How exactly does yoga effect our minds, bodies and behavior? The emotions we face daily elicit a very specific set of physical responses in the body. The body and mind are intimately connected – one affects the other. When you are in a calm and serene atmosphere, the body responds by slowing the heart rate and the rhythm of the breath is steady. The mind is quieter and the emotions are more balanced. Whether you are stressed or relaxed, there are physical as well as psychological markers that reflect your state of being.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the physiological mechanism that controls our body’s response to our surroundings. The ANS is made up of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
The Sympathetic Nervous System excites the body and prepares it for action. It is responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response so that we can respond to a potentially dangerous situation. In our plugged-in and over-stimulated world, we are rarely in a true state of relaxation. There is pressure to be constantly corresponding via text, e-mail, and cell phone. Most of us consume too much sugar and caffeine. We are trying to balance our careers and families while trying to find time for ourselves. We are bombarded at every turn to consume and buy a never-ending list of material possessions, none of which will ever bring any real sense of contentment. This permanent state of agitation that many of us experience is a result of being in a chronic sympathetic state. When our SNS is always active, the physiological result is increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, muscle tension, higher levels of stress hormones, higher blood sugar, lowered immune function, lowered digestive function, and the blood-flow is moved towards our extremities away from the core of the body. The mind is erratic, clarity is reduced, reactivity is higher and a feeling of happiness and peace is very difficult to access. This has negative repercussions both psychologically and physically and can lead to a wide variety of health problems.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System is the state in which we rest, digest, reflect and redirect. When the PNS is activated, we experience a lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure, lower respiration rate, lowered muscle tension, lowered cortisol levels, lowered blood sugar levels, increased immune functioning, increased digestive function and our blood-flow is directed to the core of the body. The mind slows down, we see things more clearly, our reactions to the people and events around us are more controlled, and feelings of happiness and peace are much easier to access. This is the state where we can and should be spending the majority of our time.
Yoga is an effective tool to physiologically and psychologically shift from a stressful to a calm state. This is just one of the many reasons yoga should be practiced daily, even if only for 20 minutes. The key element of yoga that triggers the PNS is breathing. Breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary mechanism. Whether we are stressed and breathing fast, or relaxed and breathing slowly, most of the time we are not focused on it. During yoga, the breath is voluntary. Lengthening and deepening the breath slows the heart rate, relaxing both mind and body. Studies have shown that deep, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which may induce the relaxation response. Yoga teaches how to use the breath as a powerful calming mechanism that is always there for you. The constant repetition in yoga practice helps to rewire deeply embedded physical, psychological and emotional behavior patterns. It helps us to shed negative habits and replace them with more healthy ones. Strengthening and lengthening the muscles also helps to trigger the PNS.
A daily yoga practice also helps us to be more self-aware. This awareness helps to bring attention to how much stress we are allowing into our lives and teaches simple ways to bring more relaxation into our day. The breath is the doorway to the mind and body – anytime and anywhere it can be used to bring about a calmer and more healing state. The more time you spend in a calm and relaxed state, the more familiar it will become. Being constantly consumed by stress will no longer seem normal but unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Yoga helps to create this shift every time you practice. A consistent yoga practice has health benefits far beyond just building strength and flexibility and will help you live a long and healthy life.
Try our 20 minute Stress Relief class. Appropriate for all levels, it can be practiced anytime when feeling agitated or anxious.