Hello Dear One!
You might have had the experience of Shavasana in a yoga class. What was your experience like? Did you immediately fall asleep? That happened to me all the time. And my teachers would affirm that sleep, saying that if you fell asleep, sleep was what you needed. Or, did you attempt to rest on your mat, but in reality, listened to the clock ticking or the cars zooming past the studio or the people assembling outside for the next class? I’ve done that, too. Or, perhaps you shuffled your body around, attempting to get comfortable, but never quite getting there. In fact, the yogi’s knew that deep relaxation was crucial to vibrant health and shavasna was their answer. But, as I was about to learn, there is much more to deep relaxation than shavasana for us strung-out western types!
The Road to Deep Relaxation
My intuition told me that Jill Miller’s Breath and Bliss workshop was where I needed to be to learn how we can sink into profound relaxation. And so, I flew to Los Angeles and used the innovative, person-to-person car rental system that my son had recommended to rent an adorable, tiny Fiat to accompany me to the immersion. Little did I know what I would feel like in a “tiny car” navigating the expressways from LAX to Tarzana. If I didn’t have enough residual stress in my muscles and fascia to bring to Breath and Bliss, my two-hour expressway adventure was like the icing on the cake.
But then, finally, I arrived. Thank goodness! After an introductory orientation, Jill Miller explained that these sessions would be like extended Shavasanas, one after another. While this should have sounded delicious, my habitually hiked up way of walking through the world was worried. Could I do this? Could I actually relax for extended periods of time? And that, indeed, was the lesson.
To my surprise, I did relax and more important, I learned to relax. The community of students who each brought their own canister of trauma gave themselves over to the innovative exploration of somatic “trickery.” We all had done shavasana in yoga classes, but now we learned principals and techniques – ways to dive deeper into the comfort of “rest and digest” when we consciously did not believe that it was possible.
How to Sedate Yourself
Jill Miller offers 5 key ways to turn off your stress switch and find your relaxation response. (From The Roll Model, Victory Belt Publishing, 2014 pages 365-371). Much of her support for relaxation comes from the self-massage allowed by her Roll Model Therapy Balls, but not all.
What Happens In Vagus
The cornerstone of learning about how to enter into deep relaxation was meeting an extraordinary nerve – the vagus nerve – that was completely new to me. We learned about Polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges, a behavioral neuroscientist. The vagus nerve, the 10thcranial nerve, is the longest parasympathetic nerve in the body traveling from the brain stem to the gut – something like a transatlantic cable in our body. Drawings of this nerve illustrate its complexity and help us to understand why the name, vagus, means wanderer.
During the workshop, I experienced increasingly deep levels of relaxation, more than I had ever thought possible: far beyond my usual 10 minute yoga class shavasana. I read the manual and listened carefully, but mostly I simply gave myself over to the experience, which was extraordinary.
When I got home and read the manual, two and three times over to make sense of my experience, things began to click. A well-functioning vagus nerve maintains our heart rate and respiration (breath) at levels appropriate to our situation, stress, and internal needs. Also, it plays a major role in decreasing inflammation and communicating the status of our gut’s microbiome.
Am I Stuck in Stress?
Porges introduced the term “neuroception,” which is different than perception or proprioception. Neuroception helps us evaluate situations as safe, dangerous, or life-threatening. But, sometimes there can be a mismatch, in which our vagus nerve initiates or keeps us in “fight or flight,” even when there is no danger present.
I wondered if that was my situation. I was beginning to read stories of trauma, and more specifically post-traumatic stress, in which the vagus nerve is stuck in stress. Could I improve my vagal tone?
A beneficial vagal tone is one in which a person can slow down the heart rate by slowing down the breath. While I massaged my face with the balls, I was slowing my breath. Since learning about this notion of vagal tone, I have begun using a technique I learned long ago in some of my first yoga classes – slowing my breath to 5-6 breaths per minute. Sometimes I begin class, by asking my students to check their breath. Many start out at about 8-15 breaths per minute, but with focus and concentration, they can achieve a much slower rate. And, they tell me, they can feel the difference even within a 5-minute period.
I was curious about the relationship between the tri-geminal nerve and the vagus nerve and even as a novice, I found some fascinating connections. All of this is based on my admittedly preliminary research, but it gives me hope and confidence that I can do so much more to manage my tri-geminal neuralgia than I ever thought possible. First, these nerves live in the same neighborhood near the brain stem. Could it be that they talk to each other?
Second, I know that I, like so many of us, habitually bend our heads forward as we look down at our phones. Could this forward head position cause an impingement in my neck that presses on the tri-geminal nerve? For years, I suffered from chronic bronchitis and tension headaches, all which could have been ameliorated by attention to my breath and my emotional tone.
My Go-To Therapies
Now, when I feel an electric shock in my face, I have many tools to rely on. I check my diet – too many inflammatory treats? I check my stress level – have I launched into a “do or die,” task-oriented pattern again? Hemp Oil? I up my dose a bit. This amazing supplement helps me to relax and lessens my anxiety and supports me as I use all of my other skills to enter into a state of sedation or deep relaxation.
This state of sedation, supported by my breath, by my perspective, by my place and situation, by hemp oil, and by Roll Model Therapy balls all comes together to provide a deeper zone of relaxation than I had experienced before. As I look ahead, I realize that I need to create a code of self-care in which I promise myself that I will continually make use of the tools that I have gathered on this journey as I learned how to heal and take care of myself even in the face of a chronic condition.
In my next blog, I hope to share my Tool Kit for Self-Care . I also hope that this resource will be helpful to you and that we can continue this important conversation together. Thank you for your company and insights on this journey. I’m very grateful to each and every one of you.
Until next time. . . .
With Love and Gratitude,
P.S. Please comment below and share my work with people you think would appreciate it! Thank you.
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