Our nervous systems are marvelous, complex, and fascinating things. Yoga allows up to tap deeper into the connection between our minds, bodies, and our reality by working with the nervous systems.
Through practices such as meditation, physical asanas (poses), and breath work, we can access a deeper connection with ourselves, and assist us in our journey to balance and freedom.
There is no doubt that we could spend a lifetime studying the nervous system. Today we will focus on two functions of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic, and parasympathetic responses.
Our central nervous system is made up of fibrous bundles that weave throughout our entire body, not unlike fascia, or veins.
Through the use of millions of sensory receptors, our brain takes in internal and external stimuli.
The brain, like a super computer, then processes and interprets the input of our internal and external environments to decide our actions.
As this input is received and processed, our central nervous system can then activate organs, muscles, and glands to accommodate the appropriate response to the stimuli.
For example, say we are out for a run. Our central nervous system will sense the demand for increased blood circulation, and a greater supply of oxygen needed for our muscles, and thus increases our heart rate.
If the brain senses our temperature rise from this activity, it can respond by activating the eccrine glands in our skin, which will secrete water to the skin surface, where it is then removed by evaporation- hence sweating to cool us.
Next, let’s break down how this happens.
The Motor Division of the Central Nervous System: Somatic, and Autonomic
The motor division of the central nervous system houses the somatic and autonomic nervous system.
The somatic nervous system, which consists of sensory and motor nerves, helps us to monitor and control the parts of our body we can voluntarily move.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for taking action toward response to stimuli without conscious effort. Such actions governed under it’s watch are digestion, heart rate, breath rate, and the release of stress hormones…to name a few.
The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System:
Housed in the autonomic nervous system, our sympathetic nervous system’s primary responsibility is to activate our bodies “fight or flight” response. It does however contribute to keeping our body in a constant state of equilibrium, through the regulation of our systems.
When in a perceived stressful situation, our flight or fight response is activated, (or our brain “steps on the gas” so to speak) and sends a signal to our automatic nervous system causing adrenaline to be pumped into our body.
Once realized, our heart beats faster, and we receive more blood to our muscles, as our pulse and blood pressure increase. As a response to more oxygen needed, our lungs open up small air passages to allow for the most oxygen possible to be taken in and sent to our brain to aid in alertness, and enhancement of our senses.
Once this initial surge recedes, if the situation is still perceived as stressful, the brain then begins the process of releasing the stress hormone cortisol into our bodies to “keep the gas peddle” pushed.
As the stress of the situation resides, our cortisol levels will decrease, and our parasympathetic nervous system will begin to slow us down or “pump the brakes.”
The parasympathetic nervous system is the antagonist of the sympathetic nervous system. When it is active, we can heal, lower our stress hormones, digest, rest and conserve energy, and promote proper glandular function.
Both sympathetic, and parasympathetic function is important to observe in regard to our yoga practice and daily life.
Consider way back when we were cave people, and being chased by lions. The stress response was super important back then, to ensure we survived and weren’t eaten. However, as we’ve evolved, lions (hopefully) are no longer chasing us, but our stress response still exists.
We now assign the activation of our flight or fight response to daily activities that are perceived as stressful such as traffic, arguments, fears, and anxieties. This can lead us to being in a constantly “up-leveled” state, and prone to chronic stress disease.
While we can benefit from the sympathetic nervous systems activation to assist us in challenging poses, dangerous situations, and body regulation, many of us get stuck in this up-leveled state without the ability to down-regulate.
Have you ever had a student who is very fidgety or agitated when you offer time in corpse pose at the end of a challenging physical class? Chances are, that student may be stuck in a state of stress response mind, and unable to come down.
Yoga and mediation can help us to activate our parasympathetic nervous system response.
Encouraging students to participate in stillness, corpse pose, and/or meditation such as yoga nidra can help them to move from an up-leveled state to a down-leveled state. Stress less sequence.
This can be quite beneficial to their overall health, as many who suffer from chronic stress may not achieve a state of parasympathetic activity even when they commit to daily sleep.
In summary, to live a healthy balanced life, we need to healthy function of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system responses.
Taking time in svhadyaya (self-study) can be an excellent starting point to reflect on your current state of nervous system health;
Are you feeling burnt out, stressed, inflamed, un-rested? Perhaps more time spent in mediation, Yoga Nidra, or rest practices could help bring you to a more down-leveled state needed for you to rest, heal, and digest.
Are you feeling sluggish, un-motivated or lacking energy? Perhaps more time spent practicing asanas physically, and getting your heart rate up, could help tone the nervous system with healthy stress.
The science of the mind is wonderful and complicated, but it can ultimately help you craft a more balanced life through daily self-state observation. Harness your practice as a catalyst of growth, and self-understanding potential.
In the words of Jason Crandell:
“Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are.”
Go forward with curiosity, and eliminate the judgments and boundaries that hold you back from living your best life.