Freeze! Unfreeze! Yoga!

About 20 years ago, I worked on an organic farm for a very memorable summer. I loved the goats, and was present at the birth of twin kids (the farmer moonlighted as an Ob/Gyn!). The sheep, on the other hand, made a different impression on me. Whenever the border collie herded the sheep too vigorously and they became terrified, they would drop in their tracks. Picture giant wooly piles of freaked-out sheep.

This worried the farmers because, or at least this is how I remember it, there was danger that the sheep in this frozen state would have heart attacks. Their own fear might kill them.

Honestly, my response at that time wasn’t terribly compassionate toward the sheep. In fact, I developed a disdain for sheep that I’ve only shed (or sheared) in the past several years. So now, what does compassion for sheep have to do with yoga, and topics I’ve written about like heart rate variability?

I’ve been teaching restorative yoga for many years now, and we often do this by talking about the difference between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) “fight or flight” response and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) “rest and digest.” Restorative yoga is thought to support rest, digestion, and healing in various ways related to activation of the PNS.

Usually it’s presented this way: either we’re totally amped up (fight, flight) or we’re relaxed (rest, digest). But what’s entered discussion over the past several years is that sometimes we freeze, a little bit like the sheep, in response to trauma. What’s happening when we freeze?

I’ve been so excited to learn about the work of Stephen Porges, specifically his Polyvagal Theory. I think it has something to do with those sheep freezing, and that it could have a lot to do with how yoga may help us unfreeze.

Here’s what I get about the Polyvagal Theory right now. Our PNS (rest, digest) actually could be described in two parts: a primitive (think: reptilies) survival part and a new (think: mammals) social engagement part. The primitive PNS helps us survive by “playing dead.” This is a survival strategy that might save us at a crucial moment but has consequences (like the sheep), especially if we get stuck frozen. The more recently evolved PNS, on the other hand, allows us to calm down—not too much, but enough that we can attach, interact and signal connection via facial expressions, tone of voice, and other “body language.”

As yoga practitioners, consider this another way to look at the effects of how we practice on the nervous system. How breathing, movement and meditation may change our nervous systems and by this change our health, connections with each other, and responses to the world’s sheep and border collies.

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