A regular yoga practice not only provides more flexibility, strength and balance, but also enhances our mental clarity and sense of ease, as anyone hooked on the practice would affirm. In fact, the various poses, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques practiced through yoga can strengthen the nervous system, thereby bringing balance and helping us live more aware lives.
How the Nervous System Functions
The central nervous system is made up of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight or flight mode, which most of us tend to function in on a daily basis due to the tumult around us. The parasympathetic nervous system supports our autonomic functions such as breathing, heart and metabolic rates, and restores balance. When this part of our central nervous system turns on, blood is directed to our digestive organs, endocrine glands and lymphatic circulation, while blood pressure and hear rate are lowered.
Since many of us function in the sympathetic nervous system, think answering emails at any hour, being blasted by ever-changing imagery on social media, and dealing with the stress of our jobs and busy lives, our bodies are producing high amounts of the hormone cortisol. This hormone can actually start to wreak havoc on our brains by dampening our reflexes, our ability to focus and our memory, thus affecting our entire lives. So naturally, the aim is to restore balance and reduce cortisol levels by intentionally activating the parasympathetic nervous system. A strong central nervous system is a balanced one.
How to Balance the Nervous System
Yoga can effectively reduce the body's stress response by decreasing the production of cortisol, which happens when the sympathetic nervous system is over-worked. The practice effectively does this by increasing the coordination between our minds and our bodies through the physical postures, breathing techniques, and conscious relaxation methods that help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
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Conscious breathing and conscious execution of yoga postures actually strengthens nerve transmissions from the body to the brain, decreasing our stress and muscular tension. Fully supported, restorative yoga poses activate the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing anxiety, fear and anger to leave our minds. The most effective combination for strengthening the nervous system, as documented in research from the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation in India, is to practice more actively and then practice relaxing poses and breathing techniques, rather than just practice restorative yoga alone.
Exercises for Strengthening & Balancing the Nervous System
A steady practice of sun salutations or standing poses should precede a restorative yoga practice, so that your body can move and release tensions through more vigorous activity. Great poses to follow this with are reclined bound angle pose, or Baddha Konasana, supported child's pose, or Balasana, and legs up the wall, also known as Viparita Karani. Shoulder stand and plow pose are also great inversions for supporting the parasympathetic nervous system, as they activate the thyroid. Pranayama exercises for breathing are also recommended for balancing the nervous system; practice Surya Bhedhana to clear blockages of the sympathetic nervous system, Chandra Bhedhana to support the parasympathetic nervous system, and Nadi Shodhana to balance the central nervous system.
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