Yogic Practices to Support Resilience and Transformation
This chapter highlights practices intended to transform habitual relationships with body-mind-environmental stimuli to support optimal well-being. These practices both evolve from and are supported by the body-mind regulation and sattvic qualities encouraged in Chapter 9 and the inquiry practices in Chapter 10.
The concept of resilience is key in shifting relationships to body-mind-environmental stimuli. Resilience, essential to effective transformation, includes the capacity to respond appropriately to stimuli and to move between states of activation and calm efficiently (see Chapters 7 and 8). I consider resilience to embody three key abilities, as outlined below.
Three Types of Resilience
Alternating Between Activation and Calm
I often begin working with resilience by introducing the idea of alternating between activating and calming practices. Activation does not always mean strengthening, nor does it always refer to the physical layer of experience. Likewise, deactivation does not always mean relaxing—it could also involve grounding, enlivening, or centering practices, on any layer of experience including the body, energy, or mind.
I invite clients to explore practices that create activation and calm in their own unique bodies, energy levels, thoughts, and emotions and to then move between the two states. Activating practices could include active or restorative postures; reflection on ethical principles that are difficult or uncomfortable to apply to oneself or one’s life circumstances; difficult emotions or beliefs; or even breathing practices that arouse the person physiologically, energetically, or psychologically. Calming practices include any that bring a sense of confidence, inner strength, comfort, support, peace, or relaxation. They might take the form of either active or resting postures, reflection on various ethical principles, breathing practices, or meditations.
From a neurophysiological standpoint, we are moving between the neural platforms as discussed with polyvagal theory (Chapter 8), finding facility with coming back to social engagement after experiencing the other neural platforms. From a yogic standpoint, we are moving between the gunas and returning to sattva predominance.
Widening the Window of Tolerance
Alternating between arousal and calm can develop confidence and self-efficacy in the ability to manage one’s relationship to body-mind-environmental stimuli. The capacity to be present with activation, without becoming overwhelmed, evolves from this practice. In terms of polyvagal theory, this type of resilience means ever greater bandwidth for states of safe mobilization and safe immobilization. In yoga, this resilience signifies increased ability to remain situated in sattva while noticing and experiencing greater fluctuations of rajas and tamas.
In other words, we can be present with and experience a wider spectrum of activation of the body and mind while still finding a degree of comfort and ease. For example, a client might perform a physically activating posture, like bridge, alongside a breathing technique or meditation that produces relative physical and mental ease. The intention is to increase the capacity to be with a broader spectrum of arousal while still accessing relatively calm physiological, positive psychological, and prosocial behavioral states.
As an example, a client who was initially suffering with social anxiety and claustrophobia, among other physical and mental conditions, demonstrates this regulation and resilience in action. During different therapeutic sessions, she had learned, for calming, both sitali (“cooling breath" with oral exhalation through a rolled tongue) and “grounding breath” (visualizing inhalations traveling up the body from the ground and exhalations traveling back down into the earth). When she later found herself in an extremely stressful situation—closed in a small room packed with strangers during a bomb threat— she was able to regulate her mental state and arrived at a combination of these two breathing practices. She inhaled “up” from the solid earth beneath her feet and exhaled a soothing stream from her mouth, again feeling rooted down. Although she’d never been taught to use these exercises together, by that time she had developed sufficient independence with these techniques to identify and execute a useful practice rather than falling into a habitual reaction, which might previously have been a panic attack or outright collapse. While many of those around her became visibly agitated and eventually angry, she was able to maintain regulation of her system and even take necessary actions immediately after the threat ended.
Transforming Relationships to Stimuli and Fluctuations
Yoga also teaches another approach to changing our relationships to stimuli. Once we realize our essential nature as awareness, we can experience these natural, inevitable fluctuations (of neural platforms, gunas, body-mind-environmental stimuli) with equanimity. Beyond building a greater capacity to observe stimuli, we can learn to embrace and welcome all experience as awareness, leading to eudaimonic well-being and steadfast contentment. (Although we may often conceptualize transformation as sweeping change, we must consider that transformation may more often consist of the subtle and incremental.)
A story in the Mahabharata has been helpful to me in understanding this facet of resilience. During the epic’s central battle, the army opposing the Pandavas released the powerful Narayana weapon, which unleashed a torrent of fiery missiles and arrows. Many of the warriors in the Pandava army were decimated, and the harder they fought, the mightier the weapon became. Krishna told the stunned warriors that the only way to survive would be to cease fighting and lay down their arms: The more force and resistance the Narayana weapon meets, the more powerful it becomes. Everyone followed Krishna’s directions except Bhima. Son of the wind god and the embodiment of will, Bhima refused to stop fighting. Instead, he rushed on, determined to conquer this weapon. Just as Krishna said, the Narayana met Bhima's ferocity by itself growing in strength. Krishna rushed to persuade Bhima, reassuring him that they would fight more intensely if that were indeed the way to defeat this weapon. Bhima finally listened, laying down his weapon and ceasing to fight. At that point, the Narayana passed over the army, dissipating and enabling the Pandavas to revive.
This story helps to describe an essential teaching of yoga. Sometimes deliberately altering sensations and experiences is beneficial in changing our relationship to stimuli of the body, mind, and environment. However, at other times this effort only makes the reactions more resistant to change. Rather than using greater intensity or strength, yoga teaches another approach to navigate these naturally arising fluctuations.
Just as the Narayana weapon loses its charge when resistance ceases, when we realize all experiences as part of awareness, we find the ability to meet stimuli differently. A capacity to allow stimuli to arise, rather than needing to change or manipulate them, enables an experience of steadfast contentment and eudaimonic well-being amidst the fluctuations of the body-mind-environment. It is important to emphasize that this teaching is not meant to foster unhealthy detachment or staying in dangerous or unhealthy situations. Rather, acceptance of what is present allows for an openness and responsiveness toward right action from which healthy physiological, positive psychological, and prosocial behavioral states emerge.
These final three chapters in this book can be understood as an evolution in one’s practice. Yoga helps us to develop the ability to regulate the bodymind for greater safety and calm (Chapter 9), develop insight into patterns that perpetuate suffering (Chapter 10), and transform our relationship to stimuli for the cultivation of deep peace and equanimity (Chapter 11).