YIN YOGA & BALANCING OUR NERVOUS SYSTEM
Ideally we’d all live in the beautiful countryside, going on daily country walks, breathing in fresh air, being nourished by nature, growing our own vegetables and minimising stressful situations. Even if you live in the country this is probably not reality for you. We all know what a toll modern society takes on our lives. Especially living in a city and having a demanding job! It’s no secret that the way life has evolved is not inline with our natural habitat. The evolution of life has sped up with the birth of technology and our bodies have not adapted, or are designed (necessarily) to cope with the demand. In consequence our nervous system is more often then not in a constant state of alert. We can consciously and with great awareness change this state through certain practices and one of them is yin yoga.
It can be hard to justify and explain yin yoga to people who are goal driven, run at a 100 miles an hour and feel strapped for time. It is exactly for these reason that we need yin yoga. To soothe our charged up nervous system and to teach our bodies and ourselves how to slow down and soften.
Yin yoga teaches us to listen in with great attention. Often at first it can be very hard to be still and just be in the shape, the mind can be easily distract and might feel irritable. Over time this starts to dissipate and we learn to sit with the sensations. Learning to surrender and to release the desire to push and pull is a crucial lesson of yin yoga. It’s what makes it so different to other practices. Yin yoga gives us the space to be still with ourselves and bring great awareness to our body and mind. It gives us time to connect and slow down. This really is sacred as most of us are in such a rush all and never allow ourselves to ‘just be’. Our pent up nervous systems never seem to get a break. Even when we flop onto the sofa and put on a Netflix drama, our nervous system is kicked back into action. The intensity of our lives and the never ending stimulus fail to give us the opportunity to filter charged up energy. Most yoga practice for sure aim and does dial up our rest and digest side of the nervous system, but the yin practice gives us the time to really slow down and connect.
When we practice yoga it could be the only time we find ourselves not having to multi-task, not being called upon by family and being buzzed at by our phones. Every other time of day there’s a resistance to being slow and we tend to feel the need to constantly push ourselves. When we practice yin we are aiming to do the complete opposite of this. We are cultivating a sense of loving-kindness for ourselves and giving our body and mind the time to process and filter information.
THE NERVOUS SYSTEM : A brief overview
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) are part of our autonomous nervous system, and our yoga practice, specially the Yin Yoga practice, can help rebalance these two important systems.
The SNS is our basic fight or flight system. It is triggered as a response to threat and in consequence our heart rate increases, muscles contract, pupils dilate, saliva production decreases, we become more alert and adrenaline is released. In today’s society arguments with your neighbour, mid-year reviews, paying bills, loud music and intense programmes can all trigger our SNS. There are tones more things that we face daily that keep us in a constant state of SNS activation.
The PNS is the complete opposite - it’s our reset and digest response. Through stimulation via the nerves running to our internal organs (primarily the vagus nerve), our heart rate slows and blood pressure drops. Our saliva can be secreted again and our eyes might get a little watery.
The nervous system affects and works with the immune system and facial system. If we allow ourselves to constantly be in a stressed state and for some people a chronic stressed state this has huge implications on our body. Stress fuels some of the biggest health problems of our time, including type 2 diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, heart attacks and strokes as well as autoimmune diseases. If we are chronically stressed or sick, then the contraction becomes chronic as well. Bernie Clark, in his book Your Body, Your Yoga, states:
‘Chronic exposure makes us intolerant to cortisol, which not only fails to control how glucose is released into the blood stream but also no longer can control the degree of inflammation we produce in the body. We become chronically inflamed which creates a host of medical issues. Dr. Timothy McCall, in his book Yoga as medicine, states: “It can be argued that stress is the number one killer in the Western World today”.’
Stress is inevitable in our lives and in fact a certain amount of stress is essential for the health of our body, but too much stress and not enough rest causes health problems. In physiological terms we are hyperactive in our SNS and hypoactive in our PNS. This is when our practice becomes imperative as it works to bring harmony between these two systems. Something that other modalities do not focus on or value highly.
One of the ways yoga helps to bring balance to the nervous system is through the breath. ‘Slow breathing, with a roughly equal amount of time breathing in and out, increases the sensitivity of baroreceptors and vagal activation, which lowers blood pressure and reduces anxiety by reducing your SPN and increasing your PSN’ (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). It’s important that the breath isn’t forced the emphasis is on the slowness of the breath. The slower we breath the more CO2 we have in our blood and we need CO2 for O2 transfer to take place from the blood to the cells and efficiently oxygenate the body (Patrick Mckeon, Oxygen Advantage). This slow breathing is very affective even after a few minutes it dials down the SNS.
In Yin yoga each pose is like a mini meditation and if we encourage feelings of kindness and love for ourselves this can trigger the vagus nerve, which is directly linked to the PNS. Practicing Yin yoga with the intention of cultivating loving-kindness makes the practice very different to one focusing on ‘stretching’ or ‘getting more flexible’. Working with this intention we can start to create shifts neurologically. We start to adapt the way we think through great awareness of where our mind is in each held pose and consciously implement loving-kindness when the mind drifts to a negative or critical place. When we are actively stopping and changing the way we think we are firing new neurones together in the brain to create new thinking patterns. If you keep coming back to something eventually it becomes ingrained in the mind. Unfortunately it’s easier for our critical mind to keep stirring and coming back to negative thoughts. The Yin practice gives us the space and time to note our thoughts and consciously change the dialogue.
On an anatomical level our fascia is connected to our immune system and richly supplied with nerves and they’re connected to our nervous system. In fact ‘there are 10 times more nerve endings in our fascia then our muscles’ (P46.Your Body, Your Yoga by Bernie Clarke). We know what is going on with the body because of our nervous system’s interaction with our fascia (this is called proprioception). If we are working the fascia the right way we send the right messages to the nervous system and the brain. Through the holding of poses we are telling the nervous system that it is safe to let go and be in this shape.
Yin yoga is the antitheses of modern life. Too much negative stress in our lives imbalances our nervous system. In order to bring it back we need to find moments of quiet and activities that allow us to discharge. Yin yoga does exactly this and not only this it gives us the opportunity to connect to ourselves.