Updated: Jun 15, 2020
“The unwise see the symptom, whereas the wise look for the cause of the symptom”.
- Rhoni Straub
I discovered Yin Yoga through the teachings of Paul Grilley (founder of Yin Yoga), Bernie Clark, and Travis Eliot. The following is an examination of the effects of Yin Yoga on your nervous system.
The Nervous System
The nervous system is the way your brain communicates with your body. There is a copious amount of information that needs to be shared with the cells in your body (which are the 'building blocks' of life). Cells make up your tissues, which make up your organs, which comprise your body’s systems, which make up your amazing self, and every human being. The nervous system is responsible for detecting (external and internal) information perceived by your senses, and broadcasting this information throughout your body.
Each cell has an essential membrane protein, which acts as an antenna, receiving information that the brain sends out. The nervous system serves to foster harmony between your cells, organs, and systems, resulting in efficiency and productivity, and serves to enhance survival.
The 'autonomic nervous system' is your subconscious system, which operates automatically without you having to consciously think about it. The autonomic nervous system maintains balance and homeostasis controlling functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, respiration, digestion, and temperature. If you had to consciously focus on these, you would be overwhelmed and unable to govern any other processes in your body.
2 Autonomic Nervous System Branches:
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system manages the body's energy production and ability to manage stress, specifically stress leading to the "fight or flight" response. During episodes you perceive as stressful, the adrenal glands release hormones that include cortisol and adrenaline. When these hormones combine, it results in an acidic pH (compared to alkaline) in your body. Imagine your cells and organs being exposed to this acid, which over time leads to a domino effect, resulting in illness and disease.
In reality, we are all exposed to stress on a daily basis and many of us become "overstimulated". This leads to chronic sympathetic arousal, where the "fight or flight" response is always turned on and your body is continually flooded with hormones.
Studies have found that the brain is negatively affected with prolonged exposure to stress hormones. It can lead to anxiety, depression, mood swings, and suppression of your immune system and ability to fight off disease. Your immune system will eventually become overwhelmed and shut down by unmanaged stress.
An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2007) suggested prolonged exposure to stress is toxic and likely to result in long-term or permanent changes in the emotional, physiological and behavioural responses that influence our susceptibility to disease. Stress-related ailments include heart disease, cancer, GI disorders, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and many more.
However not all stress is bad - we all need some stress in life to challenge and stimulate growth, and give us motivation and energy. "Good" stress is predictable and controllable, and often sought out, while "bad" stress is unpredictable and uncontrollable and can overwhelm your ability to cope. Bad stress results when you perceive something as a threat, when it's persistent and you can't make it stop or avoid it. Stress can be external (in your environment) or internal (in your mind), and can be real or perceived (imagined as real).
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system facilitates recovery, regeneration, repair, and rejuvenation. If the sympathetic nervous system is like the accelerator of a car, the parasympathetic nervous system is the brake. The sympathetic nervous system speeds things up and get things going (which is important in the morning), while the parasympathetic nervous system eases off the gas and depresses the brake to help slow us down (which is useful at night). Some people have their schedules flipped - exhausted in the morning and jacked up at night. This may indicate their nervous system is out of balance.
According to Dr. Michael Galitzer and Larry Trivieri, the parasympathetic nervous system is devoted to nourishing, healing, and rebuilding the body. When active, it stimulates and enhances immune function, circulation, digestion, GI function and overall well-being. It improves functioning of the liver, stomach, pancreas and intestines, while lowering heart rate and blood pressure and increasing production of endorphins, the body’s natural "feel-good" hormones. When your body is in a state of parasympathetic dominance, you are able to realize a deeper level of rest and recuperation. Achieving a healthy parasympathetic state is essential for maintaining your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Parasympathetic dominance enables you to be more relaxed, content and present in the moment. You are able to meet and respond to life's daily challenges calmly and energetically.
Rest and recovery are key to performance. If you want to perform at a higher level and be at your best, you need to carve time out of your day to allow yourself to rest, recover and “press pause”.
The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus Nerve is the main way the parasympathetic nervous system sends information throughout the body. It starts in the brain stem and goes down to the colon, a "super highway" carrying information to your body’s organs and from your organs, back to your brain. Along this highway is an array of nerves that branch out into your connective tissues and organs, communicating to your body to recover and repair. The Vagus Nerve plays an important role in the regulation of heart rate, respiration, gastro intestinal functions, vision, hearing, speech, and control of your musculoskeletal system.
Other benefits of parasympathetic nervous system include managing stress, sleep, and regulating inflammation. Inflammation in the body is a cause of disease and illness. A healthy parasympathetic nervous system leads to healthier cells, better brain function and slows the aging process.
Heart disease is the number one killer in the world today. Heart disease used to affect men more than women, but in recent years this has changed. 1 in 4 deaths in women is a result of heart disease (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). Dr. Thomas Cowan, who has dedicated his life to studying heart disease, has found the primary cause is because of a decreased functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system.
If you could positively impact your parasympathetic nervous system, illness and disease could be decreased. Yin Yoga and meditation triggers your body’s relaxation response.
Dr. Cowan authored an article called ‘What’s the Real Cause of Heart Attacks’ in which he challenges the conventional wisdom that cholesterol, plaque, and high blood pressure cause a heart attack. Instead, he asserts that heart disease is the result of the stresses of modern life on the core of the human being. He describes it this way: First comes a decrease in the tonic healing activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. In the vast majority of cases, the pathology for a heart attack will not proceed unless this condition is met. Then comes an increase in the sympathetic nervous system activity, usually a physical or emotional stressor. This increase in sympathetic activity cannot be balanced because of chronic parasympathetic suppression. Dr. Cowan concludes that heart disease is fundamentally caused by a deficiency in the parasympathetic nervous system, and the solution is obviously to nurture and protect that system, which is the same as saying we should nurture and protect ourselves.
The Medicine of Yin Yoga
The aforementioned information explores the consequences of (chronic) stress, of prolonged sympathetic nervous system activation, and inflammation. It suggests that prolonged stress results in disease that sees millions of people die every across the globe – and linking this to the parasympathetic nervous system not being allowed to be fully and regularly activated.
I suggest we take time out of our day to practice Yin Yoga to “activate” the parasympathetic nervous system. The intention behind Yin Yoga is to slow down, to allow your body’s natural and innate intelligence to achieve balance. In a Yin Yoga practice, you slow the sympathetic nervous system and engage the parasympathetic nervous system. You find balance in homeostasis. Stress hormones decrease and the feel-good hormones (endorphins) increase, reducing inflammation.
The limbic system is a set of structures and interacting areas in your brain that are involved in motivation, emotion, learning, memory, and arousal. The limbic system contains regions that detect fear, control bodily functions, and perceive sensory information, among other things. The limbic system influences autonomic nervous system, which includes the “fight or flight” stress response. Yin Yoga aims to achieve coherence and harmony in the body. The body’s’ “rest and repair” mechanism is activated. This is the key to health and longevity. Yin Yoga, along with a healthy diet, exercise, meditation, and adequate sleep will enhance your quality of life. Yin Yoga is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
Thomas Edison said, “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
“The unwise see the symptom, whereas the wise look for the cause of the symptom”.
- Rhoni Straub