Guest Post: Stephanie Bowen on Why You Should Practice Yoga
You'll start to see more of these guest posts popping up on my site in the near future - I know some great people in the health & wellness world, and I'm excited to share their thoughts and wisdom on my blog!
Last week Doctor Marita told you all about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The role of the parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes called rest and digest, as a counter to the role of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the better known fight-or-flight response).
Much like a see-saw, when one of these systems goes up, the other must go down: when we're in fight-or-flight mode, our body isn't getting the down time it needs to replenish and nourish itself. And unfortunately, in this place and time in history, most of us are riding high on the see saw and never coming down long enough to truly recover, digest our food, and get proper rest.
Ever notice how the majority of your friends either have IBS, are insomniacs, or look stressed out all the time? Yeah. Sympathetic nervous systems gone wild.
So then how, in this hyper-busy, stimulus-filled modern world, do we encourage our parasympathetic nervous system to do its thing?
Yoga for relaxation
One word: yoga! There are all kinds of preconceived notions about yoga these days, like that it's the domain of crystal-gripping hippies, reserved for people who are already hyper flexible and glowing with organic-raw-food-vegan diets, or even that it's all about the athleticism of the poses.
In its traditional form, though, yoga is really just about being mindful, present, and relaxed.
The word yoga comes from the phrase to yoke, and ultimately stands for union. The single most important concept you'll learn in most yoga classes is unifying (or yoking) the breath with your body in each pose, regardless of how deep you can go or how long you can hold them.
This focus on breathing, slowing down, and listening to the body is at odds with the messages we receive everywhere else in our lives, most of which are encouraging us to move faster, be more productive, and rest less.
Taking 60-90 minutes a day, or even a week, to be actively reminded to slow down and breathe encourages the body to let its guard (and its sympathetic nervous system) down, and enjoy all the benefits of the parasympathetic nervous system at play.
When yoga feels hard
So what about those other forms of yoga out there - flow classes full of sun salutations that leave your muscles burning, or hot classes where you're essentially doing an aerobic workout in a sauna? Not exactly what comes to mind when you think about relaxing.
But here's the thing: by always bringing you back to breathing, encouraging you to listen to your body and back off when you need to, and opening the space for you to rest when you want to, challenging yoga classes can teach you to relax - even when your environment is stressful.
Sometimes we can't control when our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. But sometimes, stress is generated by the mind, rather than by an actual threat to our safety or well-being. Putting yourself through an uncomfortable yoga class, and learning to breathe and relax your body during it, can actually give you significantly more control over when, where, and how you engage your parasympathetic system and give your body a break.
I'm just here for the Savasana
There's another bonus to a challenging - well, really, to any - yoga class: Savasana.
Savasana is also referred to as corpse pose, and it comes after all the grunting, sweating, and awkward bending is complete. In corpse pose, students lie on their backs, release all of their muscles, and take some time to breathe and integrate all of the work that's just been done. Often the lights are dimmed, soft music plays, and some instructors will move around the room, giving mini-massages and relaxing adjustments.
Sound pretty nice? The bonus of engaging in Savasana after practicing a more rigorous series of poses is that you're actually able to enter into a state of relaxation - or engage your parasympathetic nervous system - far faster than had you just laid down on your mat in the first pace.
The focus on your body and your breath during class can clear the mind, and physical challenge can rid the body of excess nervous energy. Which means by the time you lay back on your mat you're already halfway there. Those 10 minutes of Savasana can feel as refreshing as a 2 hour nap.
Gentle or challenging, any class will do
Whichever way you go, be it relaxing yin or sweat-drenched flow, yoga is an amazing way to train your autonomic nervous system. Unifying breath with movement, encouraging your body to stay calm in uncomfortable situations, and teaching the mind to focus on one thing at a time are all effective ways to engage your parasympathetic nervous system.
Save your fight-or-flight for when you really need it. Give yoga a chance.
Stephanie Bowen is the owner of Whole Heart Coaching & Wellness. She works with people as a wellness coach, yoga instructor, and story teller. Find out more about Stephanie at wholeheartcoaching.org.