An introduction to yoga therapy and polyvagal theory

By Joann Lutz

Our mood and thoughts are intricately connected to our physiological state, and shifting our physiology is one of the most powerful ways to positively impact our well-being.

Many inner explorers, including Stephen Porges, PhD, developer of polyvagal theory, note how yoga uses breath and movement, which are within our conscious control, to influence the dance between the two major branches of the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic, “rest-and-digest” branch and the sympathetic, “energize-and-act” branch to achieve inner balance. This ability to simultaneously energize and relax the body is one of yoga’s defining characteristics. The inner balance generated through this dance has major implications for an individual’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social well-being.

How a balance between activation and relaxation promotes social engagement 

Polyvagal theory emphasizes the importance of a regulated nervous system for optimal social and psychological functioning. It centers the perception of physical and emotional safety. Our organism broadcasts and experiences safety through the relaxed state of the facial muscles, calm tone of the voice, expanded hearing range, and mobility of the head and eyes. These are all indicators of autonomic regulation, which optimizes our ability to socially engage. They are mediated by the vagus nerve*, as well as the other cranial nerves. In this regulated state, I can feel the openness of my face and the warmth of my gaze welcoming someone when they walk into the room. They may feel it too, and respond in kind. 

Yoga therapy tools for nervous system regulation

My yoga practice has been an exploration of the interplay between breath, body sensations, and physiological states. Polyvagal theory is my roadmap; yoga is my vehicle. Integrating the two has helped me immensely to understand what is happening in my body, what is needed to support my maximum well-being, and how to use yoga therapy for various conditions.

Various yoga therapy techniques can support autonomic nervous system regulation. For example, 

  • eye movements can relax and strengthen the muscles around the eyes; 
  • the alternation of forward and backward bending postures can balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the system; 
  • brahmari pranayama, as well as chanting, use vibration to relax the larynx; 
  • and the progressive deep relaxation portion of many styles of yoga nidra can include relaxing all of the facial muscles while potentially regulating the activity of the cranial nerves.  

These practices can lead us into sustained states of inner peace and connection with others, expanding the boundaries of our limited experience of self.

By integrating the most up-to-date neuroscience research and theories into a yoga therapy approach, and applying yoga as a neurobiologically-based therapeutic strategy, we can support ourselves and each other  on an upward spiral of health and well-being. 

Joann Lutz, MSW, LICSW, E-RYT 200, C-IAYT, has been offering trainings on integrating yoga with polyvagal theory internationally for the past eight years. She is the author of Trauma Healing in the Yoga Zone, published by Handspring Publishing.

*The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, extending from the brainstem to the gut. Among other functions, it sends sensory information from the body’s organs to the brain and supports parasympathetic nervous system activity.

Read more about yoga therapy and polyvagal theory here.