Written by Nicole Turner
According to the American Psychological Association, “chronic stress is officially linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide - and more than 75% of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. This unfortunate fact is what has continued to make self-soothing techniques, such as meditation, relaxation, exercise, or even socializing with friends, studied as possible treatments. With the popularity of yoga continuing to grow throughout the world, western medicine has finally taken notice and started to prescribe yoga for stress relief.
A recent letter published by the Harvard Medical School states that, “Yoga reduces the impact of exaggerated stress responses, thus reducing perceived stress and anxiety.” This, in turn, decreases types of physiological arousal (heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration). There is also evidence that yoga helps increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly. I’ve always known the nervous system plays a vital role in our health and well-being, though before my advanced teacher training with Zuna Yoga, the details of how this system works, the positive and negative effects it has on the body and mind and the techniques of practicing yoga for stress relief, were still being mastered.
I think it’s fascinating that the nervous system coordinates and controls ALL of the activities of the body AND interprets, communicates the conditions of the outer world and then responds to these conditions either through action, thought or both. The clarity of communication is determined by programmed and learned responses, toxicity, diet, stress, emotions, ego and malfunction. This is why much of the work done in yoga for stress relief is directed towards conditioning, revitalizing and management of the nervous system. When we spend too much time in one state, we lose the capacity to stimulate the other. WOW.
The Nervous System and why we need to control it
The nervous system is comprised of:
- Central Nervous System (CNS)
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
- Enteric Nervous System (ENS)
The CNS is comprised of the brain and spinal cord engaging our “fight or flight” stimulations – our most primitive activity. When this system is engaged, the following increases:
- Adrenal gland production
- Stress related hormones
- Blood flow to the internal organs to provide energy for quick movement
FACT: our body and its related systems are unable to differentiate between life threatening situations, work related pressures, or emotional and psychological stress. Some of which include, competitive lifestyles and external pressures from personal finance, romance, family, friends, or world events. The body will always respond the same. Thus much of modern society’s time is spent in “fight or flight” mode and activation of the SNS. The PNS is our sensory organs (skin and neural tissues) that engage the “rest and digest” response. When this system is engaged the following decreases:
- Blood flows away from the limbs moving towards the internal organs for digestion
- Nutrient absorption
Usually, once all this happens, we feel relaxed, composed and calm. Since yoga makes us feel the same way, using yoga for stress relief is typically very successful. The ENS is the and third least understood component of the nervous system - including nerve cells that reside in the wall of the gut and alimentary canal (the entire digestive system) – often called the second brain. These neurons enable us to feel the inner world of our gut and its contents, controlling gut behavior and the brain. This is where the term “listen to your gut” or “butterflies in the stomach” comes from. It’s an intuitive awareness stemming from this mass of neural tissue, filled with neurotransmitters ultimately determining our mental state. It also encompasses the “Vagus Nerve” our primary visceral nerve which is how information gets carried from the gut to the brain.
“95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels and that 70% of our immune system is in the gut” – Scientific American
With this said – the main focus of yoga should be to reduce the SNS and not burden the PNS with the obstacles of digestion, constipation, diarrhea, elimination, asthma, menstrual cramping or sexual excitement. When our body is finally relaxed, our mind can relax, our engagement with the world is done through a state of calm, and we have the ability to access the higher states of being, reasoning and the most beautiful expressions of ourselves.
The Nadi System is the energetic equivalent to the nervous system carrying life force, prana or energy throughout the body. In Indian medicine and philosophy, it’s a pipe consisting of nerves, blood vessels and the pulse. They connect at certain points of intensity referred to as the Chakras. Learning to balance and open the Chakras, is also beneficial in reducing stress during a yoga practice and you can do this with essential oils, chanting, breathing, movement, meditation, mudras and more.
“I think the science (in addition to the spiritual philosophy) behind yoga is essential to communicate to modern society for there to be a transformation of how the western world uses the practice”
Understanding the nervous system and whether or not a person experiences ‘hyper’ or ‘hypo’ conditions are essential in designing classes and wellness programs to fit the needs of an individual.
The Goal of Yoga
During my classes, I hope to help people understand that yoga is not an exercise. With consistent practice, your body will change shape and you will become more flexible, however, this is not the goal. Engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system through asana, pranayama and mediation, Ayurveda and other tools for a more balanced body, mind, and soul will lead you to the ultimate goal of yoga: self-realization - and through this, a single-person can make a difference, inspire others, and be the change they want to see in the world.