Taking Time: Yoga and Self-Regulation

 In Self-Regulation Institute Blog

I recently had the opportunity to attend the PureAction 2018 conference in Austin, TX.  The PureAction conference focused on research of the various types of yoga (e.g., Bikram, Vinyasa) and elements of yoga (e.g., temperature, breathing, muscle activity) that have specific outcomes in both typical and clinical populations. The conference included 2 days of presentations, discussions, and questions by academics, clinicians and teachers – all interested in improving self-regulation through yoga, meditation and other self-soothing techniques.  

For me, learning the challenges and successes of teaching yoga as a self-regulation technique to individuals with difficulty with behaviour regulation, such as children with autism spectrum disorder or adults with Alzheimer’s Disease, was very exciting. Part of the challenge facing those who teach self-regulation strategies is conveying that it is important to slow down and take care of yourself. Convincing others that self-regulation strategies can be adapted for everyone, for any schedule (even busy medical residents!), at any fitness level (“but I am not flexible enough for yoga!”) is an additional challenge as well.  While it takes time, patience and practice to learn techniques of self-regulation in this fast-paced, over-scheduled world of instant gratification, the “living” or continued results can stay with a person for a lifetime.

As one presenter repeatedly emphasized, it was important to meet patients “where they are.”  In our research, “where they are” not only includes cognitive, behavioural and emotional availability, but also feelings of “safety” in the environment. Specifically, our research aims for a better understanding of the neurophysiological regulation that supports particular behaviours based on our perception of the environment (Polyvagal Theory).  When we perceive our environment as “safe”, our neurophysiology (e.g., myelinated vagus) supports a specific set of behaviours to allow for social engagement, regulation, homeostasis and healing. However, when factors or experiences, such as anxiety or trauma, interfere with our ability to feel safe in our environment, self-regulation techniques that impact the myelinated vagus (or the functioning of other related cranial nerves) can be practiced to restore a feeling of calm.  

Yoga as a holistic approach, can make us feel calmer through several avenues, including stimulation of the myelinated vagus (via baroreceptors) during posture shift and holding position, and stimulation of the myelinated vagus through controlled breathing (specifically, the short inhalation and long exhalation) and chanting (when included).  As the myelinated vagus has an inhibitory effect at the level of the heart and lungs, stimulation helps our heart and breathing to slow down and maintain a feeling of calmness.

As more research is conducted and published, the hope is that yoga (and other similar practices) will be better recognized as a pathway to wellness and resiliency.  ‘Til next time, have a safe and enjoyable holiday season!

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