Yoga and Widening the Nervous System Windows

For the past 10 years, I’ve been training Mental Health professionals to use yoga to help their clients learn how to regulate their nervous systems and build greater resilience. For me, this is one of the most profound and culture-shifting potentials of yoga – we can use these practices to learn how to increase our capacity to get balanced. And we all know that in today’s world, well…just about everyone can use a little help with that.

Yoga techniques can work in the short term as soon as you learn and use them and, research suggests that with regular practice, they begin to create long-term changes in the brain and nervous system, and bias the brain toward a more positive outlook, better mind-body awareness, and a greater capacity to play nicely with others.

One of the models I use to explain how yoga helps (which comes from neuroscientist Dan Siegel’s work) is called the “Window of Tolerance”.

The window explains that the nervous system vacillates between “hyper” and “hypo” arousal. When we can find middle ground or “Optimal Arousal” we think clearly, make good decisions, and basically feel balanced. When we are in a hypo arousal state we become rigid, depressed, cutoff, and/or avoidant. And when we are in a hyper arousal state we feel a sense of chaos – agitation, anxiety and/or anger and rage.

Oh, and BTW, there are many windows in our lives. For some folks a screaming TV or child and getting cut off in traffic poses no distress, but a disorganized flatware drawer might set them off. Clearly, everyone has different levels of tolerance about different things in their lives.

For some people, some of these windows are barely cracked open. The process of widening these windows is the process of developing greater resilience.

How does yoga help?

Well yoga, through its four main “process tools” (ethical engagement, breathing practices, mindful movement, and meditation) offers a comprehensive system to widen those windows of tolerance both cognitively, and via the body/nervous system – or what the neuroscientists call both “Top down” and “Bottom up” self-regulation.

Don’t worry if you miss it, the replay will stay up on my Subtle Yoga with Kristine Weber page. And if you want to really get down into the nuts and bolts of it all, check out my courses: The Science of Slow and The Yoga and Neuroscience Connection. 

Warning: Instagram May Be Hazardous To Your Health

Have you seen any recent posts on social media about experienced yoga teachers needing surgery to repair practice-related injuries? It’s not really actually news – yoga teachers have been injuring themselves for a long time.

What IS news is that famous teachers used to hide their injuries – but now, fortunately, transparency is de rigueur. This recent spate of revelations involves teachers disclosing their injuries and providing commentary on how they didn’t know they were injuring themselves, or that they had been taught that more is better, or that childhood trauma made them want to perform difficult poses.

And while I feel empathy for each of them individually, and am very grateful that the veil of yoga injuries is being lifted, the ubiquity of teaching styles that value challenging postures continues to be problematic.

Some of these injured teachers have achieved fame (and built wealth) by teaching risky, harmful practices to thousands of students. The problem is not confined to LA yoga, there are plenty of teachers across the country doing the same. What I hope is that these disclosures can prompt a collective foray into the worldview that glorifies and promotes difficult yoga postures as the highest goal.

I got into yoga way back because it gave me an alternative to a culture that told me I wasn’t good enough and I had to try harder to be more of something that I was never going to be anyway. For me, yoga was a relief from all that pressure. So when yoga got co-opted as a vehicle to propagate those values, it put my spandex in a twist – yoga was my way to rebel, not conform, and it pisses me off that people have used yoga to reify the status quo.

The bottom line is that famous or otherwise, athletic and hypermobile or not, yoga teachers have an ethical responsibility to keep students safe. Whether you are teaching these poses in class, or posting pictures of yourself in them on Instagram, you are not necessarily propagating or modeling safe practice.

Of course we can’t keep everyone safe all the time – people can get injured just getting out of bed in the morning. But I don’t want to contribute to the possibility of injury if I can avoid it. The first principle of yoga is ahimsa. Try not to harm – you can’t put it all on your students.

When I started teaching yoga in 1995, it was in a suburb of Philadelphia. I had just gotten back from living in Asia for four years, and the stone age analog news of the yoga fitness craze had not yet reached me. We just did it old style – like Lilias on TV, or the yoga that I learned from my hippie social studies teacher in middle school and the monks I studied with in India. It was slow, mindful, and breath centered. Definitely not Instagram material.

But in 2001 I moved to Asheville, despite the warning I’d been given that “you can’t throw a yoga teacher without hitting a massage therapist” there – and I was both. But I quickly got schooled. Yoga here was hot, fast, athletic and, woah, not what I was capable or interested in doing or teaching. I dabbled in vinyasa because, well, I wanted students to come to my classes, and, let’s face it, it’s not rocket science. But I often felt beaten down – I wasn’t particularly thin, athletic, hypermobile or dancer like, and that’s what people seemed to want.

In 2004 I reclaimed my practice, named it “Subtle Yoga” and slowly people started to realize that what I taught had some value – even if it wasn’t trendy. Now, with all the injuries of long time practitioners being reported, I think we’ll see an even greater surge of interest in slow, adaptive practices that help heal the nervous system and don’t blow out your joints.

I have to confess that there’s something simmering inside of me – a grumpy, menopausal mouthful of sputtering I-told-you-sos. But there’s also some flowering empathy and I choose to give that a bit more attention, because I know how to help people who want something more out of yoga than medical bills. I am happy to show you how to do this safely. Just ask.

I worry about the Instagram tribe – all the young, lithe, beautiful hypermobile women who post pictures of themselves defying gravity. You may end up needing surgery in 10 years because of your beautiful posts – but you can also choose to do things differently. You can learn how to leverage your athleticism for sustainability.

You are splendid just the way that you are – you don’t need to hyperextend your already hypermobile joints and obliterate the integrity of your structure.

You don’t have to destroy your body to prove your value. Check out our upcoming RYT200 training here.

Instagram Warning: Use at your own risk. Side effects may include: knee injuries, spondylolisthesis, herniated discs, labrum and rotator cuff tears, broken toes, wrist strains, wardrobe malfunctions, and bruised egos.  Please be aware that surgery and/or therapy may be required in 10 years or so.

Subtle Solutions to Soothe Anxiety and Stress Kit

I’ll bet you have a best friend, a mother-in-law, a client, or someone in your life who you know would benefit so much from yoga practice but who doesn’t think he or she has the right…(fill in the blank – body, clothes, etc.) to do yoga.

salutationSo I created the Subtle Solutions to Soothe Anxiety and Stress Kit  for your doubting, anxious, but really-in-need-of-yoga friend, relative, or client – but it’s also for you on those days when you need some stress relief but don’t feel like doing a strong practice.

Actually I’ve been working on this project for a few months. I shot the video with a professional videographer last summer, and it took a while for us to edit them and figure out what music to use (or not use!), and do the voiceover. And then I spent some time thinking about how the information in this video is so helpful and how could I best get it out to people who need it. So I asked a friend and she said, “Why not make a kit?”

A fine idea! So then I wrote an ebook and recorded a Yoga Relaxation (Yoga Nidra) script. And I’ve wrapped it all up in a nice package for you, your clients, and your stressed out relatives! Here’s a link to more information about the kit.

Please check it out!

I’m still posting, almost daily, short videos of breath centric asana variations on Instagram and Facebook. Lots of people have written to tell me how much these posts are helping them personally and several teachers have let me know how much the videos are helping them enliven their classes.

So check them out! Follow @subtleyoga on Instagram to access them. My 12 year old son is the director, producer (and occasional critic) of my Instagram career. 😉

Feeling a little stressed this season? Here’s a blog I wrote today about the necessity of utilizing yoga during times of increased stress. Hope it helps!

Happy Holidays!
Hug everyone you love!

Kristine Kaoverii