Sympathetic nervous system

The best advice I ever received as a yogi

The best advice I ever received as a yogi

I first encountered this radical (hah!) concept in Heart of Yoga by TKV Desikachar (incidentally, the book had such a big influence on me, that I went to India to train at his yoga school, totally changed the way I taught and practiced yoga, and now use it as a text book in our own yoga teacher training.) Man, it shook my world. Wanna know what it was?

More restorative yoga, yeah baby!

Does it seem like a bit of a theme round here right now? It's probably because it's been (more) on Teamm...Yoga's minds since Sophie gave us her talk about autoimmune disorders and how yoga can help. As you may recall if you hang with us on Facebook or get the newsletter, the main takeaway was: slow the heck down to stay well.

legs up the wall

One really interesting study that Sophie quoted in her talk started out saying:

Yoga has been used in the treatment of such diverse health problems as asthma, type II diabetes, fatigue in breast cancer survivors, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep, depression, and anxiety. Mechanistic explanations for yoga's mental and physical health benefits have highlighted reductions in sympathetic nervous system (SNS) tone, and increases in parasympathetic (vagal) activity, both of which could have favorable immune and endo- crine consequences by reducing stress-related responses. However, surprisingly few studies have attempted to relate endocrine or immune function to yoga practice, even though some hatha yoga pos- tures are characterized as immune enhancing or restorative.

To address yoga's impact on inflammation, one key facet of immune function, we compared novice and expert yoga practitioners' inflammatory responses [13]. Despite the fact that novices and ex- perts did not differ on key dimensions including age, abdominal adiposity, and cardiorespiratory fitness, novices' serum interleukin 6 levels were 41% higher than those of experts, and the odds of a novice having detectable C-reactive protein were 4.75 times as high as that of an expert. Differences in stress responses between the groups provided one plausible mechanism for their divergent in- flammatory data; experts produced less lipopolysaccharide- stimulated IL-6 in response to laboratory stressors than novices.

Inflammation is a robust and reliable predictor of all-cause mortality in older adults. (emphasis added by me)

You can read the whole thing here. Basically, learning to calm your fight-or-flight response (reduce sympathetic nervous system tone, in the science-speak) will reduce inflammation, chronic and otherwise, and thereby drop off the severity of many autoimmune symptoms as well as, like the study says, reduce your risk of all-cause mortality. Otherwise known as early...retirement.

The study talks about the endocrine (hormonal) effects of yoga practice, specifically the kind that clams your body. Not the kind that amps you up.

That, friends, means more child pose, and more lying around on the floor. Or in bed, actually.

So, here are four more ways to do that.

Did you download the PDF yet? No, but seriously, you need to. Click here.

Have a lovely, restorative week folks.

Nadine & the mm...Yoga! team.

Child’s pose. Not just for resting.

Child’s pose is almost always referred to as a resting posture (hmmm, guilty), or found in the restorative section of your yoga book or dvd, but it’s also a whole lot more awesome than that and maybe we should give it a little more time and attention.

Child Pose. You can do it in bed.
Child Pose. You can do it in bed.

Here’s why:

Child’s pose puts your spine into the Primary Curve, the same curve your spine has when in the womb.  No wonder you feel so safe and comforted there!  It lengthens the back of the body as you curl your torso over your legs, creating space between the dorsal (top) surfaces of the vertebra of the spine and allowing an increase in flow of prana (energy or vital force) and citta (information or consciousness), or if you’re more scientifically minded it encourages blood flow and transmission of nerve messages through the back of the body (Borg-Olivier and Machliss. 2005).

Of the nerves that branch from the spinal cord, we yogis are particularly interested in those that make up the Autonomic nervous system; you’ve probably heard your yoga teacher talking about the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight or flight’ mode) and the parasympathetic nervous system (‘rest and relax’).

These nerves of the Sympathetic nervous system branch out from the thoracic and lumbar regions of the spine – the middle and upper back, while those of the parasympathetic nervous system are in the top of the spine and sacral area – the neck and pelvis.  In child’s pose all these nerves are gently lengthened, or ‘tensioned’ (one of the few times when that tension word isn’t a bad thing!), mobilising them and allowing them to function more effectively.

Child’s pose also has your forehead resting gently on the floor – or if you’re not so bendy; on your stacked fists or a block, or you might rest your entire body along the length of a pile of folded blankets or even a bolster. Either way, you are encouraged to rest your forehead on something, which gently stimulates one of the branches of the vagus nerve that runs through the forehead (Robin, 2002).

The vagus nerve is an important regulator of the parasympathetic nervous system, and so stimulation of this nerve slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure, decreases tension and levels of cortisol.

Curling yourself into child’s pose draws your awareness inward, it encourages what is known in yoga as pratyahara, a withdrawal of the senses.

This might simply begin with you noticing how the back of the body gently moves with your breath, instead of the front as when you’re upright.  It might be that you close your eyes when in child’s pose, removing that external stimulus to the brain so brainwaves can slow and you become more relaxed.  It is the part where you become quiet and still.  This is the part of child’s pose that can also be confronting, as it removes external distractions and can leave you to deal with any of your stuff that you’ve been ignoring.   (Again, guilty.  Tears are always better out than in!)

It’s about letting go of the external world, and connecting to your inner self so you can really get your yoga happening – that union between body, mind, spirit.

How child pose can calm your nervous system

Suzy headshot

Suzy Taylor is both super smart science geek and, well, super smart yoga teacher. But you probably guessed that already. We also love her earthy humour and her cooking.