For over 5000 years, the mysteries of the nervous system have been studied by some of the greatest minds in both philosophy and science. In the last 30 years, neuroscience has taken off with the discovery of modern imaging techniques has left no stone unturned, including spirituality, mindfulness, and of course, Yoga!
But first, let’s talk about the stress response. Simplistically stated, something happens (a stimulus)!! And the brain decides if it’s a threat. This decision happens in the middle of the brain, with major input from the amygdala (emotions) and the hippocampus (past experiences), and some help from the frontal cortex (decision maker). Once it’s GO time, the signal of DANGER!! travels through the relay centers of the brain (thalamus, hypothalamus, and pituitary gland) and ends up in kidney signaling the creation of cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). These magical packets of information travel to the rest of the body leading to increased heart rate, breathing and blood flow; signaling the muscles to tighten in preparation to respond. In these milliseconds, resources (blood, glucose, energy, awareness) moves away from the digestive and immune systems to the arms, legs, and brain; so we can fight, flight, or freeze.. This response evolved out of necessity to respond quickly to predators, AND, we also need time to rest, and digest, not just our food bur also our life experiences and emotions.
Many of us are living in a constant state of a hypervigilant nervous system, due to an over-triggered, and unregulated, stress response. Over time, all that extra cortisol being released into our hippocampus can become toxic, making it more challenging to recall or create memories; and it can also lead to weight gain, mood swings, and other physiological interferences. This overactivity is partly due to our amygdala’s influence in the beginning stages, and the ways in which fear often drives, or overrides, the decision-maker. Also, partly due to a nervous system efficiency hack expressed best as “whatever fires together, wires together” (Donald Hebb, 1949). We’ve prewired our nervous systems to over respond. A little bit of hyperbole: we are living our lives as if there are tigers lurking in our inboxes, or the whole world is against us. Traffic, constant connection through our phones, lack of work boundaries; all coupled with tendencies to numb or run from silence, have contributed to our bodies’ inability to rest, restore, and recalibrate. Put into other terms, we are spending too much of our waking lives in a sympathetic nervous system state, when it’s necessary to have more a balance with the parasympathetic nervous system state. Most people genuinely don’t know how to rest, and may be inadvertently sending themselves more out of balance.
Now for what that means for your Yoga practice:
Much of modern Yoga asana, think hot, power, push-to-your-edge may be doing our nervous systems more harm than good. I’m definitely talking to you if you skip savasana, or cut out as soon as the floor sequences begin. ;) Luckily, there are tools for our Yoga practice that can help keep our nervous system in balance.
✨ Grounding as a focus (think feet and seat)
✨ Longer exhales, more time to release
✨ Use ALL the props! Support, support, support!
✨ Extra time in forward folds and twists
✨ Practice with your eyes open, keep them oriented on the horizon.
✨ Long(er) savasana
✨ Yoga Nidra
There’s no one-size-fits-all for the Yoga asana practice, and while these suggestions may work for some, others reading may benefit from a more energizing practice.
Permission to adapt daily, followed by a challenge: stay for savasana!! :)
Bonus: Try one of these YouTube videos for a nervous system reset