Whilst yoga has a hugely positive effect on human bodies, helping with the common aches and pains, stiffness and weakness, this articles will be focusing more on the mental and emotional benefits of yoga, specifically on how we not only have the potential but the actual ability to re-wire our reactions to stressful and challenging situations.
The Human Nervous System
The nervous system has two main divisions: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord and the PNS consists mainly of nerves. The PNS is divided into two major parts, the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The somatic nervous system (SNS) is associated with voluntary movements via skeletal muscles. The autonomic nervous system is a control system that acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate etc. The autonomic nervous system is made up of the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, these two divisions have opposing effects on the internal organs they innervate. The sympathetic NS is activated during critical situations, and emergencies whilst the parasympathetic NS is activated whilst at rest, such as during food digestion after eating.
Fight, Flight Or Freeze Vs Rest & Digest, And The Stress Response
The sympathetic NS, in conjunction with stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol being the main ones), initiate a series of changes in our body, including raising blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. As mentioned, these changes help us deal with a crisis situation and evolved as a survival mechanism. They mean more energy and more blood and oxygen flowing to the large muscles of the trunk, arms, and legs, allowing the person to run from danger or do battle (the so-called “fight-or-flight” response).
The parasympathetic NS, in contrast, tends to slow the heart and lower blood pressure, allowing recovery after a stressful occurrence. Blood flow that was diverted away from the intestines and reproductive organs, whose function isn’t essential in an emergency, returns. In opposition to fight or flight, these more restorative functions can be thought of as “rest and digest.” They are also sometimes called the relaxation response.
Unfortunately, we can overreact to stressors that are non life threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties. In our busy and stressful lives, we tend to switch on our sympathetic nervous system more than it’s needed. This leaves the body on high alert a lot of the time. Reducing the time it has to relax and restore and allowing the stress hormones to wreck havoc. A big event or a build up of smaller stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety — for example, a death in the family, work stress or on going worry about finances. People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are.
How Yoga Can Help Rebalance Our Nervous System
Yoga practices, benefit the parasympathetic NS and help to restore balance to the heart and breathe rate and lower blood pressure and the metabolism. There are many different types of Yoga practices, from Kundalini, to Rocket vinyasa, to Pranayama (breathing practices), to meditation-you should choose the practice(s) that feels right for you. Central to all yoga practices are mindful and deliberate movements attuned to the breath and connection to the present, therefore leading us to being aware of being aware. This enables us to observe our behaviours on and off the mat, encouraging us to take the seat of the witness. This can help us eventually teach our parasympathetic nervous system to take over control once again. It signals to the brain that we are safe.
When we allow our parasympathetic nervous system to switch on the body can focus on balance, rest and restoration. One could think of this process as a happy circle (as opposed to a vicious circle): yoga positively affects our rest and digest part of our NS, which in turn can lead to a calmer and more receptive state which is then even more receptive to the grounding and rebalancing effects of yoga.
The Intermediate And Long Terms Effects Of A Yoga Practice
This learning to respond differently to certain situations is, in a way, re-programming our brain to build new pathways of communication and is arguably one of yoga’s most profound effects on health and the nervous system. We do have the ability to alter long-standing behavioural/ reactive patterns and in doing so, we can break unhealthy habits of thought and deed that undermine our health. Sometimes we recognise these habits but are unable to change them, other times we are not even aware of them, either way yoga can help shed light on them and eventually build the qualities to change them. Essentially we start replacing old habits with new choices. Once we become more sensitive to the effects of different actions on our bodies and minds, increasingly we want to do what makes us feel better.
In summary, yoga, helps us break the pattern of over reaction to non life threatening stresses, and in doing so it allows us to spend less time activating the fight or flight response and more time in rest and digest mode. Our body and mind then, are allowed to rebalance and rest rather than being worn down by living in a constant state of high alert.
Have you found Yoga has helped you to keep those stress levels in check.
I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts leave me a comment below…
About The Author
Beth Crivelli in 2011, disenchanted by my fashion career, I decided to swap luxury rags for sweaty shorts to become a Bikram yoga teacher. I have since trained in Yoga Therapy, Livamukti Yoga, Vinyasa flow, Pre- Post natal yoga, Yin, Mat Pilates and taken a number of anatomy and other courses including. As well as teaching Yoga to the general public, I specialise in bespoke yoga for the individual. Throughout my years of teaching, I have come to realise the extent to which we all have different bodies and different life experiences and these create a unique life story for each of us.
I assist my students through movement, breath, meditation and awareness in adapting the practice to their own individual needs- physical, emotional and mental. My public classes are versatile and adaptable but still challenging; I believe there is a pose in each pose for everyone. I provide options and layering so that students are encouraged to use their inner teacher and meet their boundaries whilst respecting their own limits. Through acceptance we can find growth.
Whilst leading the teacher trainings (Hot 26/2, Vinyasa and Yin) for Sadhana Yoga & Wellbeing I encourage trainees to find their own voice and respect the core values of yoga. I teach the trainings from a place that believes yoga is for everyone and has nothing to with performance and all to do with introspection and working to the best version of ourselves we can be.
Yoga truly is a physical, spiritual and ethical practice. Yoga has stretched, healed and strengthened my body, belief system, mind and soul, in unexpected and amazing ways, it has taught me veganism for the animals, planet earth and myself. Yoga continuously challenges changes and shapes you. The practice of yoga is a harmonising self-study, which helps to align one with inner and outer peace, as well as the earth and all its earthlings.
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