Earlier this month I introduced forward folds by saying that they support healing because they can bring our nervous system into the parasympathetic state of rest and digest, or as I recently saw it termed, repair and growth.
The truth is any yoga pose can be a yoga pose that supports healing if practiced mindfully. Backbends can help us move through grief and challenging emotions. Twists can support healthy spinal movement and improve digestion. All these poses can also exacerbate pain, overstimulate us or drag us down.
It’s all about how we practice. Can we begin by meeting ourselves as we are this very moment. From this awareness we can make choices for how to move in our practice so we feel more balanced. Balanced is not a state of getting it all done, which I think we’ve come to think of it in this day and age. From a yoga perspective, balance is a state that holds opposites: alert and relaxed is what we can seek from our asana practice.
To use our practice to support our body and mind is what makes yoga a healing practice.
Forward folds can calm the mind and stretch the entire back body from the soles of the feet up the backs of the legs, up the back of the torso, back of the head, all the way to the brow line. This group of tissue and muscles is known as the superficial back line. Forward folds can both strengthen and stretch the lower back as well as the upper back and backs of the legs. If we force it and go simply for the look of the posture, we can strain ourselves rather than get the benefit of the pose.
The work in forward folds is to soften deeper into the shape rather than to force. The mind has to surrender to the body’s ability right now. The head literally bows forward, which has a quieting effect on the mind. Give it a try right now and see what happens.
When you’re not busy thinking ahead or looking back or imagining where you should be, what happens?
As we practice forward folds, our body drops into the parasympathetic state. Our blood moves from the outer reaches of our body back into our organs to nourish. Blood pressure lowers. Our body shifts from releasing adrenaline to keep us going and releases serotonin, that feel good hormone that signals we’re safe. Our breath becomes shallow because we can use oxygen more efficiently. Our body can regenerate and heal. It’s not a doing state, but a state of being, of non-doing.
The opposite is the sympathetic state, which we’ve all been living to a great extent this past year. In this stimulated state, our adrenaline kicks in, blood starts pumping out to our limbs and we are able to get moving. Our senses heighten and we can take quick action. Our body also prioritizes action over non-emergency functions like digestion, reproduction and maintaining immunity. When this goes on too long we can get caught in a fight, flight or freeze response. To stay in this heightened state of alert, our body begins releasing cortisol. Over time, it leads to chronic stress, high blood pressure, even an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
We need to be able to move into the sympathetic state during our day and we need to be able to drop back into the parasympathetic state. Another way we can think of balance is as being able to move between these states during our day.
As we continue to explore forward folds this week, can you notice when your body and mind shift into that parasympathetic state of being? Is this state unfamiliar? What other times during your day do you find yourself in this relaxed state of being? What keeps you from this state?