Find Balance through Yoga at Hanuman

By: Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Chronic stress and unresolved trauma interfere with the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of your nervous system. We live in a world that is often over-stimulating and stressful. Therefore, we need to consciously connect to our inner calm…each and every day. Yoga can help you find balance in body and mind.

Your nervous system is built around the balance of two opposing actions. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight or flight response that is the result of the release of cortisol (stress chemicals) throughout the bloodstream. The parasympathetic is associated with relaxation, digestion, and regeneration. These two parts of your autonomic nervous system are meant to work in rhythmic alternation, a process that supports healthy rhythms of alertness and restfulness that facilitate physical and mental health.

Because over-stimulation is activating for the sympathetic nervous system, many of us need access to tools that help us engage the parasympathetic nervous system on a regular basis. The vagus nerve plays a central role in your emotional and physical health. The vagus nerve extends from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. Therefore, any yoga practices that stimulate these areas of the body can have a profound influence on the tone of the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve has an inhibitory influence upon the sympathetic nervous system activity. In other words, practices that stimulate the vagus nerve have a calming effect on your body and mind. An increase in vagal tone is linked to a reduction in inflammation and better prognosis in people suffering from chronic illness, anxiety, or depression.

Vagal tone is measured in the changes in heart rate that occur with the breath. This is referred to as Heart Rate Variability or HRV. Healthy vagal tone involves a slight increase in heart rate on the inhalation and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Vagal tone can be thought of as an optimal balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system actions. People with higher HRV can move more easily from excitement to relaxed and can recover more easily from stress.

You can learn how to regulate the functioning of your vagus nerve with techniques such as altering the rhythm of your breath, practicing mindful body awareness, and exploring physical yoga postures to create greater choice about your level of arousal or activation. For example, with somatic awareness, you can alter you breathing rhythm to facilitate a state of relaxed alertness. This can help you tap into an optimal level of focus and attention that is often described as a being in the zone or the experience of flow that fuels your creativity. In addition, you can learn specific breath practices that help you relax in the evening and prepare for restful sleep.

The most immediate way to change the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system actions is with the breath. To counterbalance any over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, vagus nerve yoga focuses on diaphragmatic breathing and extending the length of the exhale. You also explore bringing this slow, deep breath into yoga postures that open across the belly, chest, and throat.

Finally, restorative yoga can also help you slow down and calm the nervous system. One classic practice is Yoga Nidra which is often referred to as “yogic sleep” or a meditation in relaxation. Yoga Nidra is the ultimate antidote to our stressful, modern lifestyle and offers an opportunity to restore body and mind through accessing the parasympathetic nervous system.

This year, at Hanuman Festival, be sure to compliment your vigorous vinyasa classes with conscious breathing Pranayama, the restorative Yin Lunar flow, and the nourishing yoga nidra class. Your body and mind will thank you.

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