Fitness Magazine

Re-Patterning Your Nervous System: Practice for the Real World

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina  

Re-Patterning Your Nervous System: Practice for the Real World

Katja Huiras, Age 50

“I think Korb misses a key issue—asana practice induces a stress response in a controlled setting that we can use to retrain our brains. The real world is where we exercise our newly retrained brain, but it is very hard to actually do the retraining there. So for me the 'practice' aspect to yoga is very profound—I use yoga to practice how to respond to stress or unpleasant realities. Without the freedom to experiment and play with my capacity, it is not really possible to develop any degree of 'mastery' over my stress response. So for me, asana practice literally walks me through and teaches me how to cope with stress and unpleasant realities. Then I can use and build on those tools off the mat. I think Korb misses the need for practice and play.” — Comment left on our post Changing the Brain's Stressful Habits
Wow, I was so pleased and grateful when I read that comment back when I wrote my post Changing the Brain's Stressful Habits because our reader not only said added exactly what was missing from my post but they expressed themselves so clearly. And rereading the comment again, I was happy all over again because this is very topic I want to address in today’s post. That’s because while Baxter discussed how we can use yoga to change our habits in general his post Changing Your Habits with Yoga, I feel one of the most beneficial habits we change with yoga is the way we habitually react to stressors in our lives. 

This is because training ourselves not to react so strongly to stressors gives us the ability to choose a different way of reacting to them. Just recently I learned from Dan Libby, who teaches yoga to veterans (see, that in stress mode our thoughts narrow and become limited to fight or flight strategies, while when we are calmer, our thoughts are more expansive, and therefore include a much wider range of possibilities. (I wish I had the illustration he used in his talk at the SYTAR conference that showed the limited number of thoughts you might have in stress mode vs. the much larger number you might have in the same situation if you’re not reacting so violently to the stressor.) In his case, he was talking about veterans with PTSD, but even someone like me can relate because, for example, back in the day, I had a bad habit of overreacting to work deadlines my boss gave me by going into a full-fledged panic, something that was not particularly helpful as you might imagine. 
In Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits in Psychology Today, neurobiologist, Alex Korb wrote: 
“Your brain tends to react to discomfort and disorientation in an automatic way, by triggering the physiological stress response and activating anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system. The stress response itself increases the likelihood of anxious thoughts, like "Oh god, I'm going to pull something," or "I can't hold this pushup any longer". And in fact, your anxious thoughts themselves further exacerbate the stress response.”
“Discomfort and disorientation” is another way of describing a “stressor,” which is anything that has the potential to stress us out. And we do have habitual or “automatic” ways of reacting to our stressors. But in that same article, Korb discussed how by using our breath and mindfulness to stay relaxed as we encounter “stressful” yoga poses, we are unconsciously retraining our nervous systems to stop reacting in our habitual way to stress. And that this retraining can help us handle stress more effectively in our everyday lives.
“Even actions as simple as changing your posture, relaxing the muscles on your face, or slowing your breathing rate, can affect the activity in your brain (beyond, of course, the required activity to make the action). These changes are often transient, but can be long-lasting, particularly if they entail changing a habit.” 
This is exactly what I mean by “re-patterning your nervous system.” According to Korb, this process is happening unconsciously when you take a yoga class and your teacher asks you to do a pose that scares you, that challenges you physically, or that makes you uncomfortable for some reason. So I guess we’re all doing a bit of this already (and maybe that’s one reason practicing yoga makes us feel better both in the classroom and in the “real world”). 
But if you have some habitual patterns of reacting to stressors that you’d like to change (we used to call them “buttons that get pushed” as I remember), you can work with this technique consciously in your home practice. Start by adding poses to your practice that tend stress you out in any way and find ways to approach them gradually and in a relaxed fashion. And after noticing your habitual thought patterns as you practice those poses, take a nice, deep breath as you face down “the enemy.” For example, in my early days of practicing, I worked toward kicking up into Handstand at the wall—which terrified me—by doing Handstand in a doorway to get me used to the feeling of being upside down on my hands. Eventually I gained the confidence to do the full pose without the negative, self defeating thoughts that were preventing me from getting up. I also worked on Urdva Dhanurasana, which was so unpleasant for me, both by doing more passive backbends and just plain old befriending the pose by doing it frequently. But those are just examples; each of us different and you’ll have to figure the right poses or practices that will work for you. 
And although both Korb and our commenter both only addressed using the asana practice to re-pattern your nervous system, I’m sure you can use the meditation practice to the same way. For although meditating will eventually trigger the relaxation response, sometimes sitting down to meditation can be initially stressful, especially if you’re new to it, if you know you’re going to be sitting with difficult thoughts and emotion, or if you will be sitting for a particularly long period of time. And perhaps for some of us practicing pranayama, which entails sitting or lying still for extended periods of time, or even practicing restorative yoga, which likewise means being still and quiet, could serve the same purpose. Once I did an hour-long Savasana with a teacher, and although I caught myself thinking, I’ll never be able to survive this (I tend to get hyper), I made it through with no problem!
How about you? Are any of you working on facing difficulty in your yoga practice?
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