Managing stress and anxiety has become part of the mainstream—evolving conversations concerning mental health and how to observe how we feel with more conscious awareness. The pandemic and upcoming election, not to mention the onslaught of international riots for human rights, has provoked discussions around trauma and its effects on the body’s nervous system. Studies of the anatomy and neuroscience of stress illustrate the intricate communication process between the brain and body, and the profound feedback loop initiated with every breath.
“One of the greatest interventions that we have as yoga instructors is breath technique. Breathwork (pranayama) can be both excitatory and calming, like Kapalabhati (skull shining)or Nadi Shodhana(alternate nostril). In yoga pranayama, you’re going through a whole stress cycle; you’re asking the vagus nerve to take the brake off to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, and then you’re asking it to put the brake back on to shift into the parasympathetic nervous system. With every breath, we can practice taking the brake on and off. Every time you take a breath in, it’s excitatory. Every time you take a breath out, it’s down-regulating.” – Erin Moon.
This week on the podcast, we sat down with Erin Moon to talk about the anatomy of anxiety, we shared the importance of meeting yourself where you’re at, polyvagal theory, and simple tactics to manage stress. We interviewed Erin in a previous podcast on the seventh chakra; Sahasrara Chakra and Collective Consciousness. Erin is a restorative yoga and anatomy teacher living in Vancouver, BC, who co-taught a portion of the 300-hour Yoga Teacher Training through Lila Vinyasa School of Yoga.
Resources noted by Erin in this episode:
The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk – a book about somatic input in recovery from trauma and stress.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Dr. Sapolsky – a book about the neurobiology of stress.
Regarding the chakras and their alignment with the endocrine system and the subtle body anatomy, which chakra do you intuit and feel most connected to?
Erin—I feel the most connected to the heart chakra, Anahata. It’s the most palpable and physical physiological feedback center. It’s easier for me to connect to the heart’s awareness because that physiological center gives a lot of external and internal feedback; you can feel your heart beat faster.
Clara—My third chakra, the fire center of Manipura. It’s where the warrior lives, and that’s something that I’d like to work with a lot in archetypes.
Stephanie—I would say the third eye because it’s where the imagination resides and how we visualize the landscapes we want to be in and bring stories to life.
What are some of the practices to deregulate?
C—The biggest thing to deregulate is to stop, drop, and roll; stop what you’re doing, come down to the ground, and roll around with your bolster or on your mat. If I were to teach a class using this method, I’d start students standing, and then we’d come down on the ground. In terms of deregulating, I begin with simple movements, just a bit of movement to get people into their bodies before restorative poses.
Erin’s restorative yoga classes start with movement before coming down to the ground, a moving meditation to connect to the body and breath before you arrive in stillness on your mat. I feel like this is helpful in my own body, to take a moment to move and feel my body and check-in with what I need.
In terms of restorative poses, I’d hold each pose for several minutes and focus on breathing deep. I’d offer meditation with eyes closed or open and visualization. Picturing something that’s calming like nature is soothing for me, so I’d offer a visualization meditation to complete the practice.
E—I teach with the mindset of people who come for what they want, and they stay for what they need. What someone wants may be to downregulate, but that’s not what they need at that moment, or it’s not possible due to their current state. It’s not where they’re at, so we meet people where they’re at. If I know somebody who’s dealing with quite a bit of anxiety, I’m not going to pop them into a restorative pose right away. They may need to blow through some of the anxiety first and go for a jog or do something a bit more vigorous to then down-regulate to blow off some steam before coming to a more restful state.
Whenever we’re talking about stress and anxiety, I think the idea is that we have to be calm right away, or we’re going to be peaceful right away. I think you’ve got to meet yourself where you are and do what serves to get into a more restful state of mind and quiet.
C—I feel like it can create more stress and anxiety for a person if they’re asked or trying to become still, and they can’t do it yet, then there’s judgment and all the stuff that arises when we’re not performing the way we ‘should’ be.
This vinyasa yoga class opens with a reading of a poem by John O’Donahue to ease you into the practice with a meditative prayer. A smooth and simple sequence to start your day, you’ll connect to your rhythm of breath as you cycle through several variations of Sun Salutations. A seated spinal twist to wring out the spine, inner thigh, groin, and hamstring stretching from the floor and a passive inversion with legs up the wall in Viparita Karani (dead bug pose) complete the class.
How does anatomy affect deregulation?
E—Anytime we deregulate, we work with polyvagal theory. Stephen Porges is the author of the Polyvagal Theory, whose research revolutionized our understanding of the polyvagal nerve. The polyvagal nerve is the tenth cranial nerve that starts at the brain and speaks to all parts of the body. The polyvagal nerve speaks to your voice box, heart, tummy, guts, and other places. The communication process employed is called the vagal brake; it’s literally as if you’re putting the brake on, asking your brain to speak directly to the things that need to calm down, your heart, your lungs, your belly, or whatever needs just to chillax.
The polyvagal theory essentially puts a brake on the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight mode, where we feel distressed or anxious. It can be a momentary stress event or ongoing stress event that tells your body to go into a fight or flight. Your vagus nerve puts a stop to the communication process that keeps you in fight or flight; the vagus nerve is responsible, and we can strengthen our vagal brake the same way we strengthen a muscle. Working with polyvagal break asks the vagus nerve to do its fundamental job; to put on the brake and stop fight or flight to shift the body into the parasympathetic nervous system, aka rest and digest.
Part of how we strengthen the vagal tone, which is the vagus nerve’s ability to put on the brakes really well and really fast, is through breathing techniques.
One of the greatest interventions that we have as yoga instructors is breath technique. Breathwork can be both excitatory and calming, like Kapalabhati breath or Nadi Shodhana. During pranayama, you’re going through a whole stress cycle; you’re asking the vagus nerve to take the brake off to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, and then you’re asking it to put the brake back on to shift into the parasympathetic nervous system. With every breath, we’re practicing taking the brake on and off. Every time you take a breath in, it’s excitatory. Every time you take a breath out, it’s down-regulating.
If we train the physiology to know when we request the vagal brake to come on and off, then we’re going to have a better ability to just be in the world and react to stressors. We can respond to the events that occur, but we can come back to neutral. I think a lot of the ideas around mindfulness practices and breath practices is the idea that we’re not going to be reactive.
What’s powerful about the polyvagal brake is that we can choose to react while being highly stimulated; we have the power to decide how we respond to a stimulus and come back to ourselves.
C—You’re never going to stop reacting to the world and the events that occur. All we can do is observe what’s happening and work on ourselves.
The idea of vinyasa yoga specifically is that we put the body under stress for the duration of practice. This process is kind of flexing the vagus nerve to be able to handle stress and then come back to equilibrium, over and over again, so that when we’re out in the world and stress comes our way, we can do what we need to do at that moment in terms of stress. And then, once we are safe again, we can downregulate and come back to a place of homeostasis.
What are some quick, tactile practices to alleviate stress?
C—The first one that I think about is lion’s breath. In my body, I hold a lot of tension in my face and my jaw. So I need to make a sound when I’m feeling a strong emotion like frustration. I need to be loud. So lion’s breath empowers me.
The other thing I like to do is to shake out my hands and my body. As I shake, I imagine all the negativity leaving my body. I can’t relax if I feel that strongly; I need to literally like make some noise and move very sharply before I come to rest.
E—First of all, breathing in and out through your nose makes a huge difference. When we breathe in and out through our mouth, it gives very different feedback to our system. A practice I would recommend is a mantra and a mudra meditation called Sa Ta Na Ma; it’s a Kundalini technique that means, I Am At Peace. You do this meditation by taking your thumbs and touching your thumb to your index finger for Sa, middle finger for Ta, ring finger for Na, and pinky finger for Ma. Repeat this over and over again, tapping the fingertips to the thumb.
This technique uses mantra, mudra, and breath. You can say the words out loud, or in your head, I Am At Peace. This technique features bilateral stimulation using your hands and your mouth, which means I’m using both of my hands simultaneously. Bilateral stimulation is used in EMDR, which is a part of the recovery for PTSD.
About Our Guest, Erin Moon
Erin Moon IAYT 800, ERYT 500, YACEP. She has been teaching since 2005 and teaching teachers anatomy and more since 2009. She has been a teacher in Vancouver since moving here in 2014 from NYC, where she lived for 13 years via Alberta, born and raised. Erin is the Director and co-creator of the World Spine Care Yoga Project, an international NGO bringing the practices of Yoga to people suffering from spinal and musculoskeletal disorders, pain, and limited mobility, in communities around the world. She also has her Level 2 Reiki, Level 1 Thai Massage, is a C-IAYT 800 Therapist, and has her 200hr certification in Applied Positive Psychology from The Flourishing Center. She is currently teaching intro to advanced anatomy for Lila Vinaysa, Prema Yoga Institute (NYC), and Illumina Yoga (upstate NY). Erin loves learning and knows that part of living well is growing. Whenever possible, she continues to study with PT’s, OT’s, Chiropractors, Researchers, Somatic Psychotherapists, and Neurologists and to pursue her hunger for knowledge through in-depth self-study.
Her focus in public classes is embodiment and curiosity, whether she is teaching Restorative, Yin, Hatha, or Vinyasa, practicing listening to the wisdom that our mind-body connection holds. To do this, Erin believes we must start the conversation through quieting, noticing, and contemplating. This way, we may become more somatically (felt sense of the body) aware, developing greater connections within, which then translate to greater connections in our communities and the divine in all things.