Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Question about the Nervous System

This Question came into the web site today:

love the webpage! I am curious what are a few (or several) asanas to balance an overactive sympathetic nervous system, and for excessive para-sympathetic system? Also, what are some of the functions of the inhalation and exhalations while doing the postures? -J

It's a complex question, so I thought I would make an effort to answer here.
As a backgrounder, this page has a a lot of information.

Meeting "an overactive sympathetic nervous system."
Yoga has the ability to meet us wherever we are. One of the beautiful results of yoga's fusion and blending with so many different modalities is that it can represent itself as attractive to almost anyone. Usually we are attracted to what we already are. And in yoga, this means that we will often start with a modality that exaggerates our already existing conditions, eventually being lead to a more appropriate match.

For starters, this is a sequence of postures that I have been using to address panic, or the resulting state of a chronic state of stress. However, it is only recently that I have had the capacity to relax enough to actually understand that I am stressed and spend time with roots of it.

Often, a being who is under stress feels more compelled to try to "fight stress with stress". An active strong practice meets the habitual patterning. The sense of "go go go" is satisfied and system is used to associating exhaustion with relaxation. Then, magically the practice gently leads the being towards a practice where they can more easily see the truth of what is.

The starting point will depend on the person's temperament and already existing athletic ability. Often a stressed athletic man or woman will feel more at home in a vigorous practice like vinyasa, Ashtanga or Bikram to start. And while these modalities can be stressful practices with potential for injury, they provide a familiar (and therefore ironically, "safe") starting point. However, a stressed mother of 4 who has not had time to exercise in years, might feel more drawn to a restorative or gentle class where she feels she can rest. Eventually, the athlete will find him/herself to more meditative slower paced classes and the out of shape mother will be drawn to more physically demanding classes as she gets more in touch with the needs of her body. This is how it seems to work.

"and for excessive para-sympathetic system?"
There is no real such term that I know of, but if you are referring to depression, then postures that open the front of the chest (like back bending) and pranayama practices that emphasize the inhale length and retention are generally recommended.

"functions of the inhalation and exhalations while doing the postures."
There is an anatomy to the inhale and the exhale.

On the inhale, this happens:
- the hips internally rotate
- the pelvis tips forward
- the tailbone lifts
- the low back compresses
- the heart opens
- the head tilts back

On the exhale, this happens:
- the hips externally rotate
- the tailbone drops
- the navel draws back to the spine
- the chest relaxes
- the head tips forward

Generally, the anatomy of the Inhalation is stimulating to the Sympathetic Nervous System, and the anatomy of the Exhalation is stimulating to the ParaSympathetic Nervous System. Long deep even smooth breathing finds the balance and can help quiet the mind.

In the Postures, we can allow the breath to help align us and emphasize one or the other depending on the effect we want.

So, for example, lets look at Bridge Pose.
As you can see, the chest is open and stretched. My body is already in the shape of the inhale. I am using the shape to stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System(SNS). If I meet the shape with long slow deep exhales I am essentially counter posing while in the shape. Simultaneously, because the SNS is being stimulated physically but I am meeting it with the message of ease and relaxation through the long exhales, the nervous system starts to get retrained to stay relaxed even in potentially stressful situations.

Does that make sense?

If not, please continue to ask the questions that will help be answer more clearly.
Thank you for the opportunity.

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