Let me sleep on that...
I was in a yoga class recently, I have NO idea where, with a teacher who said that part of what we do in yoga is train ourselves to recognize the difference between reacting and responding. Recognize isn’t quite the right word - we train ourselves to respond rather than react. I loved the way she said it and wish I could remember her exact words, but it’s really stuck with me since then. Part of what stuck was that it was a simple way to say something that I’ve known about yoga for a little while now - when done with intentionality, it can actually result in the retraining of our nervous system. And what is the difference between reacting and responding if not the state of your nervous system in a given moment?
Several years ago now, I was working for an Upward Bound program (college access program for high school students) in Chicago. I was teaching a class and the topic of emotions came up. We started talking about the difference between how we feel about something and what we choose to do about it. I remember saying that we can choose how we feel. And then after some debate, I modified my statement. I told the students that we might not be able to choose how we feel, but we do choose what we do with those feelings.
This question of reaction versus response is taking that line of thinking one step further.
According to an article in Psychology Today entitled React vs. Respond “a reaction is survival-oriented and on some level a defense mechanism.” The author goes on to point out that when we react, we often regret the way we handled that particular situation. Why do we react, you might wonder? I’ll let David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, Phd explain in the following excerpt from their book Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming your body:
“When a traumatic event occurs, our bodies rally to get us away from the danger: our heart rate increases; our muscles tense; we increase our oxygen intake through more rapid breathing; and our brain diverts energy away from language and meaning-making centers to sensory awareness, muscle enervation, and emotional responses.”
While they are referring specifically to a traumatic event, anything that triggers similar feelings has the same or similar physiological outcome, as long as the trauma still resides in the body. We often think of trauma as something major like violence or the death of a loved one or heart break, but I think of it more as a spectrum with cumulative properties. Maybe there is no single event or ongoing abuse that resulted in trauma. Maybe it’s a collective reaction to a series of smaller events, that we may not even realize have resulted in trauma. We often get triggered without even knowing that it’s happened.
In the moment, when something happens that makes us feel something strongly, we react. We don’t think about what we’re doing, we just do. If we’re angry, what feels right in the moment is lashing out at the other person who ‘caused’ our anger or turning our anger towards whoever is within reach. If we are overwhelmed by desire then we might not think about the consequences of our actions as we react to that desire. If we’re disappointed then maybe we turn passive aggressive and stick little barbs into the people around us. I would, of course, NEVER do this (Truth? I do).
A response, however, is measured. When responding, one gives consideration to possible outcomes and the feelings, or possible feelings, of those involved. “It weighs the long term effects and stays in line with your core values.”
One is unconscious, the other conscious. So how does yoga help move the dial from react to respond? This is the crux of thoughts that have been tumbling through my mind and is really the whole point of Yoga Heals International. It comes back to what has become a recurring theme in my blog posts; awareness of yourself, of your body. A conscientious yoga practice where the practitioner is encouraged to be present in their body, heightens one’s awareness of how emotions impact our thoughts, feelings, and bodies. And in a more immediate sense, a yoga practice can help to reduce the physiology reactivity.
I believe (I have no empirical evidence of this, this is purely anecdotal from personal experience and talking to others) that deescalating triggered reactions looks different for different people. I find that I need to move before I can be still - this is yet another thing that I love about Ashtanga Yoga. We start with sun salutes, one breath per movement. It requires me to measure my breaths, matching the length of my inhales to my exhales. Sun salutes get hard fairly quickly so it requires my concentration to not get too winded or to move through the poses clumsily. And then we find stillness amidst the movement, holding poses for 5 breaths which, for me, is just enough time to find a moment of meditation before moving on to the next pose. By the time I’m at the end of the practice, holding shoulder stand and head stand (and variations) for 10-15 breaths and then finishing with the still, seated poses, I am often able to enjoy the stillness in a way that would not have been possible for me at the beginning of the practice. However, I know other people prefer to get right into a seated meditation or breathing practice.
I heard on NPR this morning that our ‘neural prints’ are even more unique than our finger prints. What works for me might not work for you but perhaps what matters most is that we make the effort to explore what helps each of us tap into our ability to respond rather than to react.