you could notice physical sensations that may be caused by shifts in the nervous system, and you could also understand those shifts from the framework of the three gunas.
Yoga therapy and the relationship to your state of being
Using this framework, yoga therapy can be helpful to become aware of your own state of being and the continuous changes over time. Linking this to neurophysiological effects, we can understand the working mechanism of yoga therapy at a different level. So how do we put this into practice?
Firstly, practicing self-awareness can have a broad range of effects and possibilities to apply in a therapeutic setting. For example, the yoga perspective encourages mindful observation without judgement. It also provides an understanding of recurring patterns if applied in the long term. And to take this a step further, when you are aware of your own state of being, you can find a way to work towards more balance – which may be reflected in how you are feeling, as well as in your nervous system activity.
As a yoga therapist, you can guide others in this process of cultivating self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-regulation. You can also assess the state of being from different perspectives. Ultimately, you can help other people understand this process themselves and change their relationship to themselves: they become the observer, they become their own therapist.
There are many more innovative ideas, surprising perspectives, interesting findings and therapeutic applications of yoga therapy. If you want to learn more, I can really recommend reading the articles of the speakers mentioned above and following Network Yoga Therapy, where you will find more information and courses in yoga therapy on a regular basis.