An exploration of how regular yoga practice with your Kula can affect your vagal tone.
Thesis written by: Tina Ward, 04/12/18
The premise of this thesis did not come to me until tonight, Thursday, April 12th, 2018. A random occurrence it may seem to most- this date having little to no significance to many. But what my intuition told me was this was not a coincidence, but rather a reason for inquiry into the depth of humanity and the connection to those around me that ultimately allowed myself to truly feel again- and I mean, truly, feel a common thread, a common vibration. I did not realize I had the honor of affecting people so very deeply on a weekly basis until the recent announcement of our community's final chapter commencing in two-week's time. My Yoga community at Krama Yoga Center is coming to its final iteration as a geographical location at the end of this month. After April, there will no longer be that shared space where I, and many others, have developed the deepest Kula I have ever had the privilege to be a part of.
To properly give an introduction, there are a few important terms, definitions, and events that will be outlined within this written article germane to my theory. This theory being how a regular yoga practice with your Kula can positively affect your vagal toning. As a scientist and truth-seeker, as well as a devout yogini to the practice in its entirety, I feel that it is part of my dharma to share those points of alignment that evoked epiphanies to some of my deepest questions while on this continual journey for union of the Self.
Terms and Definitions
Sanskrit. Noun. a race, family, community, tribe, caste, set, company.
capitalized: a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation.
a system of physical postures, breathing and sometimes meditation derived from Yoga but often practiced independently especially in Western cultures to promote physical and emotional well-being.
measure of impulses from the vagus nerve producing inhibition of the heartbeat.
feeling concern for the suffering of another person coupled with the desire to alleviate that suffering.
Vagus means "wandering" in Latin. The vagus nerve is known as the "wandering nerve" because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brain stem that wander to the lowest viscera of your intestines touching your heart and most major organs along the way. (Source: Welcome Library/Public Domain) (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/kindness-towards-oneself-and-others-tones-your-vagus-nerve).
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and is associated with parasympathetic innervation to organs. It is involved in autonomic responses such as the control of heart rate. As described in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the vagus nerve is the “longest and most complex of the cranial nerves. It runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. It is a mixed nerve that contains parasympathetic fibres. The vagus nerve has two sensory ganglia (masses of nerve tissue that transmit sensory impulses): the superior and the inferior ganglia. The branches of the superior ganglion innervate the skin in the concha of the ear. The inferior ganglion gives off two branches: the pharyngeal nerve and the superior laryngeal nerve. The recurrent laryngeal nerve branches from the vagus in the lower neck and upper thorax to innervate the muscles of the larynx (voice box). The vagus also gives off cardiac, esophageal, and pulmonary branches. In the abdomen, the vagus innervates the greater part of the digestive tract and other abdominal viscera. The vagus nerve has the most extensive distribution of the cranial nerves. Its pharyngeal and laryngeal branches transmit motor impulses to the pharynx and larynx; its cardiac branches act to slow the rate of heartbeat; its bronchial branch acts to constrict the bronchi; and its esophageal branches control involuntary muscles in the esophagus, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas, and small intestine, stimulating peristalsis and gastrointestinal secretions.” (https://www.britannica.com/science/vagus-nerve).
Suffice it to say, it is a very important major cranial nerve of the body. As Datcher Kelter says in his article, The Compassionate Species, "This makes the vagus nerve one of the great mind-body nexuses in the human nervous system. Every time you take a deep breath, your heart rate slows down. You see baseball pitchers do this on the mound—they breathe out to calm down, just before they start their windup. The vagus nerve controls that relationship, between the breathing and the calming. (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_species)
Oftentimes, in yoga practice when cueing for pranayama and focus of the breath while practicing asana, biologically speaking, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated thus giving us a relaxation response. Since our breathing is both a voluntary and an involuntary mechanism, we can biologically activate the parasympathetic nervous system response as well as the sympathetic nervous system response. In Yoga practice, we generally try to work through the effects of the ebb and flow of both. In an effort to transcend and better understand ourselves, we work through the emotional aspects of activating the stress response in asana or emotional thought patterns elicited while practicing asana, and the relaxation response through pranayama and meditation.
In 2013, Jennifer Ellen Stellar wrote a dissertation on vagal reactivity and compassionate responses to the suffering of others as partial requirements to satisfy her degree of Doctor of Philosophy. With evidence cited from studies that measure vagal tone, she suggests, “vagal activity may be particularly critical in facilitating social engagement during negative contexts.
Empirical work suggests higher vagal tone allows individuals to more effectively utilize social support in negative contexts and initiate socially supportive behaviors directed toward others. Vagal tone may interact with attachment systems to reinforce social support giving.” A source from her research from Porges in 2007 on the Polyvagal Theory supports the argument that the vagus nerve represents a physiological aspect of social behavior thus it can be postulated within our experience of compassion. She further states, “compassion is characterized by many of the same behaviors that the vagus nerve is thought to facilitate, such as increased social communication, social engagement behaviors, especially in a negative context where others are suffering, and social support giving.” She proposes that compassion is associated with activation in the vagus nerve. Her work revealed that the emotional suffering of others led to greater parasympathetic activation. (https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9714/d4bb1577654409e2ccd2b81c4d243f496d2c.pdf). As yogis and yoginis, we already know this to be true on an innate level, although science it just now catching up to research on the physiological effects of practicing yoga and the mind body connection, it can be inferred that vagus nerve innervation during yoga practice leads to a sense of calm and can further lead to a sense of compassion for those around us.
The Sanskrit word ‘Kula’ is oftentimes defined by yoga communities as a community of the heart. A community that “denotes the sense of inclusion and belonging that can be cultivated through yogis coming together to practice. This kula, or community, of yogis is considered sacred because it is a group of people who come together freely, with intention and a shared sense of purpose. In this way, the traditional idea of yoga as a personal and individual practice can be expanded to include more social aspects and experiences of connection with others as well as the self. Yogapedia explains that this concept may also be described when yogis practice with other strangers, thus giving them inspiration and motivation. Upon leaving their class or practice, they may then be aptly able to inspire the wider community and support those outside of the kula. (https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/8558/kula).
While not digging too deeply into the source of this definition, I still find it to be a wonderfully sound description of how I interpret the sense of having a kula. I have not felt this sense of community as deeply as I have in any other yoga studio aside from Krama Yoga Center. This is not meant to downplay any other studios, but that true sense of community was extremely evident with this particular group of yogis- including both the veterans who had been there from the beginning and newbies who had just began their practice at Krama.
I began practicing with the studio at the end of 2015 about 4 years in to my personal yoga practice, shortly after I obtained my 200 RYT and began teaching vinyasa flow yoga at Summit Climbing Yoga and Fitness. I was looking for a studio that I connected with where I could sustain my own practice. I was looking for like-minded yogis on a similar search for authentic yoga that did not shy away from the spiritual side. I was looking for a teacher who could help me further both my asana practice and my spiritual practice. I was looking for a teacher who had much more experience and years of practice than I- someone who could also help further inspire my teaching as I continued to develop my own style. A teacher who could weave the philosophy with enough science into their asana class with ease while not being dogmatic. I was essentially looking for the teacher that I wanted to grow into. I knew that I needed someone who inspired and challenged me in such a way so that I could also do the same for others.
That teacher happened to be Ricky Tran at his studio, Krama Yoga Center. When I first began practicing there, I wasn't quite ready to fully surrender to a yoga teacher with my innate deeply ingrained sense of scientific skepticism. It wasn't that I believed I knew it all- it was quite the contrary- I had already known that I would always remain a student of the practice because of the depth that I knew yoga offered for me- but- I was still looking for that teacher that I connected with both on a physical and spiritual level of practice.
I began practicing with many teachers at Krama and loved each and every one of them. I was bright, starry-eyed, and in awe of the level of freedom to which these teachers were given to truly teach from their hearts with very few restrictions. After my first few classes, I also came to the realization that the community residing at the studio was what I was missing from my yoga practice all along. The students and fellow yogis there were incredibly close and bonded with all who entered in a loving-nurturing way. It was that non-judgment that you so often are taught about in yoga, but so rarely witnessed in a real life communal setting. They were simply people accepting people for exactly who they were with little to no judgment if only on themselves as we were all on that same journey learning to grow together. Without a doubt, after those first few classes, I knew I wanted to make this studio my home base. After practicing there for many months and taking some workshops to further my education, I wanted to somehow give back to the community that let me in with such open arms. I spoke with some teachers to offer my services as an instructor if they needed a substitute or had a permanent position to fill. I didn't know what the outcome would be as I was used to auditioning for a studio in order to be accepted to teach there. When I was told of a differing set of criteria, I was delightfully surprised to oblige. Ricky wanted me to take as many classes as I could, begin taking more classes that he taught so that he could observe my practice and manner of being to see if I would be a good fit for the studio before even seeing my qualifications as a teacher. Of course, after taking more of his classes, I knew why the Krama Kula was so strong.
We weren't strong in a 'cult-like' manner, but we were strong in purpose, in intention, in philosophy and ethics with great alignment and strength to boot. While many of us were on a path of healing from differing sets of belief systems- be it physical healing or mental healing, we were all extremely supportive of each other. For a non-trusting, difficult to fool- introvert like myself, this was a quality that ultimately helped me to become a better person. I learned to trust, I learned to let go, I learned to have more compassion and I also learned how to better cope with my own darkness and depression. This darkness was a place that I knew all too well, a place that I had dwelled in for much of life and it was the very reason why I was so drawn to the path of Yoga. I knew that Yoga would help me cope with my darkness, but what I didn't know was how much being part of the Krama Kula allowed me to grow at such an exponential rate in such a short period of time.
After an additional month or two of practicing at Krama, I was put on the sub list. A few months after that, it was like the stars had aligned and I was in the right place, at the right time. Some changes occurred to the satellite studio formerly known as Castle Hills Yoga. A restorative teacher whom I very much admired- was moving too far to teach there on the regular. I was given the opportunity and the honor to take on her restorative yoga class on Wednesday evenings- and that was that- I was officially a permanent teacher giving back to the community that I so wanted to help. I've been a permanent teacher at Krama ever since then. With a few different class iterations from Vinyasa, to Yin, I eventually fell into my current permanent gig teaching Gentle Yoga on Thursday evenings at 6 pm.
Not only did these students accept me, they embraced my very different style of teaching at a studio that was used to a teaching approach from the Ashtanga lineage. Over the past couple years, I have grown in my teaching and have become a sort of ace of all trades- with the ability to teach essentially any style of class due to my inquisitive nature of listening to my body and practicing by whatever means that I feel is right for my yoga asana practice at that particular time. These students have seen me before I began teaching at Krama. They've seen me as a new baby yoga teacher. They've seen me through some of the roughest years of my life. They've seen my teaching grow as I continued my education at Namah Shivaya to complete my 500 RYT in the past 16 months. They've taken just about anything I've tossed at them with grit, gratitude, and a smile. They've seen me practice along-side them while I was injured having to scale down my own practice. They've seen me strengthen and deepen my own physical practice as well as fall and fail at my own physical practice. They've accepted my chanting and accepted my meditation at the end of every class I teach. They've accepted me for who I am, and enabled me to truly teach from my heart.
Forming these bonds with my students and forming these bonds practicing along-side other students at Krama has helped me to accept those areas of my physical self that I had a difficult time accepting in the past. What I experience at Krama is not a coincidence. Many other friends and teachers I have had the privilege of sharing life stories with have had this similar sense of kulawith their own healing at Krama as well. With the recent announcement of the closing of our beloved shared studio space, many initially felt angry, sad, upset, confused and lost. At first I had thought I may have surpassed that heavy influx of emotion. However, I was kindly, humbly, brought back down to the reality of living in this human body the day after the closing was announced.
I was about to teach my 6pm Gentle class when one of my students walked in the door. Noticing I appeared in pain, she asked if I was doing okay. I quickly told her I was okay, and that I had literally slept on my neck wrong the night before causing me a lot of pain with a significant decrease in range of motion in my neck. I hadn't even thought about her asking if I was okay due to the news of the studio closing, but with depth and absolute kindness in her eyes, she replied, "Okay, well, take of yourself Tina... because we needyou."
I smiled, told her thank you and that I'd see her in class after I had finished signing everyone in. Moments after she went on into the studio, one of our other teachers at Krama came in to take my class and I immediately connected eyes with her as we both conjoined in sadness and compassion. I gave her a prolonged hug and said I was so happy she came to my class and that I'd miss her after the studio closes. She agreed and then I told her it hadn't truly hit me until that student told me that they needed me. At that point I realized that it didn't matter how long any of us had been a part of the Krama Kula, but that we all felt it.
They say in times of devastation, is when humankind tends to set aside our differences and join together as if we are all connected- on the same wavelength- and we all feel that same empathy and compassion towards that shared devastation that we are facing in unity- perhaps not by choice, but by coincidence. But, as I continue to experience life to a greater degree, I have come to realize that there are no coincidences- all that happens is meant to be for the reason of growth as we all forge our paths to uniting with our true Self- that which is beyond the physical. Although there is no empirical evidence that I may give to support my theory (and with this sad state of citing work from borrowed sources), I know that as a community, as a kula, we have affected our vagal tones to such a degree in which we all share the same sense of community- the same sense of belonging.
Throughout class, within that one hour, I could feel our hearts heavy, but I could also feel our heart rates slow and calm as we shared in our practice and shared in a sense of compassion for one another. By the end of my class, teary-eyed, yet refreshed from reprieve, we had all re-base lined. Our sympathetic nervous system now in equilibrium with our parasympathetic nervous system. Our bodies light and comfortable, our minds steady and still. As I led my students out of savasana, we shared a beautiful few minutes of pranayam followed by a short meditation. After our shared experience, I led us through a final chanting of OM and a mantra that I will always cherish, Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. I could literally feel the
vibration as all of my students chanted with me and that deep intuitive, gut sense kicked in. Our kula came through, our vagal nerves innervated, and I knew that every person in that room felt the same as I did. The mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu roughly translates to: may all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all. I recalled learning this mantra/closing prayer from one of the first yoga classes I had taken from Ricky years ago. Since then, it has become a part of my teaching repertoire and I have shared this mantra with all of my students, regardless of the studio I am teaching for, in an effort to find that connection with all that is around us.
While correlation does not always equal causation, there are just some things that can only be explained and accepted through our hearts. I close this thesis with a resonating quote from my favorite interpretation of yoga sutra 1.23, "Boundless love and devotion unite us with the Divine Consciousness" this translation by Nischala Joy Devi. She commentates, "Most of us traversing our particular way of devotion acknowledge that there is something beyond the individual "I". With an experience of great power, like standing on the shore of the boundless sea, or witnessing the birth of a baby, we are embraced by feelings of gratitude and humility. These experiences link us to our hearts. Like tomorrow's beautiful flower encased in a delicate bud, the expanded heart is, for many of us, still in a latent form. The heart, like the bud, protects itself from the harshness of the external world by staying cocooned, locking the Divine within. But through the continuous nurturing of deep devotion, the bud, in guarded increments, can expand it's petals to fully blossom in all it's beauty." -Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman's Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras.