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Ever feel tense and are told to “just calm down,” only to feel even more agitated? Well, you’re not wrong. Remaining calm while the world seems to be on fire may not be possible—or even advisable. We become even more stressed when our natural desire to take action is immobilized, and when our bodies are experiencing too much tension for a length of time. We know that yoga asana can help, but if we get so wound up that we can’t come back down, we may need some extra support.
Emotional regulation through the vagus nerve
Even when we’re charged up, we have the ability to effectively manage our emotional responses. A good place to start? Neuroscientist Stephen Porges’s polyvagal theory, which highlights the role of the vagus nerve in emotional regulation. Through a traffic light metaphor, we can identify where we currently stand. Then, using some of the ideas in author and therapist Anodea Judith’s book, Charge and the Energy Body, we can put our knowledge into action.
Green Zone: We are genuinely calm
We feel safe and open, and the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (commonly referred to as rest and digest) is dominant. This is the state we all want to return to, but we can’t fake getting there by pretending to be chill when we’re not.
Yellow Zone: Our stress response is activated
At its most extreme, this is fight-or-flight mode. Highly charged, we are alert and ready to spring into action. Our feelings can range wildly from tense to edgy and from snappy to indignant. Of course, most of the time, running or fighting is not what we want to do, so instead we need to find other ways to safely discharge.
When we are in this zone, the sympathetic nervous system is dominant. We’re not meant to live in this state for long. When we’re constantly in the yellow zone, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline begin to break down our rest-and-digest functions, harming our metabolism, as well as our reproductive and immune systems. It also makes it harder to get into much-needed restorative practices, like meditating or practicing calming breath work. We first need to “spend” some of the charge that has built up, and come down from the heightened state of arousal in the nervous system by doing some of the discharging practices outlined below.
Red Zone: Total collapse
Due to an overabundance of stress hormones and responses, we shut down, or freeze like a trapped animal. While on the outside we may appear calm and our heart rate may be low, this zone is where we hold on to the buzz of the charged state we built up in the yellow zone. Here, we might be experiencing “outrage fatigue”: feeling overwhelmed, demoralized, resigned, or numb through feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.
Discharging tension: Getting back to the green zone
According to the field of bioenergetics, as explained by author Anodea Judith, there are a few main pathways for discharge in the body. They are related to how we would normally defend ourselves throughout the evolution of the human animal.
One way of defending ourselves was by using our hands and arms to push away or punch; another is through the legs, by running away or kicking. We also could scare away predators or attackers by using our voices to loudly shout or yell.
In modern circumstances, it’s usually better not to do most of these things! But our bodies will continue to carry the tension until we find a way to discharge. Here are a few safe ways to do just that:
Discharging the arms
- Wall press: Try Downward Dog at the wall with your body in an L-shaped pose.
- Kundalini punches: Sitting or standing wide-legged with your knees bent, forcefully exhale as you alternate punching each fist from shoulder height outward.
Discharging the legs
- Kick or flick your legs.
- Stomp your feet into the ground, floor, or earth.
Discharging via mouth
- Chant loudly.
- Verbalize a long “HAH” noise.
- Standing wide-legged with your knees bent, say a sharp “ha” with a wood-chopping action from overhead down.
Once you’ve done this, start pulling the tension out of the major hotspots in your body through asana, so that you can settle back into rest.
Poses to dissolve tension
Here are a few stretches selected from the simple sleep sequence that I have used with thousands of people who are seeking better sleep. We’ll work with stretching the quads, the most powerful activating muscle group in the body, as well as releasing the protective hunched position created by tight psoas and forward-positioned shoulders.
The Quad Stretch
When we are mobilized through fight or flight, the quad muscles are given an extra boost. Doing a deep quad stretch like Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog Pose) or Eka Pada Supta Virasana (One-Legged Reclined Hero Pose) takes tension out of the thickest and densest muscle group in the body, and also releases the line up through the hip flexor and into the abdominals, clearing the lower back and lengthening the front of the torso for more space and better breath.
Lying on your back, gather your right knee into your chest. Run your left leg long on your mat, with your heel pressing down into the mat and your left toes pointing straight up. Now lift your left arm overhead, with the back of your left hand resting back onto the floor above you. Keep hugging your right knee in while lengthening your left heel down and away, and lengthening your left hand and arm upwards toward and past your head. This releases the hunched forward tight psoas position, and also releases the intercostals and abdominals, deactivating the protective forward-hunched position, related to the stress responses.
Jathari Parivartansanana (Supine Spinal Twist)
This is a multi-purpose pose that opens up the solar plexus area where many of us carry anxiety and tension, the famed third chakra fire center in the body. When we are tense and overactive our breathing goes up into the upper chest and our shoulders tighten and round to prepare us to defend or protect ourselves. Lying down completely on your right side, keeping your pelvis level while stacking your knees in line with your hip points and your ankles right under your knees at right angles, keeps the lower body steady. Then walk your right shoulder to the right, and slowly lower your left arm back behind you, elbow first, to broaden through your upper back, right between the shoulder blades. Then finally turn your head to the left, away from your legs. Breathe into the middle ribcage, freeing the intercostal muscles, and deactivating the hunched forward protective stance that arises with the fight-or-flight response.
Want more discussion and practices to recharge your rest and feel more energized? Register for the Restore Your Sleep yoga summit and access sessions from each of the five teachers on demand. Join now!
About our expert
Lisa Sanfilippo is a recovered insomniac, sociologist, and researcher who found yoga in her bleakest, most sleepless hours: she has researched tirelessly to find methods that you can use at any time, place and stage in your life to systematically flush out exhaustion and insomnia. She is a fully qualified transpersonal psychotherapist as well as running a yoga therapy practice. She trains yoga teachers for Triyoga UK and yoga therapists with Yogacampus UK, and served as a presenter at the most recent IAYT conference in the US.
Lisa has taught hundreds of people each week in the UK and Europe’s longest-established yoga studios for nearly two decades as a resident teacher. Before publishing and teaching internationally, she tested and refined her methods with extensive action research as a yoga therapist and psychotherapist over the past 10 years, serving people in all situations: from pregnant women and new parents, from puberty to menopause. She works with globally-acclaimed actors and musicians, students, activists, medics, and creatives, helping them all to recover their ability to find their unique keys to sleeping better, and feeling better all day.
Lisa’s book, Sleep Recovery, is easily available internationally in all bookshops, and outlines the process using simple clear language, accessible even to those who have never considered doing yoga before.
Her work has been featured in UK Broadsheets: The Telegraph, The Observer, The Times, Stylist Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Psychologies, Marie Claire online, Balance Magazine, and more.