Today’s life challenges us in so so so many ways. Economic fears, crime, climate fears, aggressive people, isolation, illness, and more are woven into our daily lives to such a degree that it just becomes our ‘normal’. Do you remember that last time you felt free of most of the worries in your life? I hope so! Maybe on vacation after a couple of days by the ocean or pool, unplugged, well fed… Maybe after a day of hanging with loved ones at a BBQ. What if I were to say that this calm restful state is how we are supposed to live every single day?
Let’s delve into the fascinating world of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems! Think of these two systems as the dynamic duo of your body’s autonomic nervous system, working in harmony to maintain balance, much like your yoga poses.
Sympathetic Nervous System: Often called our Fight or Flight response, this is like the “go-go-go” team, always ready to jump into action. It’s your body’s response to stress or danger. Imagine it as your personal superhero, getting your heart racing when you need to escape a lion (or just that nerve-wracking yoga pose). The sympathetic system increases heart rate, dilates pupils (for better focus on that balance), and diverts blood flow to muscles, ensuring you’re ready for action.
Parasympathetic Nervous System: Meet the “chill-out” crew! The PNS is known as the ‘Rest and Digest’ system. This is the system that takes over when danger subsides, allowing your body to rest, digest, and recover. It’s the calm after the storm, like the peaceful savasana at the end of your yoga session. The parasympathetic system slows down heart rate, constricts pupils (time to bask in that post-yoga glow), and promotes digestion and healing.
Ok, so why does this matter?
Many aspects of life today stimulates our sympathetic nervous system. We exist in a constant state of low level threat, of on-guardness. As social beings, we equate safety with some degree of acceptance from our community which in our tribal past made sense. The forces at play now, though, may make us feel that we are in danger of isolation for community if we don’t have a good enough car, home, social pedigree, economic status. Many face the real threat of loss of shelter when we are a paycheck away from eviction or have no means to rebuild a home after a disaster.
When negative events happen to us which we are powerless to defend against, whether it is physical or emotional in nature, our body reacts by switching on our SNS. This seems to make sense, right, we are threatened and our SNS jumps into action. The problem comes about after the traumatic event passes. Our body may not completely disengage the SNS. Our fight or flight response stays switched on. Over time, this becomes ingrained in us, not just in our mind but in our body itself. Despite logically knowing we are safe or it’s ok to relax, a part of us stays vigilant at all times. The longer we live in this state or the more frequently we experience trauma, the stronger this heightened state of SNS becomes, and the harder it becomes to truly rest and heal.
Yoga to the rescue!
If your body is accustomed to existing in a fight or flight state it will take some effort to unravel this habit. It may not be easy and it may not be quick, but it can be done.
Yoga works from the ground up. We engage movements and actions with the deliberate intention of balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In class, we may feel the strengthening of our muscles, but what is also being strengthened is our ability to let our PNS take the reins. Slowly, we build the habit of switching into our rest and digest mode and our body learns to shift away from fight and flight.
Imagine your body as a yogi seeking the perfect balance between these two systems. In this case, balance is not equal parts of both! A dash of SNS balances with a massive dose of PNS. Just like your practice, finding harmony between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is key for overall well-being.
My classes are all designed to foster our innate engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system. Choose to take care of yourself, to rest, to heal, and you’ll find the comfort and ease of mind that may have been so elusive before.