28 September 2017

The Benefits of Yoga, Part 4-Nervous System Benefits

The Main Benefits to the Nervous System In his book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards William J. Broad summarizes the research findings to date on the benefits of yoga on the nervous system. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about the two main benefits to the nervous system:  Alternating […]

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21 September 2017

The Benefits of Yoga, Part 3-Primer on the Nervous System

As I mentioned in the last two blog posts, I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book reviewing the research to-date on yoga called The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards by William J. Broad. In this blog post, I’m going to present an overview on the findings of the research on the benefits […]

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14 September 2017

The Benefits of Yoga, Part 2-Brief History of Yoga and Range of Benefits

As I mentioned in the last blog post, I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book reviewing the research to-date on yoga called The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards by William J. Broad. A regular practitioner of yoga for almost two decades, I discovered this book at an airport bookstore some weeks ago […]

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7 September 2017

The Benefits of Yoga, Part 1-How I Got Hooked on Yoga

This may surprise you, but I began my yoga practice by happenstance and somewhat by force. Yoga was a required course at the graduate institution where I studied psychology. We were given a choice during our second year of the doctoral program: Continue with another year of Aikido or switch to yoga. I switched to […]

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31 August 2017

True Happiness is Based on Good, Warm Relationships

As I was gearing up to write the last blog post on the importance of connecting with others as an essential element of healing, an article came through my Facebook feed. The blurb caught my attention. It said that researchers have discovered that happiness is not based on fame or money, contrary to what some […]

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2 August 2017

Connecting With Others, Third Essential Element of Healing

Let’s come back to the Three Essential Elements of Healing: Self-awareness, Mindfulness, and Connection with Others. We could boil these down further into really two essential elements: 1) Connecting with yourself. 2) Connecting with others. Up until now my blog posts have focused exclusively on how to connect more deeply with yourself. Now I’m going […]

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26 July 2017

Final Debriefing of the Check-In Exercise

Let’s return to discussing the Check-In exercise. The Check-In is an exercise in self-care as much as anything else. To be successful with the Check-In exercise, you must be willing to pause and interrupt your normal routine. If doing so feels difficult to impossible, then work with this psychological dynamic within yourself before you do […]

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18 July 2017

Continued Debriefing of the Check-In Exercise

Let’s return to discussing the Check-In exercise. The Check-In exercise quickly demonstrates your strengths and weaknesses across a set of skills. Those skills include slowing down, paying attention, tuning into various parts of yourself, non-judgmentally observing your inner experience, and describing in words what that experience is. Your notes from doing the Check-In exercise along […]

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21 June 2017

What to Make of the Check-In Exercise

In the last blog post I presented the Check-In. The Check-In exercise is an expedient way for you to facilitate self-awareness and mindfulness, which is critical to healing. Self-awareness and mindfulness together deepen our insight into the way your thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, impulses, needs, wants, heart, and body are functioning together as the integrated […]

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9 June 2017

The Check-In Exercise: My Favorite Practice for Practicing Mindfulness in Every Day Life (and Increasing Self-Awareness)

In the last blog post, I offered some general instructions for bringing mindfulness you’re your daily life and offered a number of simple ways to facilitate mindfulness in everyday life. In this blog post, I’m going to walk you through my favorite mindfulness exercise, which is also an exercise in increasing self-awareness. I came up […]

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28 September 2017

The Benefits of Yoga, Part 4-Nervous System Benefits




The Main Benefits to the Nervous System

In his book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards William J. Broad summarizes the research findings to date on the benefits of yoga on the nervous system. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about the two main benefits to the nervous system: 

  1. Alternating Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Activation
  2. Vagus Nerve Stimulation

 

Alternating Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Activation

One of the important findings is that yoga helps to regulate ANS by activating both sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal in a specific way using a specific sequence of poses. This process takes the nervous system and body through repeated cycles of activated sympathetic arousal followed by parasympathetic calming and settling, which is the way our nervous system was designed to operate. A well-designed yoga practice has a rhythm to it that mimics the natural rhythm of these activation-settling cycles that our autonomic nervous system tends to follow.

When we get stressed and our sympathetic nervous system is activated in an ongoing, continuous, or chronic way such that the parasympathetic calming and settling down-cycle does not happen or does not happen to the extent it needs to in order to de-activate the effects of prolonged sympathetic arousal. Worse is when the prolonged sympathetic arousal leads to a re-organization of the nervous system such that being stuck in a high level of sympathetic arousal becomes the new normal, making it extremely challenging for the mind and body to engage fully in a parasympathetic experience and therefore maintaining this high level of sympathetic arousal, often leading to greater health problems.

Practicing yoga regularly over time, especially in a group environment, gently invites the nervous system to shift out of patterns of chronic stress back into the body’s more natural rhythm of activation and settling. Repeatedly immersing the nervous system to a sequence of poses designed to mimic the body’s natural rhythm is a powerful tool for healing. Because we are wired to feel and sense what is happening not just within us but around us, practicing these activation-settling cycles in a small space with others in an organized way, ie, a teacher-led yoga class, you perhaps give our bodies an even greater opportunity to fall back into its natural sympathetic-parasympathetic rhythm.

There is a tremendous amount of research that has come out over the past decade or two demonstrating that yoga is helpful for all kinds of physical and psychological issues, problems, and illnesses. Yoga is good for both managing the stress of living with and promoting healing from a chronic health problem.

 

Vagus Nerve Stimulation 

The other key way yoga benefits the nervous system relates to the vagus nerve. The vagus, or wandering, nerve, is the body’s 10th cranial (emanating from the brain) that connects the brain to the enteric nervous system, allowing nerve signals to be transmitted back and forth between the brain and gut. The vagus nerve also connects the brain to most of your most vital organs: “lungs, heart, stomach, liver, spleen, colon, and other parts of the abdomen.” (pg 42) The vagus nerve is involved in “the regulation and slowing of the human heartbeat” (pg 42) and has been found to have “remarkable control over the body’s immune system, playing major roles, for instance, in fighting inflammation” (pg 42).

The bottom line is that the vagus nerve is heavily involved in ANS regulation. Through your behavior, you have the ability to stimulate your vagus nerve in ways that facilitate greater ANS regulation and healing. There are many ways to do that, and I will present those in a future post. Yoga just happens to be one of the better ways to stimulate the vagus nerve because of its accessibility and the wealth of other health benefits that yoga simultaneously offers.

Yoga tends to focus on breath. Breathing consciously stimulates the vagus nerve. Stimulating the vagus nerve regularly and repeatedly in the way yoga does, particularly with sound promotes healing. Chanting “Ohm”, something that many yoga teachers incorporate into their classes, can seem awkward or strange and may not be something you feel moved to do, yet can quickly disrupt patterns of communication between the mind and gut or other organs that are generating and/or perpetuating chronic health problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

 

Yoga a Healing Practice for All, Chronic Health Problems or Not 

If you have any kind of chronic health problem like IBS, some other form of chronic gastrointestinal problem, heart problems, nervous-system dysregulation problems, endocrine problems, or any kind of problems involving inflammation, understanding the role of the vagus nerve and how to stimulate it in ways that promote healing is very important. You can learn more about the vagus nerve and the benefits of yoga here: http://sequencewiz.org/2015/11/18/vital-vagus-what-is-the-vagus-nerve-and-what-does-it-do/.

Whether or not you have a functional medical problem, doing yoga at least once a week seems like a sensible thing to do. And it makes you feel good. But as is true for most things in life, be smart in how you go about finding a regular yoga class and teacher and how you do your yoga. Yoga, like any other physical activity, can injure the body when practiced without proper instruction, guidance, and supervision. More about this in a future blog post.