Stress Less: Why Yoga's Boss for Your Central Nervous System

The central nervous system is involved in pretty much everything we do, from moving and sensing, to creating thoughts, awareness, and memories. The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord, and you can think of the CNS as our processing centre, with the brain as its headquarters. It’s the spinal cord’s job to carry signals from the brain to other parts of the body, which it does via a network of nerves.

As I find myself talking more about the nervous system in my yoga classes, and less about shapes and isolated parts of the body I thought it was time to set down some definitions and applications for students and anyone else out there who is interested in this topic.

Why is the CNS central to my yoga practice?

Without the central nervous system, there can be no movement! The spinal cord carries motor signals which have to do with making voluntary movements. So, when your yoga teacher tells you to move your right foot forward between your hands, that instruction is translated in your brain and passes through the spinal cord as motor signals, which then trigger the appropriate muscle groups needed to move. Of course, all of this happens within a fraction of a second.

The CNS also helps us differentiate between states of comfort and discomfort – this might include moving from one position into another, or the point at which a held pose moves from being comfortable into tension, and perhaps pain, in the body.

The CNS is of vital importance to our yoga practice, as it signals to us when to move out of a position that’s causing pain. But, on the other hand, it also ‘tells’ us when we’ve become more comfortable performing movements which were previously difficult.

This leads us to the idea of ‘body mapping’ – a term I first heard about from the author of Intelligent Yoga, Peter Blackaby. As we develop from childhood to adulthood, our brain notices the types of activity we most regularly need to do (e.g. walking, sitting, folding forwards, etc.). It’s because of the nervous system that these movements become automatic.

Because we perform these movements ‘unconsciously,’ we may not notice that we have developed biased ways of moving. For example, favouring one leg for balances or ‘resting on one hip’ when we stand. The quiet focus we cultivate in yoga draws our attention to these areas of disharmony in the system.

‘How we unpick helpful habits from the unhelpful ones is a large part of our yoga practice and when we repeat movements regularly, we begin to map them in the brain.’[1]

Sympathetic or parasympathetic?

The terms ‘sympathetic’ and ‘parasympathetic’ describe the two divisions of our automatic nervous system (ANS), the part of our nervous system that regulates involuntary action. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for activity by accelerating heart rate, raising blood pressure, and inhibiting digestion. The sympathetic nervous system is often associated with our fight-or-flight response.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, slows the heart rate and facilitates digestion, as well as other basic bodily functions. Whereas the sympathetic nervous system is triggered by high-intensity and emergency situations, the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered when threats are removed and when the body is at rest. Parasympathetic responses are often referred to as rest-and-digest.

We can apply these two ideas to movement. Think about having to complete an obstacle course against a timer: your body would have to respond quickly to changing terrain, and your heart rate and breath would get faster with the exertion. This type of physical activity would trigger our sympathetic nervous system to complete it successfully.

Now think about how we often end a yoga class – in Savasana, or Corpse Pose. In Savasana, we lie supine and receive support from the ground through as much of our body as we can. The teacher often asks us to pay careful attention to our breath or on relaxing various muscles. In this case, our parasympathetic nervous system is triggered so that the body can relax, and we can give attention to our felt sensations.

How does yoga affect the nervous system?

While we can’t control many of the things our nervous systems do, the growing field of research into neuroplasticity tells us that the things we do repeatedly, or that happen to us in our lives, can actually change the neural connections in the brain. This neuroplasticity can ultimately lead to a change in the way we live and feel about our life.

Here are some of the ways a yoga practice can affect our CNS:

· Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system: many practices within the yoga tradition, such as quiet asana, breathwork, and meditation, produce a calming effect within the body. The brain takes cues from our body and determines that ‘all is well,’ and as a result, mental stress and distraction are reduced.

· Improves function in muscles: during the movements in a yoga class, our nervous system communicates with the muscles – alternately contracting and relaxing muscles, bearing weight, and stretching passively. Over time, this can lead to improved muscle tone and flexibility.

· Improves body mapping: a varied yoga practice makes our bodies move in ways we don’t habitually move, thus drawing our attention to areas of our body we may have neglected, and which may have been previously ‘unmapped’ or poorly mapped in the brain.

· Better sense of self: through a process called interoception, yoga can help us gain insight into our internal sensations and emotional states. In quiet moments of rest or reflection, we may come to recognise impulses, ideas, and ways of being which were previously drowned out by a busy daily life.

Neuroception, Interoception, and Proprioception

While they might sound like a new movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio, these three terms are worth unpacking individually to really get why they’re inseparable from yoga.

Neuroception explains why a baby smiles at a caregiver but cries at a stranger. Neuroception describes the process by which our CNS determines if a situation, person, or environment is safe or dangerous. Triggers can be external (such as seeing a fast-approaching car) or internal (feeling pain in a joint or during the early stages of an illness.) As a result of neuroception, our CNS determines whether we need to employ a parasympathetic or sympathetic response.

Interoception is our ability to notice our body’s internal state. This may be as simple as noticing hunger through a rumbling belly, or it may be discovering the complex and varied feelings that anxiety produces in the body - a tightening of the chest, a sinking feeling in the stomach, a change in body temperature. The important point here is that once we become aware of our feelings, we have a better chance of responding to them appropriately. However, if we don’t know how we feel, our options are limited and there’s a higher chance we’ll behave inappropriately or irrationally.

Proprioception can be experienced via a simple exercise. Lift your arms over your head and try to touch your right index finger to your left thumb without looking up. Hopefully, that didn’t feel too challenging! Proprioception is our subconscious ability to sense where body parts like joints and limbs are in space and in relation to one another.

What kind of yoga practice is good for the nervous system?

First things first: we need to feel safe. Educational psychology has shown that a sense of physical and emotional safety must be present before our CNS can take on new information and create the internal conditions needed for learning to occur.

In a yoga class, this means that the physical space we’re in should promote openness and comfort, and we should feel that the teacher wants the best for us. These things might sound obvious, but consider how the examples below would make you feel:

It’s your first time to a yoga studio: you walk in wanting to choose a comfortable position in the room, but the lights are so dim that you can’t make out the space; as you walk carefully in the gloom, you almost stumble into another student who is lying on the ground.

You’re taking part in a class and getting ‘into the flow’ when the teacher stops the class and asks you to come to the middle of the room to demonstrate the movement as the rest of the class watches and the teacher praises you.

Once feeling safe is taken care of, we can start addressing other things. For example, what do we want to gain from our yoga practice? If we want to get fit quickly and burn calories, then a practice which activates our sympathetic nervous system, like a dynamic vinyasa flow in a heated studio, might be best.

I would argue that there are other, probably more effective ways to achieve these aims than yoga. I’d also argue that what yoga has to offer, which is different from other forms of exercise, and from much of what we do day-to-day, is a way to refine our awareness and calm the nervous system.

This is why I teach embodied yoga. I believe it’s a practice which helps us notice and make meaning of our felt sensations. Yoga clearly has something to offer beyond the ability to make interesting shapes with our bodies.

Embodied forms of yoga bring attention to how we are doing when we’re moving in and out of postures. Are we feeling pain somewhere? Do we notice a shortness of breath? A tightening in the chest? A sense of dread or joyful expansion? All these things mean something to us and deserve our attention.

And of course, we want a practice that helps us move and coordinate our bodies in a more efficient way. Classes which require us to move our bodies through a variety of different directions rather than just forward and back on our mats can be helpful.

It’s also useful to repeat movements and postures during a class and over time so that you have a sense of progression and familiarity. As we’ve seen, our nervous system gets better at mapping movements the more often we do them.

Homeostasis – finding balance

Whatever kind of yoga we practice, we should be given the opportunity to notice the balance between effort and rest, concentration and relaxation, and movement and stillness.

By holding these opposites within a practice, we are developing our ability to notice homeostasis – the self-regulating process our bodies go through to maintain stable internal conditions for things to work.

In some classes, this may be left until the end, when we are lying in Savasana. My preference, as a student and a teacher, is to have frequent opportunities to notice homeostasis throughout a class. This sense of stillness in the midst of activity can be a particularly helpful discovery, especially when we leave a class and go back to our busy lives.

Why is yoga good for the nervous system?

To sum up, here are 6 quick reasons why yoga is boss for our CNS:

1. Yoga gives us a better understanding of sympathetic and parasympathetic responses.

2. Yoga helps us map our internal world and notice when we are ‘out of balance.’

3. Yoga gives us a better ability to notice unconscious stress in the body and mind.

4. Yoga teaches us techniques to help respond to and shift feelings of stress.

5. Yoga brings a heightened sensitivity to our bodies and improves our ability to describe our feelings with more accuracy.

6. Yoga gives us a better chance of responding to our life through understanding rather than reactiveness.

Bluebird Yoga and the CNS

The final thing I want to stress here (pun definitely intended!) is that you are in control of how you practice yoga: no one else can or should tell you what feels right for your body. Wherever you decide to take your yoga journey, keep asking yourself these questions: Am I enjoying the process of learning yoga? Do I feel safe in the context in which I’m practicing? Does my body feel good after class and in the days following? Am I happy about the changes that yoga is helping me make in my life?

Take care, be bold, and move with love, dear yogis.

[1] Peter Blackaby, Intelligent Yoga, p.4

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