‘This may look like a heap of bodies on the floor‘ – was how I began a post on Facebook about the first day of Yogacampus Teaching Training York. In fact we were acting out Autonomic Nervous System responses to gain some experiential understanding. The scenario for ‘acting out’ went something like this: ‘Walking in the woods at dusk, the ears hear a rustle, the eyes see a SNAKE! A multiple cascade of bodily responses are triggered – hypothalamus ‘remembers’ snakes bite, heart beats faster, blood leaves organs and moves to muscles in order to run! Last to know what’s going on is the ‘thinking/rational’ part of the brain – which assesses the situation and says ‘IT’S JUST A STICK!’ The alarm responses reverse, everyone sighs with relief and goes to sleep zzzzzz.’
The Facebook post received several comments, including from Gary Carter, who responded with:
“And then we learn to not have those spikes whilst moving at speed .. calm in the centre .. the skin and gravity create the neural and now understood, hormone response”
The discussion continued:
Me “Yes! I agree it’s not just about going slow! Healthy responses include adaptability”
Gary “essence behind martial philosophies”
Me “Yoga is mostly taught slowly (a good thing) but this can give the impression that moving fast is to be avoided. Of course it’s healthy to move fast too, and in an emergency may be vital.”
Gary “Speed at slowness and slowness at speed as my 80!yr old martial arts teacher would show”
As I said to Gary, we tend to practise/teach yoga slowly – this is because most people have busy lives and need to slow down. Another reason is that it’s easier to to access inner sensation when practising slowly. However yoga practice can also teach us to remain calm in centre when moving fast – whether this is playing sport, practising martial arts, dancing, running for fitness, or away from danger. It can also enable us to make good, quick decisions when necessary and to act efficiently. Going slow isn’t an end in itself.
The practice of yoga is a well known antidote to stress; almost everyone who practises yoga, experiences the effect. This happens to a large extent through breath awareness and pranayama. The rhythmic practice of slow flowing asana that’s connected with the breath, also has a calming effect. I was teaching the teacher trainees about the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), so they would gain some understanding of the anatomy and physiology of both the stress response and the calming/de-stressing processes in the body. There are three interconnecting ‘divisions’ of the ANS – the Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest and Digest / PaNS), the Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight, Flight, Freeze / SyNS) and the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). As described in the scenario of the snake/stick above, the Fight and Flight response is necessary for our survival. It’s only a problem when people become stuck in an extreme of the response that’s inappropriate to the circumstances – a chronic state that can ultimately result in diseases such as autoimmune disorders, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, substance abuse etc.
A common misconception is that the Fight and Flight/SyNS branch of the ANS is the ‘baddy’ and the Rest and Digest/PaNS is the ‘goody’ – in fact the two are always on a continuum. We need SyNS responses in order to be alert in our daily lives – ideally with the support of the calm base of the PaNS. Gary described it as: “calm in the centre”. A teacher on a Body-Mind Centering training I once attended, used this description: ‘We want to be sailing on the ship of the Parasympathetic Nervous System – and operate from there.‘ In speaking about all the body systems – including the ANS – Amy Matthews says “what makes us healthy …is the ability for the tone of our systems to adapt…depending on circumstances we need to be able to adapt to the environment.”
In conclusion, we need to be adaptable and resilient so that we can move either slowly OR quickly – and retain our calm centre. The practice of yoga can help us do this.
I’m running a workshop on this topic on November 18th 2017 – there are more details here if you’d like to experience and learn more.
Happy practising everyone!