An agitated nervous system fails to receive the Spirit’s guidance, just as a warped antenna cannot receive television signals properly. The nervous system feels joy and sorrow, initiates laughter and tears. However, when under stress, it fumbles through its job, and so do we. In our yoga practice and in life, we must protect our nervous system and ensure that it lives in a state of equanimity.
During your yoga practice, regularly pause and feel what you are doing, both while you are practicing the pose and after your body creates a mind-body connection, calming your nervous system and fostering peace. Doing is the state of moving toward the future. Feeling is the state of being in the moment. Peace reveals itself only when we are completely present, feeling what is happening in the Now.
In our society, we are always being hurried along, running from one task to another like frustrated rats on an eternal treadmill. Our poor nerves rarely get a chance to rest, to breathe. When I first taught in America, in 1980, I was astonished to see that many students would shut their eyes while doing asana in an effort to relax, yet when they would lie down in Shavasana, their eyes would pop wide open! When it was actually time to tune in to the trauma and tension in their nervous systems, they were afraid to face the demons within, and peace was denied them.
Slow, deep breathing is the nervous system’s best friend. Rapid breathing increases the heartbeat and stimulates the nervous system, thrusting it into the sympathetic mode, the fear response of “fight or flight.” Holding the breath creates even more nervous tension and can increase blood pressure dramatically, thwarting any prospect of peace. On the other hand, lengthening and deepening each breath slows down the heartbeat and calms the nerves, inviting peace. Therefore, always be consious of your breath while practicing, and put to use the blessed power of slow, deep breathing, especially when working at your edge.
The nervous system is agitated by jerky movements and by the trembling caused by working too hard or too long in a pose. There is no virtue in holding poses to the point of strain, for the benefits of holding quickly fade and even turn into detriments. Also, after intense poses, some yoga teachers encourage their students to “shake it out” in order to release tension. Shaking agitates the nerves. Isn’t it far better to be still and, with a focused, peaceful mind, melt the tension with deep breathing and awareness?