Yoga is a mind and body exercise, touted to reduce stress. But how does it really work in our mind and what should we do to maximize its benefits in our body? There’s no better time to explore these questions as we celebrate National Yoga Awareness Month in September.
I invited a highly regarded (also my favorite) yoga instructor, Wes Linch to write this article to share his knowledge on how practicing yoga can strengthen our nervous system and how to get the most out of your yoga journey!
Yoga has certainly become a household name the world over and it’s now more popular than ever. As a result of the pandemic, yoga has become even more available through social media and Zoom, giving people access to amazing teachers that they never would have studied with before. What is it about this practice that makes people want to get on their mat every day for an hour of moving, breathing, and stretching their bodies?
I think it’s pretty safe to say we live in a pretty stressful world these days. The last few years have been especially trying for just about everyone. Human beings intuitively know that when we feel fit and healthy, we manage stress a lot better. When most of us think about health and fitness, probably what comes to mind are things like cardio, strength training, maybe even diet and nutrition. However, how many of us consider bolstering and nurturing our nervous system as a critical part of our health and fitness?
When I tell a random stranger that I am a yoga teacher, their typical response is “Wow! You must be so flexible!”. This always gives me a bit of a chuckle. I’m certainly more flexible than when I started yoga, but I’ll probably always be a pretty stiff guy. Don’t get me wrong, stretching is a very important element of muscle fitness; but, so much of our flexibility is genetic. So, let’s just get this out of the way and make it clear that extreme range of motion and super fancy poses are not the goal of yoga.
Strengthen our Nervous System
I really believe that the true gem of yoga has more to do with strengthening our nervous system than it does stretching our hamstrings. When we strengthen our nervous system, we manage stress better. So, how exactly does yoga accomplish this? What makes it better suited than other forms of exercise towards this end? Believe it or not, it has more to do with our breath and our mindfulness than it does with the postures themselves. This is also what makes yoga so universally accessible. Whether you are an athlete, young or old, have an injury or suffer from a chronic illness, yoga can meet you exactly where you are at and present to you an opportunity to be with your body and breath in a really creative and nurturing way.
So, how exactly does our breath affect our nervous system? And more specifically, our autonomic (automatic) nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that is somewhat out of our direct control. It controls much of our vital organs, hormones, heart rate, digestion, etc. It’s a great thing that we don’t have to think about it all the time. It would be rather tedious for us to think about digesting our food or pumping our blood. However, much of how our nervous system works in the background gets affected by our environment (rush hour traffic, what we had for lunch, social media, lack of sleep, etc). This can certainly feel a bit frustrating at times
Our nervous system is regulated by two separate branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic side of our nervous system is the alert, wakeful, “get stuff done” side of our nervous system. It also happens to regulate our fight or flight response as well as our immune function (think about fighting off a cold). The parasympathetic side of our nervous system is sometimes called the “rest and digest” side. It helps us feel calm and relaxed (its like recharging our battery). We can think of these two dual sides as like yin and yang to each other. What’s most important to understand is that when we nurture our parasympathetic nervous system, it essentially recharges the sympathetic nervous system. You may have heard of phrases like adrenal fatigue or sympathetic burnout. This is when we overtax that side of our nervous system making us more susceptible to stress, fatigue, and illness.
This is where our breath comes into play. Even though we can’t directly “control” our autonomic nervous system, we can indirectly affect it when we slow down our breathing. When we breath slowly in yoga and focus on being mindful and present in a yoga posture, this has an amazing ability to calm and regulate our nervous system. This is the true brilliance of the practice. To make it even more fascinating, when we create a mild to moderate “stressful” situation in practice (think challenging yoga pose) and we learn to breath and relax, we are essentially retraining our nervous system in how it relates to stress. This is an incredibly useful tool that we can take into any stressful situation of our life. I personally believe that when we learn to breath and relax in stressful situations, we are better equipped to respond to these situations in a more healthy way.
The Take Away
So, if you have been practicing yoga for many years, are a beginner, or have never stepped on a yoga mat, consider that it has more to do with how you do it rather than what you do. If you can show up to your yoga practice, try new things, move your body in fun and interesting ways while encouraging yourself to breath slowly, deeply, and mindfully, you are bound to leave your practice feeling better than when you started.
Thank you to Wes for teaching me the science and art of yoga for over 10 years! He is responsible for instilling passion in my yoga practice. I hope you will find time to discover his yoga classes. You can find Wes’s class offerings, workshops, and events both online and in person at his website: www.weslinchyoga.com
Wes is a Hatha Yoga instructor, with over 15yrs of practice and having received over 1200hrs of training. He has studied extensively modern Vinyasa Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Shadow Yoga, and Viniyoga. Currently, he is continuing his training and studies with Nicki Doane (Maya Yoga), Kristin Bosteels, and Eddie Modestini(Yoga on the Inside). He has had the privilege of studying in-depth with Mynx Inatsugu(Yogaworks and Viniyoga) and Mark Horner (Shadow Yoga).
Wes focuses primarily on bridging the gap between breath, alignment, and awareness. He aims to make the energy of the practice relevant on and off the mat by introducing traditional yogic teachings with a modern twist. His classes are fun, sweaty, challenging, and full of great humor and heart.