Polyvagal Theory and the Gunas: A Q&A with Marlysa Sullivan

Where does contemporary neuroscience overlap with the ancient wisdom of yoga? One area is the crossover between polyvagal theory and the gunas. Marlysa Sullivan, a yoga therapist and assistant professor at Maryland University of Integrative Health, is fascinated by the connections that link these two models of understanding our bodies and our world; she has published research on their convergence. In this Q&A, she explains how the parallels shed light on well-being, relationships, and resilience.

First, could you define polyvagal theory in simple terms?

Polyvagal theory is a new way of helping us understand how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) works. The old way of understanding the ANS was very “off and on”—either the stress response was activated or the relaxation response was activated. Polvagal theory offers a new, more accurate way of understanding that all different levels of activation are possible. Both systems can activate at the same time, they can activate different organs at the same time—it’s more like a dial than an on/off switch. It also offers a way to understand the connections between behavior, emotion, and physiology stemming from these underlying neural platforms of engagement.

The “vagal” in “polyvagal” refers to the vagus nerve, which is the primary conduit of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Recent research by Stephen Porges and others has found that the vagus nerve actually originates in two different places in the brain stem; from one area, the vagus nerve is responsible for the relaxation response via PNS activation, and the other is primarily responsible for a response to threat, whereby the physiological resources are slowed, as in death feigning. An example of this is when a cat catches a mouse and the mouse’s breathing, heart rate, and body temperature lower to the point that the cat thinks the mouse is dead. The cat lets go of the mouse and the mouse then runs off. It is a slowing down of physiological systems and decrease in muscle tone. We see that reflected in trauma: In response to a traumatic situation, the person may experience the “fight, flight, freeze” response—which includes an activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Or they can also experience a death-feigning response in which the systems shut down, their body becomes hypotonic, and they may have a disembodied experience.

What else is the vagus nerve responsible for?

None of these things work in isolation—it all occurs within networks. For example, the part of the vagus nerve that activates a slowing of the heart rate for a relaxation response is connected to nerves that control the face, head, throat, and inner ear. So when the heart rate slows for relaxation, there is also an increased ability to make social connection through an enhanced capacity to read others’ facial expressions, hear human sounds, and speak in a more pleasant quality of voice. The decrease in vagal tone, as measured through heart rate variability, is associated with a decreased ability in all of these aspects of helping to create better human connection.

Thus, we can use yoga practices to help activate the vagus nerve and the relaxation response, but also to create states of connection or the possibility of connection. When we’re in a vagal response, as it’s referred to, we’re more likely to be calm, peaceful, and at ease, and to feel compassion and empathy.

Researchers often refer to yoga as a “top-down, bottom-up” practice. What does that mean?

This means that we can either use practices that initiate in the mind and affect the body, or we can use the body to affect the mind. A bottom-up example in yoga would be using postures or pranayama to affect the autonomic nervous system, which would then affect the quality of thoughts and emotions. A top-down example in yoga would be using imagery, mantra, or some kind of meditation to affect the autonomic nervous system state, which would then affect the physiological systems of the body

What is the link between this contemporary science and the ancient yogic concept of the gunas?

According to the ancient teachings, the gunas are the three qualities of material nature. Everything is made up of these three qualities or attributes: rajas, which is related to activity and activation; tamas, which is related to solidity and groundedness; and sattva, which is defined as clarity and luminosity. The idea is that we can look at everything in the world, and each object or living thing—a tree, a rock, a human body, even our thoughts and emotions—has a certain proportion of each guna. One goal or benefit of yoga is balancing the gunas in the mind and body.

What strikes me as fascinating is that each of the gunas can be seen to be reflected in these autonomic states as described by polyvagal theory. Rajas is reflected in the “fight or flight” SNS response. In other words, when rajas is predominant, the person is more likely to have the SNS activated and vice versa—when the SNS is activated, rajas is likely to become predominant.  Same with sattva and the social engagement system, and with tamas, which parallels the dorsal vagus response, when the ANS shuts down. When one becomes predominant, it is likely that the other becomes more predominant, or is at least more likely to emerge.

How do yoga and yoga therapy support balancing both the gunas and the nervous system?

The idea is to move away from “yoga for back pain” or “yoga for multiple sclerosis.” Every disease or condition can be looked at through the lens of imbalance in the gunas, or the person’s relationship to the gunas. The yoga protocol is then geared toward balancing the gunas, rather than the specific allopathic or biomedical condition. This allows yoga to stay true to its wisdom tradition and to be provided in its own comprehensive and cohesive framework.

The goals are the same in terms of the nervous system: to create the relaxation response, and also to regulate the ANS and to be able to easily move between the states. That underlying neural or guna state has physiological, mental, emotional, and behavioral effects. To move toward that state of greater balance and resilience, we can use all aspects of yoga—asana, pranayama, meditation, and the yamas and niyamas—as both top-down and bottom-up tools.

Among yoga therapists, teachers, and practitioners, we can use the language of the gunas to describe the balance we’re seeking. But polyvagal theory gives us a way to discuss this concept with medical, clinical, and research experts so they can begin to understand the yoga therapist’s unique scope of practice.

Explore the link between polyvagal theory and the gunas in a workshop with Marlysa at Kripalu’s 27th Annual Yoga Teachers Conference.

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