As the tumult of the Covid experience begins to resolve, many of us find ourselves in the process of taking a couple of deep sighs, looking forward to rediscovering what’s “normal,” and possibly feeling a bit tenuous about where we’ve been.
In this free download interview, yoga therapist Dr. Shailla Vaidya, a Harvard-educated Physician who practices Mind-Body Medicine for Stress Resilience in Toronto, explains how recovering from any stress, including a collective stressor like this one, is a matter of learning how to live in a dynamic, homeo-dynamic state in which we understand that to achieve inner balance is to come to an understanding of the alternating between states between challenge, response, and release.
Shailla spent a good deal of her medical practice working within indigenous communities in Northern Canada, where the loss of cultural rituals and communities had taken a toll on her patients’ health. This helped her to understand how both stress and early childhood trauma can play out on the body and the importance to developing a healthy response to both.
Shailla paints a clear and cogent picture of how the stress process plays out in our bodies, causing a wide range of detrimental effects: A subconscious impulse or trigger cause a stress response that originates from the limbic system, moves down into the body via the nervous system, comes back up and creates muscle tightness, anxiety, a change to the blood pressure, an emotional response and on it goes.
Drawing on the polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges, Shailla points to a powerful resource we can draw on to restore homeostasis and create healthy response patterns to both short- and long-term stressors, the vagus nerve.
“Our vagus nerve is our vagabond, our wanderer,” she states. “It starts in the brain stem, wanders down through the body, sending branches through virtually every vital system in the body. It also carries the fibers of both the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic nervous system and the “shutdown response” nerves.”
“If you look at its path it’s like a superhighway that goes through the country of our body, with off-ramps of other nerves and plexuses around the organs from which other nerves shoot out. So, in other words, a really big network!” she explains.
Cultivating a healthy and resilient vagal tone empowers us to better withstand daily stressors, recover from traumatic events, and restore our sense of wellbeing after traumas big and small. And yoga provides great weapons in that arsenal.
“Eighty to eighty-five percent of vagal nerve fibers are afferent, meaning they send messages up to the brain,” states Shailla. “When we start to work with different yogic techniques we can actually start to release stress and the signal will move up to the brain via the vagus nerve, letting it know we’re either okay or that we’re shut down. It’s an incredibly important nerve.”
“Yoga is really Eastern psychology,” she explains. “But it’s not just the psyche. The yogis understood that in order to calm the mind, you really have to work with the body. They had all kinds of techniques to help come to that state of stillness where the mind is clear and you are one with everything.”
At the end, Shailla offers a refreshing de-stressing exercise as an example of how to work with the vagus nerve. This is one you won’t want to miss! (It works, even when you don’t realize you are carrying stress in your body!)
You may also be interested in Shailla’s course, The Yoga of Calm: Engaging the Vagus Nerve for Greater Stress Resilience.