“Lie down on your mat and begin to check in with your breathing…” is a common instruction at the start of a yoga class but does this work for everyone? Many years ago I had a private student who would invariably arrive for class in a hyperactive, agitated state. I soon learned that asking her to focus on the breath and be still at the start of class was counterproductive. A much more effective approach was to get her moving from the start. I led her through warming up movements, sun salutations, vinyasa flow sequences and invited her to practise slowly. Gradually her mind became quieter.
Astanga Yoga may be a helpful style of yoga for agitated, hyperactive types – as long as they are fit and healthy – because the practice begins with a series of dynamic Sun Salutations. Gradually as the practice progresses, stress and agitation may diminish and the mind can quieten. In a similar way, people who run regularly, dance or go for brisk walks, find that doing so can have a calming effect. Restorative or Yin Yoga on the other hand, may be very challenging, unhelpful even, for yoga students who are highly stressed, especially if the cause of the stress involved shock or trauma.
When studying the nervous system on an Embody-Move training in 2010, I learned about the physiology underlying the effectiveness of movement to discharge stress/trauma. We referred to this phenomenon as ‘motoring it out’. Sensory information arrives into the back of the spinal cord through sensory/afferent nerves. If the sensory information is excessive, the effect on the body-mind may be overwhelming. The information may then become ‘held’ or ‘trapped’ in the body. But movement can help to discharge the ‘sensory information’ through the motor/efferent nerves, which arise out of the front of the spinal cord. Movement is therefore a healthy response to excess stimulation.
At the beginning of his book ‘In an Unspoken Voice’ Peter Levine describes the experience of being in a road accident. He was helped by the gentleness and kindness of an individual in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Then he began to shake from the shock. He allowed the shaking to take its course, especially through his injured arm. Levine knew the importance of allowing the shaking movement to happen, in this way he reckoned he saved himself from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In his book, Levine describes working with individuals suffering from PTSD and he summarises trauma thus: ‘Trauma represents a profound compression of survival energy that has not been able to complete its meaningful course of action.’
Whereas Levine’s accident is an extreme example of the effectiveness of movement to discharge stress, it illuminates the difficulty distressed people can have in being still. At the start of a class, yoga teachers can usefully ask their students, ‘How do you feel now? Sometimes there’ll be clues in the response that movement sooner rather than later will be the best pathway towards quiet minds. Even experienced yogis who’ve developed a preferred self-practice, can usefully ask themselves at the start of the practice, ‘How do I feel now? What do I need in my practice today – more movement or more stillness?