Updated: Nov 18, 2021
This past 18 months or so has played havoc with our nervous systems. So much change, uncertainty, frustrations and grief. Most of us have heard that yoga can be a good remedy when you are feeling stressed, anxious, or struggling with sleep. But why?
Today I wanted to give you a short introduction at exactly how yoga is good for calming our nervous system, and some of the tools we can start to incorporate as life starts to feel full, overwhelming, changeable or all of the above.
The nervous system - a simplified view.
Basically speaking, our nervous system works via connecting channels from the body to the brain, and vice versa. You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response - something that happens when you feel acute levels of stress, and adrenaline is released. This is our sympathetic nervous system in action, which sends messages from the primal part of our brain, preparing us for danger.
Another type of stress we often encounter is the more long term, constant background stress, or more commonly thought of as 'worrying.'
Those to-do lists that are constantly buzzing at the back of the mind. This in turn releases a steady flow of the cortisol hormone, which will start to affect our immune systems, sleep patterns, menstrual cycles, and digestive issues if left unchecked.
The stress responses are still vital...
Now it’s important to note that these responses aren’t all bad. They helped our ancestors survive challenging environments. In our modern day setting they help keep us focussed and driven in our daily tasks. They can promote digestion, activity, and performance, IF in balance.
Issues only start to arise as we struggle to drop out of this 'go go go' mode, and into our parasympathetic nervous system, or our ‘rest and digest' state.
Going back to this idea of balance, we should be fluidly switching from one to the other, depending on what is required of us. the pressures of modern day to day life, have meant that switching over, or switching off, is becoming more and more challenging.
There are many aspects of yoga that can help us in this process of learning to truly relax. To fully drop into a deep state of rest, where we feel safe and supported.
The what, how, where and when?
The connection to our breath is key here, and plays a major role in most yoga practices, from a more dynamic vinyasa class, to a deep stretch yin class. Take this a step further and much of what we do in a yoga class is to cultivate this mind body connection. To notice small sensations in the body, from top to toe. Moving our bodies in different ways after a day at the desk, also increases blood flow, warmth, and the mobility of our joints.
Regardless of which type of yoga you practice, we aim towards this presence, focusing fully on what is happening on the mat. All these aspects together, help send messages to the brain that the body is safe. As we start to feel safe and calm, we relax, our breath becomes slower, our heart rate starts to drop, as do our stress levels.
Each individuals experience is so different, I encourage you to have a play, explore, test and retest, until you find your own flow that helps you drop more ease-fully into this state of calm. Here are some suggestions....
One of the quickest and most effective ways to calm the nervous system is via the breath. One of the simplest methods is Sama Vritti, or box breath.
First find a comfortable seat, and soften the belly and face.
Start with an inhale for four counts, and exhale for four counts. Once you’ve started to become comfortable with the breath, explore a pause at the top, and at the bottom of the breath. If it feels ok to do so, lengthen these pauses to four counts, creating a ‘square breath.’ Repeat 5 - 10 times.
You can find some guided 15 minute sessions on your free subscribers channel HERE.
Restorative poses using support
To drop into a deep state of rest, using props like bolsters, bed pillows, blocks, or blankets, can be a beautiful way to practice restorative yoga, and down regulate the nervous system.
Some examples of using support props:
Wide legged child's pose. Place a bolster or two pillows length ways on the mat, resting the torso and one cheek. This brings the ground up to you, taking some of the strain from the hips and helps the body relax.
Supta badha konasana. Lay the length of the spine along the bolster with the head end raised above the heart, using a block or extra cushion beneath. You could also try wrapping a rolled blanket or strap, around the ankles, drawing it under the knees, and tucking it under the pelvis, providing extra support and a feeling of security.
Forward folds. Any supported forward folding helps further guide this introspection, especially if the forehead can rest on a raised support, providing gentle pressure at the calming third eye centre, making it an ideal bedtime pose.
In summary ... it's all helpful
So much of what we practice in yoga is intrinsically linked to the nervous system, and this journey of switching from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic state. The breath, the practice of embodiment or mind body connection, the supported poses - it all relates back to one of the over arching principles of yoga.
The practice of simply pausing, and noticing.
Becoming the observer, the witness, and dropping into a state of being, as opposed to doing.
Not simply because we deserve it, but because it's VITAL to our wellbeing.
(and some deep breaths)
Love, Rachel x