Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
The nervous system is our communicator with spirit, our connection with the inner world, and a gateway between the physical and spiritual. An agitated nervous system fails to receive the spirit’s guidance, just as a warped antenna cannot receive television signals properly. That is why, in yoga and in life, we must protect the nervous system and ensure that it lives in a state of equanimity. Similarly, we must create an experience for our students that sooths, rather than irritates, their nerves.
The nervous system is a transmitter as well as receiver. It is an electrical system emitting powerful electro-magnetic waves and transmitting impulses that connect and harmonize all aspects of our being. The nervous system feels joy and sorrow and initiates laughter and tears. However, when agitated, it fumbles through its job, and so do we.
In our society, we are always being hurried along, running from one task to another like frustrated rats on an eternal treadmill. Our poor nerves rarely get a chance to rest or breathe. Yoga classes should be an antidote to this feverish fervor. They should give our students time to pause, feel, and tune in. Let us not reduce our classes to one more hectic episode in a student’s day or one more unrelenting blur of intense activity.
When I first taught in America in 1980, I was astonished to see that many students would shut their eyes while doing asanas in an effort to relax. Yet, they would lie down in Savasana with their eyes wide open. When it was actually time to tune in to the trauma and tension in their nervous systems, they were afraid to face the demons within and could not let go. This highlights the challenge facing us as yoga teachers.
Doing is the state of moving toward something, of looking into the future. In contrast, feeling is the state of being in the moment. Peace comes from being completely present and feeling what is going in the now. But how do you create peace as a teacher?
During class, frequently remind your students to pause and feel what they are doing, and then use their breath to initiate their next move. When I get lost in a city and pull out a map, I first need to know where I am on that map to know how to proceed. In the same way, the student, to feel at peace in a pose, first needs to know where they are in their body. Ask your students to feel the weight in their heels or the pressure on their fingertips, and automatically their mind will go into a reflective state to observe what is going on inside. And any attempt to feel what is going on inside the body creates a mind-body connection, calming the nervous system, and fostering peace.
As your students pause after each pose, encourage them to bring awareness into their bodies and create equanimity in their minds before proceeding. Shutting the eyes creates calmness because the body responds by moving the nervous system from its active, sympathetic state to its quiet, parasympathetic state. Opening the eyes reverses that. Often during class, I will ask students to come out of a pose with their eyes open, sit up, close their eyes, tune in, and then open their eyes before moving on.
The nervous system is the subtlest part of our physical body. Therefore, the breath, which is also subtle, affects the nervous system most profoundly. It’s like two tuning forks of the same frequencywhen you strike one, the other immediately starts vibrating.
Encourage your students to always be conscious of their breathing, and work with their breath, especially when working at their edge. Slow, deep breathing is the nervous system’s best friend. The breath is directly connected to the heartbeat and, as we breathe faster, the oscillations in the nervous system increase in intensity. Teaching students to slow down their breathing will slow down their heartbeat and calm their nerves. On the other hand, when they hold their breath, they build tension in the nervous system, which can increase blood pressure dramatically.
However, as teachers, we must be very careful with certain Pranayama practices. Bhastrika pranayama (often known as “Breath of Fire”) can damage or even destroy the nervous system. I’ll never forget a woman who came to me for legal advice when I was practicing law. She was extremely agitated, constantly distracted, and couldn’t finish a thought or a sentence. I learned that her nervous system was burnt out from years of practicing pranayama improperly, specifically bhastrika and kapalabhati (Skull-shining breath). When an excess of pranic energy floods the nervous system, it is like a balloon that’s filled with more air than it has the strength to contain. The nervous system is shattered and severe mental trauma can result. The body must be properly prepared with years of asana (especially backbends) to safely receive and contain the power of prana.
And there are other ways to harm our students with the practice. For instance, the nervous system is agitated by jerky movements. This includes trembling during a pose by working too hard. Remind your students that there is no virtue in holding poses too long, for the benefits quickly unravel and turn into detriments. I have heard some teachers say to their students, “Shake it out!” and encourage their students to shake themselves after intense poses to release tension. This misses the point. It is far better to be still and melt the tension with awareness.
There are a number of specific techniques I recommend for bringing peace to students who are particularly scattered. Have your students do suspended inversions such as hanging on a pelvic swing or Adho Mukha Svanasana with a wall rope around their thighs. In these poses, the spine can release and the nerves in the spine can relax. This creates a sense of calmness as the body moves into its parasympathetic mode. Another way to create this effect is to have your students do Savasana with a head wrap. This contains the scattered waves of the brain so that, when the student removes the wrap, the brain waves are more coherent, focused, and calm.
Encourage your students to strive to maintain equanimity in every pose. However, for cultivating peace, balance is more important than the mere display of equanimity. If your students have been sitting in chairs all day, it is necessary to swing the pendulum the other way and work them vigorously to release pent-up tension. The art in this case is to work vigorously, yet not violently; intensely, yet with equanimity.
We feel peaceful only when we feel safe–when we don’t have fear. Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in as soon as there is fear, in the “fight or flight” response. Hence, it is our duty as teachers to make sure our students feel safe in class. When our students feel safe, their parasympathetic system activates and begins self-exploration and healing. Self-exploration is impossible for one who lives in fear. Fearful people are more concerned with defense and with countering the aggressive force of an “enemy.” When a student appears to be fearful, ask yourself, “What have I done to make this student feel unsafe? Is the student reflecting my doubt or fear, my lack of knowledge or experience?” Do not let an egoistic desire to appear competent create fear in your students or destroy their peacefulness.
Living in a consumer society, we may fear that unless we accumulate a lot of things, we will be labeled as failures. When we desire and are not able to possess, a discord arises within us and propels us into a restless state of frustration and strife. It is only a sense of contentment that can move our nervous system into a state of peace. The ideal is to have the means to acquire whatever we desire and yet be content with not having it. Then we can be calm. In other words, peace seldom comes from austere self-denial. Rather, it comes from having the ability to possess anything we want, yet consciously making the choice to have less in order to keep our lives simple and calm.
While external peace is the result of freedom and choice and lack of fear, internal peace is independent of external phenomenon. No matter what is happening outside, when I tap into my inner spirit, I am at peace. I enter that unruffled quality of chitti (pure consciousness, or God). When we connect with this chitti, then no matter whether we are driving on a freeway, meditating in a mountain meadow, or standing in front of a speeding bullet, we feel an expansive peace, like the feeling of stepping into a hushed cathedral or of melting into the colors of a sinking sun.
When we take the time to be peaceful and calm, we are given more time in return. Calmness grants us focus, and with this we accomplish more while expending less. Indeed, great focus comes from great calmness and not from great fervor. When calmness and peace is ours, we are receptive to our soul. We allow ourselves the imminence of bliss. This bliss is one of the greatest gifts we can share with our students.
Recognized as one of the world’s top yoga teachers, Aadil Palkhivala began studying yoga at the age of seven with B.K.S. Iyengar and was introduced to Sri Aurobindo’s yoga three years later. He received the Advanced Yoga Teacher’s Certificate at the age of 22 and is the founder-director of internationally renowned Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington. Aadil is also a federally certified Naturopath, a certified Ayurvedic Health Science Practitioner, a clinical hypnotherapist, a certified Shiatsu and Swedish bodywork therapist, a lawyer, and an internationally sponsored public speaker on the mind-body-energy connection.