The human body is a truly incredible thing. It has so many different systems working away 24/7 to keep us alive and well. And most of the time we are completely unaware of what is going on behind the scenes. But what keeps it all running smoothly? If you will, what is the conductor for this incredible performance?
Your Conductor Tonight Is…
…the good old nervous system! The nervous system is a big old electrical circuit that is constantly communicating between the different parts of our body. Every second, thousands of messages are zipping hither and thither around us as we go about our daily business. These nerve signals gather information from every part of our body and orchestrate the right reactions to create the wonderful concerto that is our body and it’s functions. Most of us will have learned at school that the brain makes our muscles work via nerves and we may recognise the names of some of the nerves. We may also have some hazy recollection of reflex pathways but the rest is probably a bit unclear – right? No problem, allow me to explain.
We have five different parts to our nervous system: the brain and spinal cord (also called the central nervous system), the peripheral nerves, the enteric nervous supply and our autonomic nervous system. They are all made up of nerves that carry electrical messages around the body to control it’s various functions but each has a specific role and yoga can affect each in a different way. Lets start with the autonomic nervous system.
Two Sides Of Your Autonomic Nervous System
Ever heard of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? Together they create the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic side of the system is the one that produces the fright, fight and flight reaction that was so important in keeping cavemen alive when they were faced with ferocious animals. Basically, when we find ourselves in a life threatening situation, we get a flood of hormones that make us ready for anything. Our heart rate rises, our blood pressure goes up, our muscles are alert and our senses are heightened. In other words our body is primed to fight, or run, for our life.
Fear is not the only thing that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system – any form of stress on the body will have the same effect. Anxiety, bereavement, lack of sleep, relationship worries, money trouble, any form of illness, over training and pressure at work are just a few of the things that will increase activity in the sympathetic nervous system. Sadly, few of us live lives free of stress, so most of us have times in our lives when our sympathetic nervous system is highly active.
On the other side of the coin is the parasympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic system is stimulated muscles become less tense while the heart rate and blood pressure lower. The parasympathetic system cancels out the sympathetic system and has a calming effect on the body.
Yoga To Cure Modern-Day Ills
Ideally, these two systems balance each other so that for every fight and flight moment there is a calming, settling time afterwards and the body comes back into equilibrium. Unfortunately, modern life with its stresses and pressure has a tendency to cause a lot more ‘fight and flight response’ with not much calming to balance us. This results in a gradual dominance of the sympathetic over the parasympathetic with resulting health issues like raised blood pressure, raised heart rate, increased muscle tension, digestive problems, headaches and poor sleep patterns. Sound familiar?
The good news is that yoga stimulates the parasympathetic, or calming, side of the equation. It does this through breath control in your āsana practice, during specific breathing exercises, or Prānāyāma, and when you meditate. All of these yoga practices have been been shown to reduce blood pressure and heart rate. So, when you do yoga you are stimulating your parasympathetic system and as a result you will feel calmer, less stressed and sleep better. I know I deal with stress SO much better than before I started yoga because my practice means that my autonomic nervous system is generally in much better balance. However, if I do feel out of kilter, it is no problem because I know that some yoga will sort things out!
Acid Is Bad (and I don’t mean drugs!)
There is a view amongst some medical practitioners, both complementary and mainstream, that discusses the acidity of the body in relation to it’s health. In simple terms, if the body is too ‘acidic’ it will not function well. Things like diet, drugs, sleep patterns, stress levels and illness can all make the body too ‘acidic’. Yoga, with its ability to reduce stress, improve sleep and promote health through the parasympathetic nervous system works to balance our ‘acidity’ and improve our general health and well being.
The autonomic system is only one part of the amazing nervous system but, before we move on to some of the others, maybe it is time to get more in touch with your body and work with it towards better health. Get out your mat, and set an intention to love your parasympathetic system! I’d love to know if it works as well for you as it does for me. Ready for part two? You can find it right here!