Polyvagal theory and healing in yoga

Posted by amberp, 22-Apr-2020

We spoke with Chandrika Gibson about her yoga journey, the wonders of the nervous system and the Polyvagal ladder…

Q: What is your yoga journey and what work are you currently doing?

My brother and I started yoga when we were children thanks to a small Indian yoga book that somehow found its way into our home. It felt like a homecoming when I first attended a class aged 20. I had the privilege of learning from some wonderful teachers in WA including Iyengar Yoga electives during my naturopathy studies, and many wonderful classes, satsangs and philosophy talks at Beacon Yoga Centre (Sivananda Ashram). I graduated as a yoga teacher in 2005 and began teaching classes for people with cancer almost immediately. I have also taught corporate classes, pregnancy, parent and baby, and children’s yoga, as well as alcohol and drug recovery programs. Along the way I have undertaken further Anatomy & Physiology training at Masters level, yin yoga teacher training and more.

I have been employed by Cancer Council WA, Endeavour College of Natural Medicine, Cancer Support WA, and am currently a Research and Education Consultant for Solaris Cancer Care. I’ve been on the faculty for Wisdom Yoga Institute (formerly Yoga Space) teacher training since 2007, and developed a post graduate Yoga Therapy training in 2012, which was the first program of its kind in Australia to be accredited by the International Association of Yoga
Therapists. Along with seeing private yoga therapy clients and teaching in my home studio Surya Health, I am currently in my final year of a PhD at Curtin University investigating compassion-based interventions for people with head and neck cancer.

Q: What is Polyvagal theory and how did you first discover it?

Polyvagal Theory was originally developed by Stephen Porges in 1994 and posits that the tenth cranial nerve known as the Vagus (meaning wandering) nerve is central to the autonomic nervous system responses to threat and safety. I first came across this theory in relation to pranayama as I was curious
about the mechanisms by which yogic practices influence the mind by altering the body and vice versa. I have been investigating Polyvagal Theory more
intensively recently as it is relevant to the trauma experienced by participants in my PhD research.

Q: Why is it beneficial for yoga teachers to understand this concept?

Yoga teachers are well placed to support people who have experienced trauma, those living with mental ill health, pain, chronic illness, or simply not
thriving due to the many stressors of modern life. Our impact on our communities is powerful and we have numerous techniques in our repertoires that can quickly help students climb the Polyvagal Ladder (see diagram). It’s helpful for yoga professionals to understand the ‘why’ behind what we do,
and to consciously work to make our classes, studios, workshops, and courses, healing spaces. Polyvagal Theory adds to our understanding of the nervous system, anatomy, physiology, and the human experience. Teachers and students are in an intricate dance and this understanding of how our brains, nervous systems, and bodies influence each other is both fascinating and practical.

Q: What will participants be doing in your workshop?

In this two hour workshop we will cover the fundamentals of Polyvagal Theory, look up close at the anatomy of the Vagus Nerve, and discuss how yoga techniques can move people from dysregulated states for example, “numbed out” or hyperaroused “sympathetic” states, and return to “ventral vagal” – the biological seat of safety and connection. The theory component will lead into a workshop style class where we will experience and reflect on the effect of yoga practices including asana, pranayama, and chanting through the lens of Polyvagal Theory.

Q: How does the polyvagal theory complement a restorative yoga practice/ yin yoga/ meditation practice?

Polyvagal Theory explains a great deal of how and why restorative yoga, yin and meditation can support healing. It can also explain why sometimes these
practices are distressing, confronting, or uncomfortable for students, and how we can make them safer, more inclusive and effective for our students.

Q: Do you plan to run this workshop across Australia? What are the next plans you have?

I would love to bring this workshop to yoga teachers across Australia. My plans for 2020 are largely to complete the PhD and so my teaching capacity will likely expand in 2021.

If you are lucky enough to be in WA – then book on now for Chandrika’s workshop.

It’s on Sunday, April 5 from 9.30am – 11.30am at the Greenwood Yoga Academy in Wangara. More details here:

Find out more about Polyvagal Theory & Healing with Yoga

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