Patanjali Ayurveda and Polyvagal Theory

Patanjali Ayurveda and Polyvagal Theory: Fresh Approaches in Ayurvedic Nutrition and Marma Therapy

How do Patanjali Ayurveda and Polyvagal Theory mesh to create more effective healing through nourishment and touch? Many years ago I was fortunate to hear a lecture by Ayurvedic yoga therapist Mukunda Stiles on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I came away from his talk struck by how Patanjali’s description of the  human mind directly apply to nourishment challenges today. It’s supported me in getting my mind to work FOR me, instead of against me, and I’ve been using this approach directly with my clients and students ever since. Here’s how it functions.

Using the Wisdom of Patanjali to cut through patterns effectively

First we get familiar with how the mind works. There are latent impressions (samskara), like how the body feels at the end of a long day. Out of these subtle impressions, thoughts (vrittis) can arise, like “I wonder what I’ll eat tonight?” Thoughts lead to subliminal desires (vasanas) such as “I’m feeling a little hungry.” Once desires arise, they naturally accumulate into kama, full blown desires: “I want to eat.” Out of desire, an action (karma) naturally arises. The action is: whatever you choose to eat. Out of this action, experience (boga) results. “Ah, that felt just right.” or “Darn, I feel too full, that was too much.” or “There’s still an empty corner here…“ Our experiences vary tremendously from person to person and moment to moment. Once we’ve experienced the results of our action, we spiral into the next present moment, and the cycle unfolds again.

There are two key change points in Patanjali’s spiral that I use in my own life. You can find these in the two boxes within the spiral graphic. On the lower left of this image you’ll see a box STAY AWAKE. Let’s start here. This connects with the first key change point, between Full-blown desires and Actions. Once a desire arises, some action needs to be taken. If we stay awake and don’t go numb between desire and action, we have a chance to change old patterns.

The second point of possible change is represented by the box middle right, DON’T ABANDON YOURSELF. Once we’ve acted and experienced the results of an action, thoughts inevitably arise. If we can hold with ourselves with kindness regardless of what we chose to do, we are less like to boomerang into a destructive pattern. This is: not abandoning ourselves to self-judgment and criticism.

Really both boxes could say, GROUND IN AWARENESS. Or, PAUSE AND CHECK IN. These are key skills we’re drawing on to transform habitual patterns.

To note: While I’m describing Patanjali’s Spiral in a sequential way, on another level all of its elements are inter-related and simultaneously impacting one another.

The attitude we hold as we move into Patanjali’s Spiral can sometimes make all the difference in the world. It is a matter of inviting our mind to work for us, rather than against us. Enlisting Polyvagal Theory and the mahagunas of Ayurveda in this dance ups our chances for success.

Polyvagal Theory, our nervous system and Ayurveda

Polyvagal Theory is named after our wandering vagus nerve, which has multiple functions related to digestion, heart rate, mood, and immunity. As part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), it connects with both our REST AND DIGEST-oriented parasympathetic nervous system and our FIGHT OR FLIGHT sympathetic nervous system.

When we are in a balanced parasympathetic state (our Window of Tolerance from a Polyvagal perspective and sattva from an Ayurvedic one) we’re more likely to feel contented, relaxed, alert, aware. This first way the autonomic nervous system handles life is what Polyvagal Theory calls a parasympathetic ventral vagal state, one that supports calm and healthy social engagement. When we are in this Window of Tolerance, it’s easier to move through Patanjali’s spiral and make wise choices. (1)

If, on the other hand, we’re in an over-aroused sympathetic nervous system state, the second way our ANS works with life, we’re more likely to be irritated, anxious, hasty in our choices. What Ayurveda would describe as an excess rajas state. We all get into these states. I think about my rising impatience as I’m put on hold, trying to make an appointment on the phone. It’s one of my tougher challenges in day to day life, not going ballistic when certain kinds of uncontrollable delays happen. My sympathetic nervous system can get aggravated and over-aroused. I’m less likely to communicate well or make the best choices. Yet the sympathetic nervous system is here to do more than bedevil us. A healthy rajasic state stimulates our fight-or-flight responses, getting us out of danger when this is imperative. We need rajas and this second means of response, the sympathetic nervous system, to keep us safe.

There’s a third way our autonomic nervous system responds to life according to Polyvagal Theory. The parasympathetic dorsal vagal system engages immobilizing actions. It is responsible for everything from the healthy rest-and-digest responses of our gut to couch potato behaviors to total shutdown. In Ayurveda, the mahaguna tamas connects with this state. In a healthy tamas situation, we can rest and digest and take time to recuperate from a hectic time. Healthy tamas is crucial for sleep. In an under-aroused imbalanced dorsal vagal state, we could go into total shutdown.

We need all three mahagunas of sattva, rajas, and tamas to function well. From a physiologic perspective, we need all three branches of the ANS balanced for optimal health and well-being. Think about the difference in your life when you take a much-needed break and then go on with your life, versus when you push on past your limits and move into collapse.

The mahagunas look at the qualities of mind we bring to life. Polyvagal Theory explores the underlying physiology of these moods and responses.

Stephen Porges, who developed the Polyvagal Theory to describe how our physiology impacts our moods and responses, stresses the importance of understanding the nervous system when working with trauma.  Humans, especially people who’ve experienced trauma, can move from an over-aroused state of fear to a deeply immobilized state. He talks about this here.

In Ayurveda, we’d say there’s a variety of ways we can catapult from over-aroused rajas to under-aroused tamas. Marma therapy, nutrition, yoga, journaling and Reflective Listening are tools for rebalancing .

To review: Ayurveda and the mahagunas

Ayurveda ascribes three different qualities of mind, the mahagunas, to the attitudes we hold and the ways we move through our worlds.

Sattva (clarity)           Rajas (activity)          Tamas (stability) (2)

Sattva, a calm neutral balanced state of mind, correlates strongly with how our nervous system feels when it is in what Polyvagal Theory calls our Window of Tolerance. It supports harmonious balance and healthy social interactions. As Sienna Chu says, “The wider your window, the greater tolerance you have for stressful events and demanding situations.”

Rajas is a warm assertive state of mind that in a healthy state helps us protect ourselves and work on behalf of others through creative movement. In an over-aroused state, rajas can be pushy, fearful, aggressive, anxious.

Tamas as a healthy state of mind works for stability and holds with what is familiar. It is the “it’s time to stop now” mental state. When we resist it, it can push back. Under-aroused unhealthy states of tamas include dullness, apathy, inertia, ignorance.

How can Patanjali Ayurveda and Polyvagal Theory interact to make an effective shift in patterns?

Both Ayurveda and Polyvagal Theory use simple techniques to bring our awareness into the present moment. In the next blog, you’ll find 4 Quick Ways to Ground in Awareness that you can use to shift challenging patterns with Patanjali’s wisdom.

What do sattva, rajas and  tamas look like when eating?

This is actually a largish question that we’ll look at more in the upcoming Mood & Food course. LINK Yet briefly, let’s go back to the original example at the beginning of this blog, being hungry before dinner. A sattvic response would be to hold with a meal that’s calming and peaceful for us. A rajasic response could be energetically plunging in and fixing something. A healthy tamasic response relates to stability, what’s comfortable and familiar. If this were me, it might include the choice to have an old family favorite food, even if it’s not on my list of ideal healthy foods. When I go out to dinner with my mom, I might not eat in an Ayurvedic way at all. It could be turkey meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and collards.

moment might be around food. It’s closing in on dinner as I write this, so food is on my mind. I might choose to have an old family favorite food, even if it’s not on my list of ideal healthy foods. When I go out to dinner with my mom, I might not eat in an Ayurvedic way at all. It could be turkey meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and collards.

Having eaten out in this hypothetical example, now I’m at the other choice point in Patanjali’s spiral, between thoughts (vrittis) and subliminal desires (vasanas). How am I going to treat myself? If it is with graciousness and kindness, I can relax, enjoy, digest. I’m on my own side. It’s okay not to criticize or judge myself.

I hear you, it can be a slippery slope. Yet if I activate the rajas inside to attack myself, no one is helped. Better to save rajas for when I’ve got time to get myself to the grocery store, buy nourishing stuff THEN actually cook it. Healthy rajas is about getting moving on our own behalf. How we treat ourselves matters.

The wisdom of Patanjali Ayurveda and Polyvagal Theory offers everyday tools. They cost nothing to practice. Simply the price of awareness – and an openness to change.

Now it’s time to stop and fix dinner in real time!: organic pumfu with broccoli and roasted sweet potato. Thanks for joining me on this explore.

My upcoming workshop Mood and Food shows you how to use Ayurveda marma points, journaling and Polyvagal Theory to support the Nervous system and shift emotional patterns that interfere with your efforts for positive change.

If you are looking for effective, easy-to-use and learn tools to transform your mind from foe to friend, register now for Mood and Food.  Registration closes October 29th and 30st. Click on the link to register.

Graphic image much thanks to Marina Athanasiadi

Resources, Footnotes

(1) (I am grateful to Joann Lutz for her valuable book Trauma Healing in the Yoga Zone correlating Polyvagal Theory, the mahagunas, and Yoga.)

(2)  With appreciation to master yoga therapist Gary Kraftsow and his current course on Yoga for Longevity, which approaches the mahagunas with clarity and simplicity.

Updated 10/13/23