Have you ever finished a long day of work sitting at a desk, and felt like you were too tired to move- even though you barely moved your body all day?
Do you struggle to stick with a “workout” program because it always ends in burnout or injury?
Have you ever tried to sit down and meditate, and immediately fallen asleep?
Or tried to sit down and meditate, and felt like you were going to jump out of your skin because it is SO HARD to sit still?
In all of these (really common!) scenarios, the missing link is often a lack of understanding about how our nervous system works, and how we can support it.
Training the body without an understanding of our nervous system is like driving a car without looking at the instrument panel. The car will move whether you’re paying attention to those dashboard lights or not— but you won’t know that the car isn’t running well until it leaves you stranded on the highway.
When we’re reading the dials (so to speak), we can understand when we are operating in a state of overwhelm that needs to be addressed. We can use our bodies and minds together to discharge stress hormones, shake ourselves out of a freeze response, or find new ways to address recurring challenges.
We also need to understand that our body is affected by more than just movement. Stress strains our body’s resources. That might be stress from work, ongoing trauma, relationship issues, or it could be the stress of not feeling cared for, not moving enough, not sleeping well or not getting proper nutrition. Training the body without respecting the nervous system can leave us frustrated, depleted, or, worse, injured or sick.
Training the mind without this understanding can lead to a profound disconnection of our somatic (body) wisdom. I’m reminded of one of my favorite meditation teachers, who says that “yoga people are too much in their bodies; meditators are too much in their heads.” Many meditators can get really, really good at using meditation to dissociate from their present experience; it’s difficult for them to connect to sensations or messages from their body.
If you struggle to sit quietly in meditation, or you find yourself frustrated by countless failed attempts to start an exercise program (injured or burnt-out yet again), an understanding of the nervous system may be what’s needed to bridge your mind’s desires with your body’s capabilities.
I know that on any given day, my nervous system determines how much I am physically and mentally able to handle, as well as the type of movement or work that is going to be most beneficial.
I adjust my training and meditation volume and input according to what else is going on in my life. Sometimes that means I don’t do very much at all– other times, it means I need to do a little dancing, or stretching, or take a long walk.
A good teacher, coach or trainer will help you learn to access those dashboard controls rather than mindless “encouragement” to push through pain (right now I’m looking at a “fitspo” Pinterest board that tells me to “Stop trying to skip the f*cking struggle,” “My body says no more, my mind screams two more!,” and “Show up when you’re tired, that’s discipline!”). That approach is neither sustainable nor does it produce the best results. Instead, nervous system awareness and support provide the structure to train our bodies and minds to their safest and greatest capacity.
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that we can work mindfully with our nervous system for greater success in our movement and meditation practices– stay tuned!