In Part 1 of this article I looked at the human body's electrochemical activity, how it relates to the two branches of our autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic), and how the essential first step in becoming a more sane human being is learning to self-regulate the balance between these two.
Here in Part 2, I look at four specific teaching modalities I use with students to help them (and me!) restore balance to the nervous system's electrochemical activity, specifically engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.
As yogis have known for thousands of years, the breath is closely intertwined with the electrical activity of the nervous system. I examined this relationship in detail in a previous article, The Psychobiology of the Breath. Because of this close relationship, breathing practices are among the most basic tools for self-regulating nervous activity and inducing the relaxation response.
In the eight limbs of yoga taught in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, held sacred by most contemporary schools of yoga, one of the eight limbs is devoted to "pranayama," the science of breath work, using different breathing techniques to move or hold or clear "prana" or energy from the body in various ways.
Among the the principles and practices from pranayama that I find most useful in working with meditation students is the practice of ratio breathing. This technique involves measuring the length of the inhalation and exhalation so the whole cycle of breath moves at a specific ratio and pace. It might mean breathing in for a count of five and breathing out for a count of five (a 1:1 ratio, also known as "coherent breathing") or breathing in for a count of five and breathing out for a count of nine or ten.
Slowing down the breath and using more of our natural lung capacity, in itself, has a naturally calming effect on the nervous system and its electrical activity that can be experienced almost immediately, sometimes in just one or two breaths. Specifically, extending the length of the exhalation stimulates the vagus nerve, the main pathway to engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.
Although I'm trained and certified as a yoga teacher, I don't really enjoy teaching the fast-paced, sweaty, flowing styles of movement and strenuous workouts that many people these days think of as "yoga."
The style of yoga I do enjoy teaching is one that's much more directly linked to relaxation and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system: Yin Yoga. Yin involves far less movement, and much more stillness. Less fire, more cooling. It's a unique approach to postural yoga that was designed to bring more elasticity into the connective tissues, specifically the great web of fascia that envelops the musculoskeletal system and all the organs of the body.
In Yin Yoga, we typically stay low to the ground, and we hold postures for extended periods of time -- sometimes up to a few minutes in a single pose. Rather than using our muscles to aggressively push or twist ourselves into a posture, we passively use the forces of gravity and time to slowly open the body and release tension within the tissues at a deeper level. Even the music I play in a Yin Yoga class has a slower pace, fewer beats-per-minute, to encourage the brain to stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system. The feeling coming out of a Yin Yoga practice can be a deep sense of relaxation within the body and mind.
Yoga Nidra, sometimes called "the yogic science of sleep," is actually a system of techniques for guiding students into a profoundly deep state of relaxation bordering on sleep -- but ideally not crossing the line completely.
In a Yoga Nidra class, I use my voice and a progressive series of passive exercises (body scan, visualizations, etc.) to guide students into the hypnagogic state -- a precursor to actual sleep, the state between waking and sleeping. When students are able to hover in this liminal space, this border zone between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind, the sense of relaxation that can be experienced is very deep. And because awareness is suspended in that in-between space, various kinds of communication between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind can take place, creating a feeling of wholeness and integration unlike any other.
Needless to say, during the entire process of Yoga Nidra, we are engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and entraining our brains in producing the electrochemical activity that leads to the relaxation response.
There has been a revolution in my teaching activity during the past year. Up until a year ago, I had been aware of the growing trend of "sound bath" classes in yoga and meditation studios, but I regarded this trend with a skeptical eye. I come out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and we always had Tibetan bowls in the meditation hall, but they were used primarily for one thing only: they were struck to signal the beginning and the end of a meditation session. In 15 years of study and practice within that venerable tradition, I never encountered a single teaching about making the bowls "sing," or using sound for healing purposes. So when I would see people playing the bowls that way, I dismissed it as a bunch of New Age nonsense.
Fast forward to last year, when I started teaching classes at a local studio and got curious about their sound classes, which seemed to be more popular than any other class on their schedule. One day I decided to try one, just to see what all the fuss was about. In that first sound bath class, I felt a sense of relaxation so deep that the only thing in my previous experience that I could compare it to was Yoga Nidra. In fact, in explaining sound meditation I often draw comparisons to Yoga Nidra, because a skillful sound bath can also guide students into the hypnagogic state.
I was immediately hooked, and I signed up for a training in sound healing with a teacher at that studio. A few months later, I did a second training with another teacher, and a set of crystal singing bowls found their way into my life. Quite suddenly, I found myself in the role of a teacher of sound meditation and practitioner of sound healing.
When done skillfully, a sound bath can not only guide students' minds into a state of profound relaxation; it can also have powerful healing effects on the body. The vibration of sound waves is not merely perceived by the ears and the mind; those same waves carry into the cells and tissues of the body, interacting with the electrochemical activity of the nervous system and helping to restore balance and homeostasis. After all, at a cellular level the body is roughly 74% water, and sound waves travel easily through water, so in a sound bath you are not only hearing sound; the pulsations and vibrations of sound waves are literally washing through you, inducing effects on the body that are beyond the mind's purview.
When I experience a good sound bath I leave feeling like a washcloth that has been wrung out. During the sound bath tension in the body melts away, the mind stops fighting with itself, and a whole range of metabolic changes take place: the heart rate and breathing slow down, body temperature drops, and electrochemical activity shifts very noticeably into the parasympathetic nervous system. I often have students in sound bath classes tell me they've never before experienced such a profound sense of relaxation.
That's good enough for me. I've gone from a sound bath skeptic to someone who teaches sound baths two to three times per week and attends them as frequently as I can. Along with breath work, sound healing is among the most powerful tools I've encountered for altering the electrochemical activity of the body and entraining the human brain and nervous system to relax.
With a relaxed body and open mind, the possibilities are almost limitless.
For over 15 years, Dennis has taught meditation, mindfulness and Buddhist studies in classes, workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, private sessions and online. A former monk who lived for two years under the guidance of Pema Chödrön in her monastery in Canada, he is author of the books You Are Buddha (2014) and The Four Reminders: A Simple Buddhist Guide to Living and Dying Without Regret (2017).