What Feels Safe?

Jan 19, 2023

What does it mean when we feel ‘safe,’ and how does this affect our mind and body?  We’ve been exploring this topic all month in our Enrichment Membership, discussing Perinatal Neurobiology and the Nervous system and how mothers and parents respond to their stress response. 

The nervous system and de-regulation are standard terms in the yoga community. Teachers and mental health mentors create classes and courses on a more peaceful and serene life.  We cannot avoid ‘stress’; our body is mechanically wired to manage this responsibility.  We can, however, learn coping tools and strategies to recognize our sympathetic response and gently guide ourselves away from the stressful experience. 

I shared with the membership group how a student walked into one of my functional movement classes last week, rolled out his mat, laid down and closed his eyes.  He then said, ‘why is it every time I walk into your class, I want to fall asleep?’.  And I responded, ‘ because you feel safe.’ 

The brain has one focus, to keep you safe.  It works all day tirelessly to ensure you are safe and responds to every message it receives and directs it to the nervous system.  When we feel unsafe, our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) is triggered, and we respond differently.  When the brain reads we’re safe, such as when we crawl into bed from a hectic day, it triggers our parasympathetic response (rest and digest). 

The brainstem, referred to as the reptilian brain, is incredibly important in regulating emotions.  It makes us more conscious of our environment, alert, and aware to keep us safe. 

Over the years I’ve found it fascinating that a yoga asana practice that is focused on mindfulness principles with or yin approach, encourages students to hold poses, many unsupported and ask students to just ‘relax’.  As if the request is so simple if only the student closed their eyes and made an effort to move beyond the discomfort or pain in their hip and knee convincing themselves that this pose will help fix their injury because the teacher said so.

How are we supposed to relax in this situation?  Did the teacher cue specific techniques to move out of a stress response?  How was the teacher so aware that they recognized how each student in the room responded individually to the internal crisis? 

As teachers, we need to help arrange the body so that it doesn’t feel ‘stressed’; this is where the feeling of ‘safety’ is crucial.  Teaching yoga asana is the easiest part of our job; creating a safe container for our students can be the most difficult if we’re not paying attention to how individual bodies respond to stimuli

I posted an Instagram reel yesterday about various yoga poses that are ‘safe’ during pregnancy to showcase the many different opportunities for movement rather than the suggested Cat/Cow that most teachers offer pregnant students. 

A lovely teacher commented on the term ‘safe’ and how it's subjective to each student, and she is correct.  What feels ‘safe’ to one will most likely not feel ‘safe’ to all.  So how will one know if they feel ‘safe’ in yoga? 

If a pose of movement feels aligned in your body, where you can close your eyes and fall beyond this space and time, it feels safe.  It feels safe if you quickly drop into your body without fear, discomfort or pain.  If you can fully let go and surrender to the movement because you trust yourself, you will feel safe. 

I repeat this over and over in my classes.  Yoga asana is NOT about what the pose looks like; it’s about what the pose FEELS like.  If it doesn’t ‘feel’ safe, then honestly ask yourself, ‘why are you practicing this movement?’.

Your body should feel refreshed, rejuvenated, and relaxed after practice and not agitated, sore, and exhausted.  If you want to feel exhausted, go for a 10 km run or spend time in the gym lifting weights, increasing your cardiovascular and sympathetic response, but why do we need this in our yoga practice? 

Did you know that over 67% of students currently practice yoga to reduce stress, anxiety and depression?  And then, we enrich our students who want peace in their practice by gifting them postures that only put more force and strain on their joints.  If Chatarunga Danasana (four-limbed staff pose) were a metaphor for life, it would tell us to stop internally rotating the shoulders and scooping our chin across the mat, it serves very little purpose to our Western bodies. 

Michele Theoret, Psychologist + Yoga teacher with Empowered U, was our guest speaker for January.  She presented the idea of Poly Vagal's theory and neuroperception, which is a relationship with the environment.  The ability to orient ourselves through our senses and bring more consciousness to the experience by creating subtle shifts. 

She encouraged the group to move through a ‘map’ of our nervous system in a particular yoga pose, curious about our emotions, sensations, and home.  Where in our body do we feel ‘home’?  If ‘home’ isn’t a safe space for you, imagine the space or place that is and as you move with and through your body, does this feel like that centred space, safe and still? 

If we’re encouraged to practice from the ‘heart,’ why are we moving in ways that cause us harm or don’t align with who we are?  No, you don’t have to practice Salambha Sarvangasana if it causes pain in your shoulders or you have to manipulate the shoulders to get the triceps on the mat and whimper silently in pain.

Explore the sensations of a pose that feels safe.  What does your body feel like?  How does it move?  What patterns do you notice when you breathe? If it feels ‘unsafe,’ explore why?  Grab a prop if you feel unstable, and remind yourself to move easily.

There isn’t one concrete answer to what feels ‘safe’ and everyone’s perception of safe will be subjective to their own experiences and sensations.  All teachers can do is help them rearrange their bodies until they feel like they can rest and encourage compassionate curiosity.

How does your body feel 'safe'? 

For more information about our 12-month Enrichment Membership with our incredible 12 Guest Speakers, click HERE!  You can watch Michele’s presentations on Poly Vagal Theory and the Science of Safety!  Sign up for the 7-Day FREE trial. 

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