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Fight, Flight or Freeze - Svadhyaya in Yoga

The past week or so in my classes, I've been using longer holds, mostly in the spirit of a

transition to a pitta-balancing practice for summer. But what I found there is self-study to the max. Self-study is known in yoga as svadhyaya, which is a critical part of our journey.

In classes, I’ve been inviting my yogis to play around with the idea of sensation – observing the kind of train of thought we end up following when sensation comes up. Here’s what I noticed – these longer hold practices give us a chance to observe and learn some deep stuff about ourselves.

Picture that you’re deep in a chair pose – like 40 seconds in. What’s your mind doing? Begging to get out? Or are your teeth gritted and you’re GOING to be the last one still in your chair – you refuse to give up even after you start shaking? Or are you holding awareness of your breath and yet detached to what’s happening in your body? I noticed this week that it’s a lot of fight, flight or freeze. And long holds help you figure out which might be your own go-to off your mat during times of stress.

Along with this theme, I’ve been reading the quote by Pema Chodron: “When we are able to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy, we gradually learn not to fear it.” Long holds and deep sensation are the perfect place to really feel this quote in your bones for sure.

Fight, flight or freeze is the stress reaction of our sympathetic nervous system. It’s what kicks on when something happens that our lizard brain recognizes as danger or acute stress. Our blood supply runs to the outer extremities to help us react, the heart pumps, the pupils dilate to better observe danger. All of these same responses in effect show up in yoga classes too.

Fighter – Grit your teeth and push push push

I noticed that the fighters in my class will push through absolutely anything before they release the pose. Shaking legs, arms vibrating, clenched jaw, held breath, all of it. Despite the cues, despite the reminders.

I thought about what are those fighters strengths off the mat? If you’re a fighter in yoga class, I bet that when your back is against the wall, you’ll do whatever you have to for the people you love. Or to make shit happen that you dreamed about. You don’t get to be a fighter on the mat without carrying around that ambition into every other area of your life! 

But in the spirit of self-study, does that fighting spirit ever cause a problem? Sure. We all hear it - “my ankle was really hurting for the last 2 miles but I finished anyway” or “I’m pretty sure my back is going to hurt tomorrow after that.” Sometimes we push beyond grit and into compromising the exact thing we’re trying to accomplish. If you’re at yoga for peace, you sacrificed it. If you’re at yoga to strengthen your body, it’s a setback when your pushing ends up in an injury or a tweak. Yoga teaches us moderation and ahimsa.

Flighters – when is this over???

This is me – I'm with you, flighters. Half the time on my mat, I’m reminding myself that I’m actually OK. If you get me 10 seconds into a chair pose, no lie, I’m already thinking “OK how much longer is this going to last? Is this too deep for my low back?” All the while, my mind is racing and it’s nowhere near my breath. I spend half the time just telling myself that I’m actually ok. 

But one of my strengths as a flighter is that I’m not going to stay in a pose so long I tweak something. If I need to, I will leave a pose before the instructor cues it. Flighters are resourceful. If they need something, they’ll find a way to get it, usually taking the most direct path. They aren’t going to put up with something that doesn’t serve them, and they certainly aren’t going to ask that of the people they love. They care for those around them by getting them what they need and keeping them safe.

What can flighters miss out on if we aren’t mindful? Sometimes we sacrifice grit for fast results. This is certainly true for myself as a flighter. Sometimes we miss opportunities to confront the uncomfortable, to learn to become more comfortable with discomfort, to build tapas.

Freezers – I'm not really here (sung in Kimmy Schmidt voice)

Sometimes our freezer friends are SO hyper focused on the breath, they’re missing the discomfort in their bodies. They don’t notice it until later. Freezers also might be taking their cues only from everyone else rather than their own bodies. The idea is that freezers have a way of stepping outside their bodies to avoid the discomfort. To check out for a moment because it’s what they need to do to stick it out. They stay in these long holds, not as a choice, but as a result of distraction. Freezers are looking to numb what doesn’t work.

What are the freezers’ strengths? These yogis are resilient as can be. They are the lotus in the mud and they know how to weather the storm. Freezers are the ones you want by your side when the shit hits the fan, because they’re going to be the first ones picking up the pieces. You freezers can keep on keeping on despite anything, and I'm jealous of that!

What are the freezers missing? They can set aside the mindfulness that’s necessary in yoga. The intentionality in our body and breath that makes it yoga instead of calisthenics. The alignment that keeps us safe in poses sometimes fades from our attention. Even the awareness to back off something that’s going to cause pain or strain.

So what does that tell us?

We all have strengths and weaknesses as people. What I didn’t fully realize until I saw it recently, is that the practice of self-study is ripe on our mats. There is so much to observe about who we are and how we react there, that really does apply to the rest of our lives. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it!

This information lets us approach our practice from the angle of building skills in the areas we most need them. As a flighter, now that I’m aware, I’m doing more yin and longer holds to get used to this feeling of sticking it out and learning to be ok. The thing we like doing the least is usually what we need the most.

We can also use this practice of self-study to really understand our own tendencies and skills beyond the mat. Now that I understand my flighter-ness to be resourceful and actionable with purpose, I appreciate why that’s my reaction. But with that understanding, I’m also able now to really wrap my mind around why it’s ok to stay this time. 

In those poses of long holds or lots of sensation, yoga is asking us to respond at a high level, rather than react. To really assess, calculate and decide on where it’s best for us to be, rather than just let our nervous system react for us. When we can learn how to approach these deep spaces on the mat, it’s easier for us to step into deeper spaces in life.

All 3 students, the fighter, the flighter and the freezer, are practicing in their own way, the energy that Pema Chodron outlines. The fighter fights, the flighter flees and the freezer freezes because of fear. Exposure and understanding are the antidote to fear. 


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