The holiday season is fast approaching, and during this time of year, I like to offer you some ideas and tools to help you support your nervous system. Whether you love celebrating the winter holidays, you dread them, or it’s a mix, we can all benefit from the practices I’ll be speaking about in this article.
In postural yoga practice (and other movement activities), over time we notice how the body adapts to the movement. Remember your first Downward Facing Dog… perhaps after a few breaths your upper body began to tremble. Then, you continued to practice Down Dog, which placed even more demand on your body, and your body responded by growing stronger. Have you ever thought about this same principle applied to the nervous system? Just like muscles, we can strengthen the nervous system, and a strong nervous system is able to tolerate a wider range of stimuli while maintaining a connection to equanimity.
Get ready for a crash course on the nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch (along with the enteric branch, which is related to digestion, but we’ll focus on the sympathetic and the parasympathetic now). In very basic terms, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic are often referred to as the gas pedal and the brake pedal of the nervous system, respectively. When the sympathetic is activated, the body is energized, it’s prepared to take-action, and to mobilize in some way. And when the parasympathetic is activated, everything slows down (except digestion).
These two aspects of our autonomic nervous system are in a continual dance with each other and it’s more accurate to think about them on a continuum and in proportions. We could have a high sympathetic response where the whole body is mobilized and there’s the experience of anxiety or fear. When we’re in an experience of dance, play or creativity, and we feel safe, the sympathetic nervous system is still aroused, just not as much. In a more nuanced way of looking at the nervous system we can have the following expressions:
- Relaxed with mobilization
- Mobilization in response to danger
- States of immobility
Ok, so back to yoga practice. As I mentioned earlier, just as our muscles, connective tissue and bones adapt to load and stress by becoming stronger, the nervous system can grow stronger and more resilient too. We can do this in a number of ways:
- Adaptation of the breathing pattern
- Adaptation of postures
- Singing and Chanting
Before I share more about this aspect of nervous system wellness, I encourage you to do a short experiment. Find your pulse on your neck with your fingers. Then take a few breaths and notice if you sense a change in the pace of your pulse. I’ll wait 😉 Did you notice anything? Perhaps you sensed that as you inhaled your pulse increased in tempo and as you exhaled it slowed down. This is called heart rate variability. This fluctuation in pace is due to a nervous system response to respiration.
With the inhalation the sympathetic nervous system is activated (gas pedal) and with the exhalation the parasympathetic nervous system is activated (brake pedal). This is one way we can assess autonomic nervous system resiliency. You can also use apps to assess your heart rate variability in much greater detail. It’s healthy to have this fluctuation in tempo. If you don’t sense a change in pace, try this experiment again later. If you’ve just had caffeine or another stimulant, or there’s anxiety, you may not notice a change. And if you find that later you still don’t sense a fluctuation, then you can practice the techniques I’m sharing with you here!
I wrote an article last year around this time that explains the different ways we can breathe and how these various forms of respiration influence the nervous system. If you missed that or want a refresher, check it out. Breathing deeply with the respiratory diaphragm activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and lengthening your exhalation (so it’s a little longer than your inhalation by a couple of counts, or so) strengthens the calming effect. Practices like Alternate Nostril Breathing / Nadi Shoddhona has also been shown to improve nervous system resiliency by activating the vagus nerve (a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system), and enhancing heart rate variability.
The way we practice postures is the most important part of the posture. By maintaining a relaxed nervous system and a felt sense of equanimity in postures that are demanding, we’re increasing our range of tolerance. Our range of tolerance is the window in which we’re able to remain calm even while practicing a pose we find difficult, or while engaged in some other challenging situation. One approach is to transition from a restful pose like crocodile to an activating pose like plank or locust, going back and forth while maintaining a relaxed nervous system. The act of maintaining a calm nervous system builds autonomic resiliency. Overtime, as the body adapts, a posture that might have caused a spike in the sympathetic nervous system is now within this window of tolerance. We learn that we can experience equanimity while in a stimulated state.
Off of the mat we can learn to adapt to different circumstances too. Think about an experience that used to cause you anxiety, but no longer does, or not as much… perhaps in social situations, public speaking (even the Buddha taught that this is one of the most stressful experiences for humans!), going to a yoga class, asking for what you want, or getting stuck in traffic. Utilizing diaphragmatic breath, long exhalations and a connection to your innate, ever-present equanimity in times of stress, outside of your formal yoga practice, is really what yoga is all about. It’s not about doing fancy poses or perfecting a vinyasa, it’s intended to help us live fully and thrive in our lives.
Singing, Chanting and Humming
These activities have also been shown to increase nervous system resiliency. If you’re not drawn to singing or chanting, the Buzzing Pranayama / Brahmari works too! In fact, it’s one of my favorites. In addition to supporting the nervous system, Brahmari can also be used when there’s a sense of stuck-ness or stagnation or when there’s pain. If you wind up in a giggle-fit, great! Laughing is yet another way we can increase autonomic resilience. Better yet, grab a buddy, practice some Brahmari, laugh and give each other a hug. Social engagement improves your resiliency as well. Plus, you’ll get a bonus oxytocin and serotonin hit.
Wishing you ease, resilience and joy during your holiday season.