If you're familiar with my work, you probably know that I'm a nerd when it comes to using what we know about the brain and our nervous system to address our mental health.
I believe it's important to incorporate neuroscience into my work for 3 main reasons:
1) Understanding how our stress-response impacts our mind/body is empowering and changes our concern from "what is wrong with me?" to "how can I take back control?"
2) There are specific tools that give people back control and are backed by science, and sharing this great news is my jam
3) We need to break the idea that poor mental health is something we must "deal with"; there are so many ways that we can improve our mental health with consistency and practice
Yoga is one tool that can help us calm our nervous system and decrease stress/anxiety.
When our stress-response is activated -by a trauma trigger, a build-up of stress, or a specific worry- our mind begins to race, we feel physically on-edge, and our mind spirals through every possible outcome. In fact, the part of our brain that specializes in logical, higher level thinking actually shuts down so that we can focus on surviving- giving full control to the on-edge, activated, and anxious part of our brain.
It's not a pleasant experience! However, certain yoga poses are grounding- meaning that they help us increase our connection to our body, increase our connection to our breath, and increase our connection to where we exist in the present moment. This trifecta is the key to re-activating the calming side of our nervous system. Since we know that most anxiety and worry lives in the past or the future, grounding back into the present moment is an effective way to stop thought spiraling and acknowledge, "I am safe in this moment".
3 Yoga Poses for Calming Your Nervous System
1) Mountain Pose
If you are able, remove your shoes to increase connection to the earth and stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart. With your toes facing forward, notice the weight of your body as it meets the ground through your feet. You may keep your eyes slightly open and gaze forward/down, or close them. You may keep your arms at your side, extended upward, or in any variation that feels comfortable. With firm contact between your feet and the ground, allow yourself to gently sway. Notice when you feel a little off-balance, and notice when you find your center. Acknowledge the strength of your body, one vertebrae stacked on the other, and the line created from your feet all the way to the top of your head.
Turn your awareness to your breath and allow it to fill your belly as you inhale, releasing as it feels comfortable. Breathing into our diaphragm allows us to activate our vagus nerve and re-awaken the calming side of our nervous system. As you settle into this pose and your breath, you can visualize your breath spreading throughout your body as you inhale and leaving -with the tension you're holding- as you exhale. Remain as long as you would like.
2) Child's Pose
Find a table-top position, with your hands and knees supporting you on the ground (hands directly under shoulders and knees directly below hips). Feel free to place a pillow or towel under your knees for additional support. Bring your big toes to touch, allow your knees to widen, and sit your hips back towards or over your feet. Allow your arms to extend in front of you, palms on the ground or together, and notice the connection points of your body on the earth.
Turn your awareness towards your breath and allow your sit bones and arms to more deeply connect with the ground with each exhale. Acknowledge any sensations that arise for you, changes in temperature, your ability to move deeper into the posture, or the stretching of tight muscles. If you feel comfortable, you can experiment with moving your arms over to one side or another, or transition between table-top and sitting back, with awareness of how your body is supporting you in this moment.
3) Easy Pose
Find a comfortable seated position on the floor with your legs crossed or -if you prefer to sit in a chair- with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Tune into the connection between your body and the ground/chair, do you notice the weight? Any sensation of temperature? Place your hands on your legs or on your heart/stomach. Close your eyes, if you feel comfortable, and visualize your lungs filling with air and then releasing that air. Inhale presence and exhale worries, fears, and future concerns. Focus on living in this exact moment, in this exact pose.
When you feel ready, allow yourself to gently sway from one hip-bone to the other. Allow your upper body to sway forward, backward, and in circular motions. Find your center.
Breathe there. Claim this space and this moment and remain as long as you'd like.
If you prefer guided practices, here are some free trauma-informed and calming options from Youtube. There are many additional free options online, as well:
Meredith Waller MSW, LCSW
Based in Boulder, CO and offering online counseling throughout Colorado
-Certified Shame-Informed Treatment Specialist
-Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional
This blog provides general information and discussions about health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment.