By Aaron Teich, May, 2012
“Watch where you’re going!” That was the immediate, angry response I received after I accidentally bumped into a stranger on the street the other day. I felt a strong surge of emotion arise inside of me, and it required conscious effort to reign in the urge to shout back in my own defense.
In Kundalini yoga, there is a lot of talk about “strengthening the nervous system.” Many of its postures, breathing practices, and movements are designed to do just that. But why? Of course, strong bones and muscles are good—but a strong nervous system?
To answer that question, it helps to remember what our nervous systems do. Put simply, our nervous systems translate our intentions into physical action. For example, in order to start to move into triangle pose, you first need to have the intention, “I want to move my feet.” After receiving this intentional thought, your nervous system translates that thought into action: it rotates your left foot, followed by a slightly larger rotation of your right foot. In this way, our nervous systems act as a translator, manifesting the intention of our minds into the actions of our bodies.
When we’re in yoga class, we are often asked to hold challenging poses—whether it’s downward dog, wheel, or boat pose. And while holding these poses certainly strengthens our muscles, at a deeper level it also strengthens our nervous system’s capacity to carry out our intention. It’s in that moment during the fourth or fifth breath of downward dog, when our legs are tired and our arms are shaking, that we have to hold a strong intention in the mind in order to endure the challenging situation. “Stay in the pose,” we tell ourselves, “Breathe.” And our nervous systems respond accordingly. The long-run outcome of practicing yoga is the strengthening of the nervous system and the development of tolerance—both on and off the mat.
When I bumped into that stranger, anger and defensiveness started to well up in me, similar to how fatigue and desperation can well up during challenging yoga poses. As in yoga class, I breathed through my discomfort and set a clear mental intention: “Stay calm.” My nervous system responded, and I replied to him in a soft voice, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you.” He instantly froze, confused by my quiet sincerity. And then something magical happened—his anger instantly dissipated. “That’s alright,” he said with a soft smile.
In day-to-day life, we often find ourselves in situations that provoke anger, sadness, or stress. The more we strengthen our nervous systems in yoga class, however, the more tolerant we will be when faced with these situations out on the street. In fact, some would go so far as to say that learning to maintain equanimity off the mat is the reason for getting on the mat in the first place.