Tools for Trauma-Informed Yoga: A Review of Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga by Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga

In today’s world, everyone who shows up to the yoga mat has their own lived experience of trauma, underscoring the urgent need for healing practices. Dr. Arielle Schwartz’s new book, Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga: Therapeutic Practices for Emotional Health, offers a comprehensive roadmap for yoga teachers and therapists to understand and apply principles of trauma-informed yoga to their day-to-day work. Drawing on ancient yogic philosophy and the modern science of Polyvagal Theory, this book provides an approachable path toward physical and emotional healing.

What is Polyvagal Theory, and Why Does it Matter?

Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labeled anatomical structure scheme and location diagram of human body longest nerve. Infographic with isolated ganglion, branches and plexus. Inner biological ANS.As a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, and yoga instructor, much of Dr. Schwartz’s work had focused on Polyvagal Theory. But what exactly is this theory, and why is it so important for yoga teachers to understand? Polyvagal Theory is a way of viewing the connections between our nervous system and emotional well-being. At its core, Polyvagal Theory posits the vagus nerve serves as a conduit of connections between various bodily systems, including the brainstem, heart, and gut. 

In moments of safety, the vagus nerve works alongside the parasympathetic nervous system to initiate a relaxation response, fostering a state of calm, evident through reduced cortisol levels, slowed heart rate, and enhanced digestion. This state, characterized by activation of the ventral (top) vagus circuit, is known as the “social engagement system” because it allows us to engage and connect with others, which is crucial to our survival and well-being.

When we are faced with a threat, the sympathetic nervous system is typically activated, which we may recognize by increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and cortisol levels. However, when we perceive extreme danger, the dorsal (bottom) portion of the vagus nerve, along with the parasympathetic nervous system, can initiate a rapid reduction in heart rate and a collapse or faint response. Dr. Schwartz’s Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga aims to demystify these physiological processes, offering simple yogic methods for self-awareness.

The Connection Between the Gunas and Poloyvagal Theory in Yoga

The three gunas - state of mind in yoga and ayurveda. Colorful chart with names. Vector illustration and concept of Three Gunas and Polyvagal Theory.

Leaning on ancient yogic wisdom, Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga draws parallels between our modern understanding of the nervous system and the ancient yogic view of energy. In yogic philosophy, nature is believed to consist of three qualities known as gunas. The first guna, sattva, embodies peace and contentment. In contrast, the second quality, rajas, is dynamic and mobilizing. When imbalanced, rajas can lead to feelings of irritability or anxiety. Finally, the third quality, tamas, is characterized by stillness and stability. Excessive tamas can result in feelings of heaviness or depression

As Dr. Schwartz explains, Polyvagal Theory offers a modern perspective on these ancient descriptions, with sattva resembling the ventral vagal circuit, which allows us to socialize and connect. Rajas is akin to the sympathetic nervous system, and tamas mirrors the dorsal vagal complex or the freeze response. Both polyvagal theory and yogic philosophy acknowledge that these states of being are fluid and can blend into hybrid states. It’s the harmonious expression of sattva within rajas that fosters creativity, motivation, and inspiration. In contrast, the balanced expression of sattva within tamas facilitates relaxation, ease, and spiritual states like meditation.

Practical Applications of Polyvagal Theory: Yoga as a Tool for Nervous System Flexibility

Breath work in yoga and the importance of breath work to the Polyvagal Theory.

At its core, the Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga: Therapeutic Practices for Emotional Health aims to guide yoga teachers and therapists in cultivating sattvic states that allow for healthy nervous system flexibility, enabling appropriate responses to threats and moments of rest. One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in its practical applications of Polyvagal Theory in yoga and psychotherapy. 

Dr. Schwartz expertly instructs us to guide students or clients through various practices, such as pranayama (breathwork) techniques, including conscious breathing and alternate nostril breathing. The book also guides us through movement techniques like balancing postures and pandiculation. Finally, readers learn calming practices like yoga nidra and lovingkindness meditation to invite the body and mind to soften and relax. 

Together, these various methods provide a robust toolkit from which yoga teachers and therapists can draw, depending on what their students or clients need at any given moment. For example, a breathwork practice focused on extended exhalations may help soothe the nervous system if students feel activated. On the other hand, if a student is feeling down, standing postures with their arms lifted overhead may be what they need to cultivate a feeling of inner strength.  

The Healing Power of Community and Connection

Fitness, people, and healthy lifestyle concept - a group of women meditating in Lotus Pose and how this promotes the Polyvagal Theory of yoga practice and improved health.

In times of collective trauma, community and connection are paramount. Dr. Schwartz’s reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic and global crises underscore the importance of solidarity and empathy in the healing process. Through trauma-informed yoga, she invites us to bear witness to the suffering of others with compassion, recognizing our shared humanity in the face of adversity. By fostering a sense of belonging and safety, yoga becomes a tool for collective healing, bridging the gap between individuals and communities in search of strategies for resilience. 

Applied Polyvagal Theory in Yoga: Therapeutic Practices for Emotional Health is a must-read for anyone interested in trauma-informed yoga. Through practical exercises, clear explanations, and heartfelt reflections, Dr. Schwartz guides readers toward a deeper understanding of themselves and their capacity for healing. In a world fraught with challenges, this book serves as a beacon of hope, illuminating a path toward wholeness and well-being for individuals and communities alike.

Lacey Ramirez

Lacey Ramirez writes for YogaUOnline and is an RYT-500 & ERYT-200 yoga teacher, global health researcher, and writer based in St. Louis. Through her work, she seeks to make yoga accessible, inclusive, and equitable.

Lacey discovered yoga as a tool for centering during her years as a competitive runner. Since then, yoga has served as a way to connect with her body throughout her experience of pregnancy and parenthood. She teaches because she hopes others can use this sacred practice for calming, healing, and transformation.

As a yoga teacher, Lacey specializes in teaching restorative, Yin, prenatal, and trauma-informed Vinyasa yoga. She has also completed birth doula and prenatal/postnatal barre certifications and trainings. Additionally, she holds a Masters of Science in Global Health and Population from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To learn more and connect, visit her website 

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