How does Yoga work on your Nervous System?
Fighting stress in the modern world with Yoga
It's not that surprising that in spite of the social and technological progress that humans have made over the past millennia, modern life often has us living in a constant state of stress and often in “fight or flight mode”. Busy schedules and stressful situations often place our bodies in “fight or flight mode”. While we may not be consciously aware of it, stressed bodies will activate the sympathetic nervous system, dumping adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones into the body in anticipation for what might happen next — the digestive system is paused, blood is directed to the arms, upper trunk and legs, and breathing and heart rates increase rapidly. Your body is now ready to fight or run away, it sends a signal of readiness to your brain. The brain perceives that the body is ready, and interprets it as confirmation that there is real danger present, the body gets this signal from the brain. This loop continues, keeping the body in “fight or flight mode”. If we wind the story back slightly: the human nervous system is divided into two systems; the Somatic Nervous System which provides us with conscious control over our bodies for activities such as picking up objects or moving limbs; and the Autonomic Nervous System which is in charge of automatic bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure and digestion. The Autonomic Nervous System in turn is split into two further parts; the Sympathetic Nervous System which engages the “fight or flight response”, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System that brings the body back to the normal with the “rest and digest mode”. The Vagus Nerve, which is an important organ of the Parasympathetic Nervous System connecting the throat, lungs, heart and abdominal organs to the brain, is a significant part the Parasympathetic Nervous System that yoga practitioners work on to influence the way the body functions. To break out of the “fight or flight response” loop, the Parasympathetic Nervous System needs to activate (the rest-and-digest mode) and there are two ways to do it:
Convince the mind that there is no further danger, or
Stop the biological stress response so that the body signals the mind that it is no longer in “fight or flight mode”.
The Vagus Nerve which communicates both of those messages, is responsible for transporting most of the Parasympathetic messaging from the brain to the body and vice-versa. The Parasympathetic response which cannot be accessed directly, can be indirectly influenced by stimulating the Vagus Nerve, which is where Yoga is so effective. The Vagus Nerve can be accessed in the following ways:
The vagus nerve connected to the throat, lungs, heart and abdominal organs can be indirectly controlled using depth of breathing (sound familiar?).
The vagus nerve connected to the muscles of the larynx (the part of the throat that opens and closes the vocal cords, and controls the pitch of the voice) can be directly controlled with correct breathing.
Making the Parasympathetic Nervous System work for you
While yoga is much more than a stress reduction method, it's probably one of the most effective ways to deal with stress that has ever been devised. Stress affects a wide range of health conditions, including "stress-related," afflictions such as migraines, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome, and also appears to contribute to more serious conditions such as coronary disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Even diseases such as cancer—of which there is little evidence that stress is a contributing factor—is extremely stressful when it has been diagnosed and being treated. Yoga can help improve the quality of life after diagnosis, and also help to diminish the side effects of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments. Yoga may even contribute to increased rates of survival. Make a start with Yoga classes, or get serious with Yoga Therapy. You don't have to have an illness to benefit from Yoga Therapy. Reducing stress (engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System) is an excellent way to help clear the clutter from your mind, and for you to focus on making your goals happen. Make yoga work for you.
Just Breathe Yoga practices at the Ananda Marga Yoga and Meditation Centre at 51 Sussex Street in Grey Lynn / Ponsonby, Auckland.
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