In the previous post we highlighted the physical changes that happen inside the brain while practising yoga, meditation or pranayama (breathing exercises). However, it is well known that the positive power and serenity that we feel after a yoga class, do not stay only in the brain. What we experience is rather a mixture of colourful vibes that irradiates in the whole body, making us calm, relaxed and energised at the same time. The protagonist of these beneficial transmissions is our nervous system that distributes signals from the brain to every end of our wonderful body.
We could symbolise the nervous system as a National rail map where we have the Central station, (our brain), and the rails that travel all around the country (our body). Some tracks are bigger and busier (eg.spinal nerves) others are smaller and quieter (eg. nerves at the end of our fingertips). Nevertheless, they all have an important job to conduct as without them we could not perform as a unity and communication within ourselves will be missing.
Our Nervous system is quite complex but for the purpose of this yogic article, we will concentrate on the so-called “Autonomic Nervous System” (ANS). This portion of the Nervous system is what looks after muscles and glands, therefore its role is to influence and control the function of internal organs. Not only it is the director of our passive bodily functions regulating heart rate, digestion and respiratory rate, but it is also responsible for the “Fight or Flight” or “Rest and Digest” response taken by our mind and body in reaction to a stressful situation.
It is well known that when we encounter a difficult situation our reaction is either to fight or flight. This response is triggered by the Sympathetic division of the ANS which takes control of the situation mobilising the body, producing a hormonal cascade that pushes the body to literally fight or flight. In this scenario, the stress response is activated releasing hormones like Adrenaline and Cortisol, which increase blood pressure, blood sugar and suppresses the immune system. Physical and visible effects are heart rate increase, bladder relaxation, shaking, dilated pupils, flushed face, dry mouth and slowed digestion.
On the contrary, when we face a relaxing condition, the other and opposite portion of the ANS, called Parasympathetic nervous system, manages the response. In these circumstances, we have the renowned “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” actions where the nervous system promotes “housekeeping functions” of the body and conserves energy. Therefore, a sense of wellbeing is promoted, energy is conserved, hormones and neurotransmitters like GABA (also found in drugs prescribed to improve mood and decrease anxiety), Serotonin and Dopamine are released and physical effects are slower heart rate, better digestion, improved immune system and fuller and relaxed breathing.
As you can understand by reading the differences between the two responses, it is obvious to declare that an ideal situation for our body and organism is where Parasympathetic activity presents itself more constantly than the opposite Sympathetic reply. Doing so vital organs are in a state of relaxation working more efficiently and correctly. Not only that, but imagine what this means to our respiratory system, which fully intakes oxygen and fully outturns carbon dioxide; or to our heart, which pumps more effectively and at a constant rate, distributing equal oxygen to every periphery of our body; or to our circulatory system, which works at its best promoting excellence exchange of juicy nutrients and expulsion of toxins from every single cell.
It is significant to mention that both stressed and relaxed responses are important in our life, as the Sympathetic reply makes us alert and better able to react to the challenges ahead. However, if “fight or flight” attitude is switched on easily and constantly in our daily routine, it will lead to adrenal fatigue and overstress. That is why we should do anything in our power to keep “rest and digest” mode active, our long-term health depends on it.
Asana practice, Pranayama and Meditation are excellent tools to help us to improve and reinforce the Parasympathetic Nervous System keeping stress levels to a minimum. More specifically, through an Asana practice, we are able to activate, deactivate and switch between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic responses.
Just think at the postures that we take and follow through an Asana practice: we bend forward, switching on relaxing signals placed at the base of our neck, arch and extend backwards, triggering stress signals still placed in our neck, find and keep balance, activating our logical brain which goes hand in hand with parasympathetic response, hold a specific pose for few breaths or even longer sometimes, which activate at the same time both side of the ANS. In this case, while we concentrate balancing, contracting muscles and holding a posture we set in motion the logical brain division which logically induces the “fight or flight” response. However, at the same time, while staying still and concentrate, the emotional brain division takes part in the game activating the relaxed response taking us in a “rest and digest” state. This contest is really interesting as it gives us the possibility to train our logical side of the brain, therefore our parasympathetic nervous system like a muscle. The more we challenge it, the more it will get stronger giving us the possibility to take outside of the yoga class the benefits and the positive responses bringing them with us in our life challenging moments.
The key to success in this process is to create and/or participate in an Asana practice where sequences and postures are followed in a well-formulated progression where both sides of the brain and both side of the Anatomic Nervous System are triggered giving us stressful moments in a controlled and relaxed environment. Doing so the logical brain and Parasympathetic System needs to work harder in order to overcome the emotional and Sympathetic System becoming forceful and ready to activate in an unexpected demanding moment.
The Nervous System simply follows commands sent by the brain. As mentioned at the beginning of the post, the Nervous System acts like a rail net that, by activating specific hormones and neurotransmitters, delivers messages to the rest of the body setting in motion different responses, physical and visible changes and, to a microscopic level, impacts the essence of ourselves: thousands and thousands of cells. Those are the smallest and most important parts of our life as they contain our DNAs, our peculiarity, our core. When a new life takes shapes, it starts from a single cell, that duplicates, quadruplicates and exponentially multiplicates revealing our true self. Stay tuned to discover how yoga impacts such a tiny level in the next yoga post.