During a weekend in New York just before Christmas, I had the amazing opportunity to catch up with renowned Ashtanga yoga teacher, Eddie Stern and practice at his shala, the Brooklyn Yoga Club. Lots to learn in this latest episode of our yoga podcast – which could certainly feel, at times, more like a science lesson than an interview. Listen as Eddie describes the vagus nerve, an information pathway for a lot of things that are really important for the yogis. Eddie explains that we are an entire biological mechanism of complementary systems, and so our practice isn’t based on striving and pushing – but in seeking a normal, every-day balance and harmony so we can live a healthier, happier life. And why the yoga, among other things – is a true scientific method.
PODCAST NOTES & EXCERPTS
“It’s a listening practice.”
I think saying it was conversational was nice because essentially yoga is about communication at the led classes. As I’ve said before – it’s a listening practice. Because if you’re rushing ahead to the next thing, that means your mind is projecting forward into the future and expectation. But when you’re just listening … you’re not rushing forward mentally or physically they you’re just listening. And that listening point that’s all you’re doing. There are no expectations. There’s no grasping. There’s no whatever – it’s just, here I am. I’m listening. I’m present.
In the oral tradition which where yoga comes from is about listening. Someone speaking and someone is listening. And then after a while, that person has been listening a long time, and then if they become a teacher then they will be the one is speaking and someone else will be listening. So there’s this whole thing of articulation, receptivity, and then that’s how it’s passed on. That’s what parampara is.
“Guruji used to talk about the nervous system a lot.”
I didn’t know anything about it really, when I was studying with him and so I just investigated on my own and I thought about things and I would ask questions. I remember at one point this was still in the late 1990s, he said that sushumna nadi where kundalini rises up was the vagus nerve. And I’d never heard anyone say that before. I didn’t even know what the vagus nerve was. In fact, I’d never even heard of the vagus nerve. But I remembered it because it just stuck in my mind and I thought what is this vagus nerve and that set me on basically a multi-year study to find out everything I could.
High vagul tone can help reduce inflammatory problems. It’s been found to reduce problems with epilepsy. It can help reverse digestive problems. Also, the vagus nerve is responsible for moderating through the para sympathetic system, the trigger points. So when we have body pain – especially low back pain and things like that – this can be because the sympathetic nervous system is in a hyper arousal or in some constant state of low level inflammation and the vagul break which is controlling the parasympathetic nervous system is impaired at that time. So we want to fix the breaking system so the sympathetic arousal down regulates and then the inflammation can then begin to go away.
“We are a part of complementary systems.”
There’s a lot of research on these things. So when we talk about the nervous system – especially the autonomic nervous system – this is the part of the nervous system that the yogis seem to be most interested in. The sympathetic nervous system is related to activity expressions of activity and the release of particular types of hormones that are coming through either the neural networks or the bloodstream which are moving us towards activity or moving us towards whatever we need to respond to regarding the environment. And the parasympathetic is related to every rest and digest and anything slowing down which is relaxing.
So every time we inhale, we are moving towards activity. That’s a function of the sympathetic nervous system. So the inhale and the sympathetic nervous system, they are part of the same function of energy. Or forget energy – let’s talk science – they are the same expression and function of the physiological process. And then the exhale is associate with the parasympathetic nervous system. So exhale and parasympathetic go together as well …
That’s what our whole physiological system is. And not only are we an entire biological mechanism of complementary systems that are all working harmoniously together, we are also functioning with our external environment. Because we don’t live in a vacuum. We don’t’ live in a bubble. Our whole system is responding then to the environment. When the sun sets, we are going to start getting ready to go to bed.
“We don’t want to feel separate.”
To get past the specialness of the yoga pose is a key part, I think, of a spiritual practice. So I’m not doing something special. I’m doing something normal. And when I’m meditating or praying or chanting – I’m not doing something special. I’m doing something totally normal and calm. Which is harmonizing my whole physiology and biology and my sense of self with the world around me – so it becomes normal for to be here, to interact, to be alive. And not something which is different.
The idea of doing something that is different than what the rest of the world is doing is exclusionary, it’s exclusive, it’s separate. And we don’t’ want to feel separate. We want to feel like we are a part of everything because in reality – whatever reality is – everything is happening at the same time, all the time. Like right now, my whole body is performing a bunch of physiological processes that are all happening right now and your bodies are doing the same thing. And the universe is maintaining itself in different ways in gravity with space and time and whatever, and the unseen energies – everything is happening simultaneously – and we’re part of that simultaneous happening as it’s going on. And so to feel like we’re a part of that simultaneous occurrence of experience or of consciousness or of the world is one way to deal with stress. Because I don’t think we would feel it so much because everything is just happening. And we’re a part of it as it’s just happening.
The Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast is edited and produced by Chris Lucas and hosted by me, Peg Mulqueen. Opening chant by Greg Nardi from the Ashtanga Dispatch Magazine #2 in Digital. Also thanks to good friends who support this podcast over at Patreon who support this show through their monthly donations. If you would like to join them, please visit Patreon.com/ashtangadispatch – Thank you!