Research has proven that yoga decrease inflammation, boost immune system function, and improves symptoms associated with chronic health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Yoga has also been proven to reducing depression, stress, and anxiety. These amazing benefits largely have to do with how yoga affects our Central Nervous System.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is division of the peripheral nervous system that regulates ones unconscious actions and it is divided into two parts, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Our systems are always operating at a mix of the two, not one or the other. The two systems complement each other and both are necessary for the healthy being.
The sympathetic nervous system is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Its purpose is to prime one for action when a threat is near. When operating mostly in this system, one’s eyes dilate to be able to see better, the heart increases the rate and force of contraction, blood rushes to the extremities and muscles, the body begins to sweat, and the internal systems of the body slow. This way the body can conserve the energy necessary to confront the immediate perceived threat. In addition, the breath quickens.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite and it is commonly referred to as ‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’. When this system is mostly in control the blood moves internally so that the internal systems can function more efficiently. All of the systems, digestion, immune system, elimination system, and the fertility system, get a boost. The heart rate decreases, the eyes constrict, and the salivary glands function more effectively to boost the digestion of food and indirectly allow for better absorption of nutrients. The body also heals in this state. The heart rate slows and the neurochemical acetylcholine is released. Acetylcholine is the ‘key’ to relaxation. And, of course, the breath naturally slows.
It must be noted that neither one of these systems is good or bad in and of itself. They each have an important role. In addition, it is a give and a take between the two. The Sympathetic system could be seen as the accelerator and the parasympathetic system could be called the brake. Right now, in order for you to be focused and reading this blog post you have to be using the Sympathetic System to some degree.
Studies have proven that in our modern society our bodies are operating more often in the stress response, the sympathetic nervous system. This is partly because of our hectic and busy lifestyles. It has also been linked to all of the noise and lights of the cities, the fact that we are less connected with nature. It addition, it has been proven that our bodies do not know that difference between threats that we observe with our senses and real life. Thus, even watching a scary scene on TV elicits the fight or flight within us.
It is not healthy to be in a perpetual state of stress. The body does not heal properly when in this state, the immune system is not as useful at fighting disease, we do not eliminate all of our toxins, and our digestion isn’t as productive.
Yoga helps us to release stress and tension. As many instructors put it, yoga balances our autonomic nervous system (ANS), allowing us to move between the ‘accelerator and the brake’ in a healthy was.
In yoga we induce the relaxation response in several different ways including consciously relaxing muscles, taking full breaths, practicing breathing exercises, meditating, relaxing the tongue on the bottom of the mouth, and resting in Savasana.
The link between the breath and the ANS is a two way street. As yoga instructors or practitioners we can use this link to our advantage depending on our desired outcome. When we slow the breath, the heart rate slows and our body ‘shifts’ into more of the parasympathetic system. Of course the converse is true as well. The Vagus Nerve (longest of the cranial nerves, extending from the brainstem to the abdomen) and some chemical neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body) account for these effects of breath patterns on heart rate and subsequently on shifting the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the ANS.
Long story short, yoga has been proven to be good for your health for many reasons and the balancing of our autonomic nervous system positively impacts our mental and physical health.
So take a few deep yoga breaths now and enjoy the benefits!
See you on the mat soon ☺