Yoga and the Polyvagal Theory Primer

Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal Theory is a dangerous idea! Banners on Wikipedia for the definition for Polyvagal Theory warn of “fringe theory” and notations about the “need to remove technical details.” Now here a response to the icons on Wikipedia, those of the balanced scales of justice and the sweeping broom. Information is the best approach to weigh in and sweep away obstacles to understanding Polyvagal Theory. Take a look at the Wikipedia definition for Polyvagal Theory. Then, read on and finally dive into some of the articles below on Polyvagal Theory and Yoga. Seeing the theory through the lens of Yoga is most enlightening.

Who described the Polyvagal Theory?

No discussion on Polyvagal Theory is complete without first crediting Dr. Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D for the most complete and original description of the Polyvagal Theory in 1995. Since that time he has authored and co-authored numerous articles and books on the subject. And many related articles have credited his theory with a greater understanding of the nervous system and social behavior.

What is Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal Theory adds a third leg to the traditional, simplistic view of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The first two legs are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS, “fight or flight”) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, “rest and digest”). These two branches of the ANS often are described as the gas peddle and the brakes needed to perform necessary automatic functions of the body.

Polyvagal Theory describes a related system that Porges calls the social engagement system of the vagus nerve. The “poly” subdivisions of the ANS inform our neuroception, that innate human ability to quickly detect, assess, and react to safety or danger. The three subdivisions of Polyvagal Theory are PNS systems ventral vagal and dorsal vagal, and the SNS. When we feel safe we are free to be ourselves, communicate openly, use a wide range of facial expressions, and socially engage. When the ventral vagus detects a threat it engages our SNS and prepares our whole body for mobilization. The ventral vagus is part of the PNS that controls breathing, heart rate, hearing, vocalizing and fascial muscles. If that system “fails” with an overwhelming threat our dorsal vagal response is to shut down or freeze.

This third or “poly” part of the better known two part system of fight/flight, rest/digest explains the nuanced behavior of human communication and connection. It also informs a wider range of serious behavioral issues we witness with general stress, PTSD, autism, and a number of psychological conditions. A minor or major shut down or freeze response inhibits our ability to effectively communicate, connect, and socially engage.

Articles on Yoga and the Polyvagal Theory

Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience

Sullivan, M. B., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonaz, S., Taylor, J. N., & Porges, S. W. (2018, February 06). Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Retrieved from
Tapping Into The Power of The Vagus Nerve – How Your Breath Can Change Your Relationships, B. Grace Bullock PhD, E-RYT 500

How does Polyvagal Theory relate to Yoga?

Movement, breath, and body awareness are the key ingredients in a Yoga practice. Body awareness includes both the gross body (the physical body) and the subtle body (the energy body). Awareness of the subtle body in Yoga is the recognition of prana, energy, or the “body electric.” The Polyvagal theoretical leap from Yoga’s energy body to the electrical systems of the autonomic nervous system is a short one! Western psychological approaches such as CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) and ideas of neuroplasticity to change your mind to change your brain all have similarities to the practice of Yoga and Meditation.

Polyvagal Theory is strong evidence-based science that relates to how and why practices such as Yoga and Meditation are effective. Both Polyvagal Theory and Yoga seek to understand the mind’s reactive, negative response to stimulus. Yoga puts theory into practice starting with the first two Yoga Sutras: 1. Atha Yoga Anushasanam – Now, the practice of Yoga begins. 2. Yoga-Chitta-Vrtti-Nordhah – Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind.