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Join Joanne Spence as she explores the nervous system and offers a 7 minute “Square Breath” practice, available for download at the end of this post.

From our friends at Christians Practicing Yoga

When someone (anyone) asks me how I am doing these days, I pause; there is a lot going on beneath the surface of my calm exterior and everything-is-going-to be-alright look. I could say, “I’m fine”, because on so many levels I am. Yet, I also am grieving, sad, angry, confused, happy, and even joyful, sometimes all in the span of a few hours. So what does my nervous system look like as a result of all these big emotions?

To be fair, it doesn’t take a global pandemic or nationwide expressions of

racial tension to feel all these things. But my emotions are heightened. Or some would say, revealing. What do we do with such emotions/tension? As I pay attention to my breath, I notice the patterns of holding, the sighing, and the flow. Are there parts of my body I need to move more? Are there parts I need to move less? Is there a need to pause? The noticing can provide information or even a key to what is happening on the inside – this is particularly helpful when an emotion is hard to identify or name. Naming and identifying emotion is one of the many reasons that I practice yoga daily. Moving my body helps me to connect to feelings. To be emotionally literate, explains Brene Brown, a researcher  we need to be able to identify up to forty different emotions in ourselves and in others. This learned skill of identifying, and then actually feeling, our emotions (in tolerable amounts) is part of the full range of our human experience.  Moreover, this skill allows us to regulate our emotions and be aware of their impact. Numbing and not feeling our emotions often leads to mental and physical health challenges and dysregulation of our nervous system.

Recently, I have been doing some research for a book I am writing on very basic body and breathing practices for therapists to use in counseling sessions. I also wanted to highlight the “connecting to feelings” part that I have experienced as something that I believe would help “talk” therapy move forward.  As a result, I had the opportunity to dive into Polyvagal Theory as a way to understand the nervous system. I’d like to share a few tiny nuggets with you so that you may better understand what is happening in your own nervous system.

Autonomic Nervous System


Even if you are new to yoga or yoga teaching, you probably have heard the autonomic nervous system referred to by its two branches, the sympathetic (fight, flight, and freeze) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). What is less commonly known is that the parasympathetic nervous system has two different circuits: one is called the ventral vagal circuit, and the other is the dorsal vagal circuit. The ventral vagal circuit is the rest and digest one that most of us have heard about. Here we are calm, focused, relaxed. The other circuit, the dorsal vagal, is entirely different. The dorsal vagal circuit takes over when we are in fear of our lives, terrorized, or believe we might die. When we experience this terror, real or perceived, our nervous system may collapse or dissociate without warning. In some mammals, this behavior is called death feigning, and it is an ancient adaptive survival mechanism.

 Polyvagal Theory

One of the most interesting pieces of information I came across was that this superhighway is bi-directional; 80% of information travels from the body to the brain, and 20% of information travels from the brain to the body.

This is where Polyvagal Theory comes in. The theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges in 1994. The theory refers to the vagus nerve, which is the tenth cranial nerve and often called the “wanderer” because it begins at the brain (the medulla) and “wanders” through the body and most of the organs acting like a super highway of sorts. One of the most interesting pieces of information I came across was that this superhighway is bi-directional; 80% of information travels from the body to the brain, and 20% of information travels from the brain to the body. This is a very significant point for those of us practicing and teaching yoga to understand. This 80/20 bi-directional travel suggests that, indeed, the body can and does change the mind. We can intentionally change our bodies (through movement) when we notice some of the big emotions that are passing through us.

Where do I feel sadness in my body? Where does it go? Does it change? 

Most likely, the answer is different for each of us. I usually feel sadness in the form of a tightness in my chest. Sometimes it moves to my belly or, more specifically, my gut. Other times, I feel a heaviness in my shoulders. My yoga practice (which includes my mediation practice) has allowed me to sit with the discomfort of these emotions as they ebb and flow in my body. 

None of this is news if you have practiced yoga for a while. However, by using the lens of Polyvagal Theory, I now understand a little more of what is going on (in my body), and I have been able to translate that to others in my teaching. Such learning nearly always begins with my own experience. My sadness can sometimes lead me to dorsal vagal, and I will find myself collapsing.  Have you noticed where your sadness takes you?  Now, with years of practice under my belt, I see the collapse coming. But wait, I just said it was a part of the autonomic nervous system – meaning the collapse happens without my conscious input. This is true. Paradoxically, it is also true that, over time, and with practice, I can access the autonomic system and create a subtle, yet significant change in my state. 

This change of state can happen through the breath.

We already know of, or have experienced, the breath as  quick and shallow when we feel scared or panicked.  And the opposite happens in dorsal vagal – we are barely breathing at all.

God, our Creator, breathed ruach, or life, into us at the beginning of creation. Our breath is life until we don’t have it anymore. So, it doesn’t surprise me to learn from eminent scientists that the breath is the quickest way to access the nervous system. Yoga is the way I practice accessing my breath in order to impact my nervous system. What I mean by accessing my breath is noticing how I am breathing and sometimes manipulating and changing how I am breathing for a particular effect. There are other ways to access the breath, but the study and practice of yoga is the one I have marinated in for twenty years. The breath is always present in each moment – as is the body. It is only the mind that is the great time traveler between past, present, and future.

Square Breathing – a Seven Minute Practice

You probably have used your breath to anchor you in the present. If you want to, please join me for a seven minute breathing practice by clicking on the audio link below. As renowned author, educator, and spiritual director, Joseph Tetlow, a Jesuit, says (and I am paraphrasing), we need only be present to ourselves to be present with Christ who dwells within us.

All bodies are welcome. Square BreathingJoanne Spence Download

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