Tip of the Week: Yoga and the Autonomic Nervous System
Yoga and the Autonomic Nervous System
We have all heard that if we are stressed we should try yoga. Us type A personalities (yes I am a type A personality and used to be way worse before yoga!) may not be able to understand how 90 min in a hot room can help our stress level. In fact, one might argue 90 min not working or being productive probably would stress them out even more right?—wrong! Yoga does help with stress. Stress is connected to the Autonomic Nervous System. Yoga helps with stress by making our Autonomic Nervous System more efficient.
Let’s go back to the basics first:
Our autonomic nervous system really developed back when we evolved from apes into the species we are now, Homo Erectus. Back then we had 3 concerns: eat, sleep, and don’t get eaten. Therefore our bodies were programmed with hormones to help us seek food when hungry, sleep when tired, and gather all our energy when faced with a stressful situation such as encountering a bear.
We still face situations that stimulate our Sympathetic Nervous System (the fight or flight system), they just aren’t in animal form. Today our stresses come in the form of work deadlines, traffic jams, and juggling kids soccer practices. In fact, our lives have become so full, “stresses” often occupy our minds leaving us perpetually in fight or flight response. What makes this even worse is fight or flight will triggers fight or flight. It is a positive feedback loop and without conditioning your parasympathetic system to take over, your body begins to be in a constant state of stress.
What does Fight or Flight look like?
Elevated Heart Rate
Increased Blood Pressure
Breathing Rate Increase
Muscles Tense (Think shoulders up by your ears)
Remember, fight or flight is actually a positive feedback loop. That means the symptoms of fight or flight lead to more fight or flight response. What does that mean? See below:
Our lives throw so much stress our way, that our brains never activate the “relax” or parasympathetic nervous system. This is where yoga comes in. Yoga trains our bodies to use the sympathetic system when needed, and retrains our parasympathetic system to take over when we aren’t actually in fight or flight.
How does Yoga Retrain the Autonomic Nervous System?
Yoga creates a battle field between your sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic system. On one hand, you are exercising: increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate activating your sympathetic system. On the other hand there are actions and heat built into yoga that activate your parasympathetic system and help normalize your Autonomic Nervous System Function:
Bikram yoga begins and ends with a breathing exercise. Breathing activates the parasympathetic system so you start and end activating your “relax” system.
There are stretches built into Bikram yoga in between “cardio” poses. Stretching also activates the parasympathetic system.
Heat has also been proven to help regulate the Autonomic Nervous System making it more efficient. -Vopr Kurortol Fizioter Lech Fiz Kult 2000
After making it through a Bikram yoga class where your Autonomic Nervous System Battles between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic for 90 min we begin to condition ourselves to handle sympathetic responses better and shut them off quickly by activating our parasympathetic system. This conditioning, makes sympathetic responses in the real world more manageable. We begin to condition ourselves to breath when we hit that traffic jam so we don’t carry our stress into our work day. If we do have a deadline at work we don’t cycle through sympathetic response, we focus and move on. We still hit stressful moments, but yogis train their bodies to realize these everyday “stresses” aren’t as stressful as a bear attack so they are able to tell their bodies to relax when stress is encountered.