Resilience, your ability to "bounce back" from stress, is not entirely something you are born with. Self-regulation, another term for resilience, is something you learn as you deal with frustrations of being in human body as a toddler who has never had to figure out this feet thing before - much less this feeling, sensing, emoting, talking thing.
While our first coping mechanisms are formed during the same time we are learning how to walk, talk and share, luckily, the story doesn't end there. But the story is so much more than words.
Our first coping mechanisms aren't formed through talking, telling stories and learning ideas; they're formed dynamically with our environment: how our caregivers respond to us, how we are encouraged to find words for feelings, connecting us to a larger world, soothing touch, teddy bears, objects that give us a sense of continuity, games that give us sensory input with relationship like patty cake, head, shoulders, knees and toes.
And these same routes to learning and deepening our ability to self-regulate are not only still open to us, but are also our most powerful tools in enhancing resilience. Being a few years on in the game, we no longer play patty cake or carry our baa-baa to work - at least most days. We have more sophisticated ways to connect to sensation, presence and soothing, to connect our subjective experience to a larger world meaning and relationship.
Yoga is a system of postures, breath techniques, mental and awareness techniques aimed at connecting us to this pre-linguistic landscape of sensation and meaning. A posture as simple as Warrior II - a side lunge with your arms out - contains teachings for a lifetime. Sensing whether your back foot is angled forward, straight or pointed back is an act of proprioceptioin. Sensing the degree of resistance a muscle is offering to extending a limb is an act of interoception. We often think of yoga postures as steps in a work out that can also be a "work in." Turns out, the work in is the most important part of how yoga works.
While you can do a lunge any old
way, if you're doing yoga specifically, you're coordinating movement with inhale and exhale, feeling into the back of your body where you cannot immediately see, the inside of the body where only you can see and listening (in a class) to cues from someone who may be asking you to do and sense things you previously didn't know you could do.
It turns out that these sensations - interoception and proprioception - are processed in very specific parts of the brain: the insula and cingulate, in particular and in concert with other systems. These same systems are also responsible for part of what is known as salience networks: monitoring for events and sensations that are important for you. In stress responses, these salience networks can become hyper focused or simply focused on a narrower set of things than is actually important at the time.
Since these structures are necessary to process interoceptive and proprioceptive information, a powerful way of interrupting a narrowed or overly focused mental state is to consciously pay attention to sensations. Simple, but powerful. By adding new sensory input to the mix, the scope and nature of current importance is shifted. This is why taking a deep breath can somewhat mitigate stress in the moment.
But imagine how much more powerful our awareness of sensation becomes when we practice regularly - for as little as 15 minutes a day - sensing our internal landscape. Or when we take our work-stressed selves to the mat at the studio or in our office or at home at a regular time each day. We bring the everyday stresses with us and interrupt the current mode of processing with pure sensation - or as close to pure as we are capable of that day. And that's important: It's not the success of sensation that necessarily does the trick, but rather directing our awareness over and over again to sensations in the moment. Practice enhances our ability to call on these resources in the moment, sets the system at a lower rate of reactivity to begin with and adjusts our salience network on the regular.
This is often referred to as present moment awareness or being present. Sensation, and particularly interoception and proprioception, break cycles of thoughts and reactivity - the fluctuations of the mind stuff, or citta vrtti. "Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consiocusness." Sutra I.2. Yoga asana, or poses, help us accomplish this because they are containers for breath, sensation and through them for present moment awareness. The old yogis may not have known brain anatomy, but they sure knew how to hack it.
So the next time your yoga teacher tells you to press the inside of your back pinkie toe into the ground in a standing pose, know you are developing skills of self regulation that will serve you the next time you are challenged off the mat. Here are some other questions you can use as meditation - try it for a minute or more each morning and see how your day develops.
- Have you experienced any of this in your yoga practice? Do you remember specific cues teachers have used that really stuck with you and help you align your body and mind and heart on and off the mat? I'd love to know what about this whole brain anatomy and sensation topic is meaningful to you and what cues you use and love in the comments below.