Your nervous system has evolved to keep you safe

Guest post by Jenn Cardoso

The body’s rapid-response survival system is orchestrated by our autonomic nervous system (ANS). To briefly review, the ANS operates two branches within the larger peripheral nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch mobilizes us to defend against danger via the fight or flight responses. Upon increasing levels of threat, animals activate qualitatively different defensive modes, including freezing and the active fight or flight reactions. Freezing is a form of behavioural inhibition accompanied by parasympathetically dominated heart rate deceleration. You might think of this as having one hand on the parking brake and one foot on the gas. While fight or flight reactions are associated with sympathetically driven heart rate acceleration – full on pedal to the metal. All three of these states are highly charged and activating in the body (Roelofs K., 2016).

The parasympathetic branch is typically viewed as having the opposite effect on the body, helping us to dampen our defences and regain a state of homeostatic balance and calm. But, as they say, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The parasympathetic system is made up of the vagus nerve which runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. It branches into two major pathways, each responsible for a distinct neurophysiological state. One pathway, known as the ventral vagal branch, responds to cues of safety and supports restoration, procreation and readiness for social engagement. By contrast, the dorsal vagal branch responds to cues of life-threat, causing us to shut down, become numb, and disconnect from others. This dorsal vagal state is one of immobilization and a defensive strategy that we shift to when fighting or running away isn’t possible. A person who dissociates has found refuge in a dorsal vagal state.

While simplistic, it can be helpful to understand that the ANS is more than just the oscillation between the state of “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”. In fact, as we go about our day the ANS is constantly shifting between these states, continually working to bring about regulation and homeostasis to the body. 

When I did my first YTT back in 2016 and still very new to yoga here were the key benefits that I learned about savasana:

  • Parasympathetic reset pose
  • Brings awareness to how the practice makes the person feel
  • Can promote additional body awareness
  • Allows the body time to integrate the physical and emotional sides of the practice
  • Allows for some meditation time, without students necessarily realizing it

These are all real benefits that come from savasana. Many students report this to be the favourite part of a class. After all the hard work you get rewarded with this quiet stillness to relax and recover. Awesome right? Well, that’s not everyone’s experience, and I’m willing to bet there are a few folks reading this right now agreeing with me. And if you’re like me you might feel some confusion or even shame around not having the experience of your life with what should be the easiest pose in yoga…at least that’s what I thought back then.

Why these benefits don’t work for everyone.

So the point about savasana being a parasympathetic reset pose is going to be true for some and not the case for others. And what is resetting one day may not be so the next. Like me, the experience of savasana can have the opposite effect on the nervous system. Some might feel overactivated – heart racing, quicker breath, racing thoughts – this is indicative of activity in the sympathetic nervous system (which we’re trying to dampen) or that fight, flight or freeze response which is a survival response we share with our mammalian friends. 

Others might experience more of the shutdown or collapse survival response which might include reduced awareness of sensation that may lead to disconnection or even dissociation for some. While this is activation in the parasympathetic nervous system, this is no longer an optimal state for restoration, but rather a greater shift to that dorsal state of survival. The heart rate slows, as does the breath and the systems of the body slow down to such a level that a person may feel unable to move. This is a response we share with our reptilian friends who are cold-blooded and can easily survive lowering their metabolic rate as a means for playing dead. This is their survival strategy. This does not work so well for humans for a variety of reasons as you can imagine.

For some people bringing awareness to internal sensations can be like shining a spotlight on their deepest darkest scariest thing. I hate to admit this but the last thing I wanted to do, even after a hard efforting practice, was to bring awareness to how I felt inside. My internal landscape was an emotional landmine and it felt tortuous being in there. Physical and emotional pain are often the loudest things to speak up if we’re living with chronic or traumatic stress. This has the potential to have the opposite effect of relaxation in the body. In fact, this may add further stress to an already overactivated body.

Important to note – being on guard or numbing out are survival strategies that some people need to hold on to in order to get through their day. Asking people to let go of these things when they are not ready to, or they don’t have the proper resources in place, can be completely destabilizing and unravelling (and unless you are a trained professional likely out of your scope of practice). Our role as a teacher is really about creating spaces and experiences that allow people to experience what they experience in their own way as best they can. One of my top priorities as a teacher, even before movement, is normalizing these survival responses. I try to help my students understand that these responses are natural and happening on a subconscious level. And that pursuing whatever their body is asking for – stillness or movement – is always going to be the better strategy than any options I can offer them.

Ideas to transform your, and your students, experience with savasana

First off, if you refer to this pose as corpse I’d recommend losing this name, forever – think about anyone who has witnessed death. That’s potentially a very triggering word for them to hear, even in the context of a perceived safe situation.

Lie down and be still

So we go through this beautiful movement practice, the nervous system dynamically oscillating between activation and balance, and we come to this part of the class when the body is likely at its most sensitive and vulnerable. We then ask our students to quickly drop into this state of rest (ever noticed some students in the room still trying to catch their breath, well that would make sense if just a minute ago they were still pressing hard through a dynamic flow) which might initially feel okay even welcome. Overtime a sense or feeling of floating or being out of their body may arise. This may be perfectly fine for some people but for trauma survivors psychological dissociation may surface. As I mentioned, the state of freeze is a highly charged state of activation. The feedback messaging loop between the brain and body – “I can’t feel my body” – leads to more anxiety and the panic builds. Panic turns to fear and the nervous system shifts into the survival strategy of immobilization (dorsal vagal) and the system starts to slow down and even shut down as a means to protect itself. Yes for some people lying down and being still can bring on such a state of terror that parallels their traumatic experience.

Some nervous systems simply don’t feel safe unless they have two feet firmly planted on the ground ready to mobilize at a moments notice. There are many reasons for this and the physical response is totally subconscious. I experience the same sense of panic lying still in savasana as when I see the dentist or get a massage. I’ve avoided doing the float tank thing as the thought of being isolated, floating in water, in the dark, just me, my physical sensations and thoughts freaks me out. I had to get an MDR last year and oh boy you’d never believe that someone who is so attuned to her nervous system (and how to self regulate) was on the verge of a full blown panic attack. If you’ve never had one you need to be so still so the imagining can be accurate. I spent the better part of 10 minutes figuring out how I could escape the machine. Ultimately, I was able to make it through the procedure by visualizing a safe place, but it was excruciating.

The good news here is that the experience of savasana doesn’t have to be like that of an MRI procedure. If lying still is not comfortable for you, consider finding a shape or position where you feel the greatest sense of comfort and ease. You could invite your students to try being on their side, belly or even seated upright. I’ve often made a bit of a flow of this part of the class to allow students to spend time in different positions of rest and then return to the one that yielded the most comfort and ease for the remainder of the class. Often times we need to guide our students through the exploration or they may just go to what they usually do or what everyone else is doing without realizing there might be a better place for them to rest.

And it doesn’t need to stop there. At any point, if that position no longer feels easy or comfortable, change your position until you find another that does (and several times if necessary). Who’s to say that savasana has to be completely still? Sometimes a fidgeting body will appreciate ongoing gentle movements like moving the fingers and toes, swaying the knees or even side-lying arm windmills to name a few. 

I also like to leave students with this cue: “Organize your body in a way that feels easy to be in and allows you to experience the greatest sense of ease today.”

Releasing and letting go

Revisit any language you use inviting students to release or let go.

The most interesting thing about savasana is that it was by far the hardest part of my practice, even though in my mind it looked super easy. But lying in stillness and “letting go” of one’s mental and muscular grip can be really quite challenging for some. Again, after having activated the nervous system for a full class this is potentially the most vulnerable part of the practice and we often spend more time here than other parts of the class.

For survivors of trauma (and more broadly a chronically hypervigilant nervous system), there is a real fear of letting go. Maintaining our sense of control and awareness has kept us safe. Letting go could lead us towards a state of freeze or feeling like we have lost control over our body. We may not want to let our guard down. Savasana can mimic a state of freeze – highly charged state which we aren’t mobilizing. Some of us may feel really disembodied as our body drops into deep rest. Any of these experiences can induce fear and even panic. As mentioned, that panic may feel just like the trauma is happening all over again, and if you don’t identify with having trauma this can feel straight up confusing, and even shameful. Either way your nervous system is dysregulated and your physiology is acting from a state of survival.

I recently read that 1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. Most of these occurrences involve being bound or restrained in some way, i.e. held down in a position similar to the shape of savasana. When it comes to trauma, the body does remember. So imagine, that’s potentially 25% of your class that may be experiencing physiological and psychological overwhelm related to sexual violence (this might have you re-thinking other postures and positions of vulnerability too).

Eyes open or closed?

Offer students permission to keep their eyes open or soften the gaze (or not cue eyes at all). There really isn’t a right or better way to hold the eyes during this time. Again, you need to do what feels best and most comfortable for you in the moment, in the position that you are in. We use our eyes to orient with our surroundings to help our nervous system feel safe. Many survivors of trauma are in full on threat detection mode – continually scanning their environment for cues of danger or life threat (remember those roaming wild cats?). If they can’t see where they are in space (this includes full darkness situations) feelings of nervousness and anxiety may begin to escalate. This small thing can be a really big resource.

Side note. You will likely have students still leave before the final moments of rest. That’s fine and they get to do that (IMHO). Does that mean we need to remove savasana from our practice altogether? I don’t think so. It’s incredibly important that we allow our body time to return to homeostatic balance. That is a biological imperative for health and wellness. 

One of my favourite ways to close a class is with moving mountain pose. It can help the nervous system settle just enough to allow for a moment or two of stillness.

Stand tall and notice sensations in the soles of your feet. On your next inhalation, sweep your arms up over your head as you lift your heels up off the ground. As you exhale, slowly lower your heels to the ground and your hands to your sides. Repeat 4-6 times breathing slowly and naturally and through your nose if possible. On the last round, feel free to pause while balancing on the toes for 1-2 breaths. Then exhale as you lower your arms and your heels. Then pause in mountain pose, you might soften or close your eyes, and notice sensations or changes in your experience. 

Then we’ll repeat the same movement, but this time the right arm goes all the way up and the left arm just goes out to the side only to shoulder level. Exhale the right arm down to the level of the left arm, then they both float down together. Then switch – left arm goes all the way up but right only to shoulder level. Alternate and repeat 2 more times. 

To finish repeat two more, circling both arms up and down smoothly like you did in the first round. When you finish, pause and notice. Ditch the breath at any point if it starts to be a source of discomfort. You can still get the same benefits of self regulation from the arm coordinations combined with balance. Whole brain integration is happening here and if you are curious to know more check Dan Seigels Hand Model of the Brain.

Here are some other ideas you might explore before, or as an alternative to traditional savasana (click names to access videos):

  1. Moving hug and the Butterfly hug
  2. Rocking and rolling
  3. Rebounding, twisting mountain, sighing forward fold

I hope this has been a useful read for you. If you have any questions you can find me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear from you about your experiences and your own keys to transforming your savasana practice.

Reference: Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 372(1718), 20160206. doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0206).

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