As you begin to practice yoga more and more, your comprehension of the benefits of the poses becomes more and more clear. Not just because you hear the words stated the same way each time, but because you start to feel the benefits at the same time. Our awareness of our body becomes heightened and the information provided in the dialog becomes real in the body. Learning from many different teachers of this discipline is a gift too, as each instructor tends to have their own style and unique contribution in explaining the effects of the poses. I believe as teachers it is our responsibility to do this, as what we learn from Bikram and other senior instructors is only useful when shared amongst you – the students. I too, being a teacher, learn so much from other teachers. It inspires me to stay educated and keep ties tight with Bikram, because the knowledge in this particular practice of 26 poses with two breathing exercises is endless and impactful. What is quite interesting is that we tend to each hear exactly what we need each time. Beautiful isn’t it?
One phrase that has come up lately is the use of the term “parasympathetic system.” We don’t often hear this term being used in our practice which is why I thought it worthy to do some research and further explain what this means and why it is so valuable to you as a practitioner.
Our autonomic nervous system consists of two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. One compliments the other. Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our survival. If we sense any kind of danger, real or perceived, our body moves into a “flight or fight” stress response. Our bodies, in their infinite wisdom, will start to pump blood to the heart quicker, increase blood pressure and sugar levels, boost breathing activity and other bodily functions to prepare itself for action. At the same time, there is a reduction or a shutting down of other areas of the body that are not needed in this time of self-defense. Our bodies are truly amazing. However, in our society, we live with an overexposure to stress (either positive or negative) and over time this is too much for the body to handle. Did you know that studies have shown that 90 percent of illnesses and disease are stress related? As one article put it, “overactive stress response – develops into cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, autoimmune diseases, reproductive problems, suppression of the immune system and more.”
Sounds dismal, but the body has a way to counteract all that pressure on itself through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is a necessary component to our overall health that is often ignored. It can be called the “relaxation response” and aids in restoring the body to recover from the stress response. The heart slows down, blood pressure returns to normal levels, blood is redirected to core parts of the body and signals the body to increase elimination by supporting intestinal activity and digestion. Fascinating. Both activate nerve impulses yet under different circumstances and both are necessary for our overall health and well-being.
In our world today no matter where you live and no matter what your situation is, you will encounter stress. How we manage stress is key. I love this yin and yang movement of our central nervous system. The body also has its own coping mechanism for stress built in called the parasympathetic system and through yoga we can activate this natural antidote to stress.
Pranayama breathing activates the parasympathetic system. Long deep breaths like we do in each posture whether extending, twisting or inverting, activates the parasympathetic system. We enhance circulation of blood and bodily fluids to all parts of the body to improve and maintain normal functions. Bikram Yoga is designed to encourage exertion on the body followed by maximum relaxation – all of this is exercising the parasympathetic system. As the body heals and regenerates and seeks to shield itself from stressors, our minds too are actively improving to detach from anxiety and fears.
Recently, I rearranged my home bringing in a large shelving unit that fits snug against a 12 foot wall. For the first time, I was able to put all my books that I’ve read and collected over the past 20+ years in one place. Like a photo album, they are a collection of the many experiences in my life. Each one holds some piece of information that was valuable to my growth contributing to who I am today. I was surprised and thrilled to see them all – together – like one big gathering of friends! They shaped ME.
As I look at them and read the titles, I make note of the interests that I have had over the years. Not too much fiction, although I do admit I read all the Twilight series and have quite a few Peter Mayle and all the Paul Coelho books, but there are mostly a lot of self “enlightening” books, as I like to call them. They range from Wayne Dyer’s books on inspiration, to Deborah Ford’s “Shadows of the Light Chasers” (a book on how to claim your dark side), to books on various religions, and several on leadership and what it takes to run a great business as in “Power of Engagement” to “E-Myth Mastery.” I bet many of you over the years, like me, have books that have touched you in some way helping to spark a change of some sort that helped build a greater you. I even have a few powerful children’s books. Wow. Some of those writings can serve us adults well as we tend to need refreshers on the simple things that make us good human beings.
Like yoga and the comprehension we develop with each pose at our own pace, each book came to me at the right time in my life. One is not greater than the other; they are just different and have their own unique gifts. As I look now, many of them were ways to deactivate stress much like the parasympathetic system. If my life was a bit too serious, I read a book that made me laugh. When I felt self-critical and lost, I read books like “Soul without Shame” or “Callings.” When my mother was dying, I read angel books and books that carried messages about God and higher forms of consciousness that soothed the loss I was experiencing.
There is documentary being re-released called “Yoga Unveiled.” (For more details see below as there will be a screening of this movie in Cupertino at the end of May.) One of the Yogi Masters being interviewed was being asked, “why yoga?” He responded by saying “that even 5000 years ago, yoga was created by the people for the people”.
My take on all this is that stress has been and will be one of the many ingredients in our lives but, our roles in life cannot be stifled by the stress that comes to us in whatever fashion. Even the body has built in it a way to cope with stress. How fortunate for you yoga practitioners to have discovered this remedy of stimulating the parasympathetic system as you do your practice. The invention of yoga itself may very well have been created as a response to stress. No matter, the use of the power of yoga to keep stressors at bay as they pop up is time honored and effective. Be on the lookout as your stressors unfold and dissolve and give them a little attention. I, too – need to be aware, as these unwanted visitors disturb my energy and irritate my attention to goals at hand.
I’ve been doing yoga for 12 years now. Little did I know back when I started the amazing decision I was making to engage in this practice. The list of benefits has grown as the years have gone by and I am grateful that I was led this way. Appreciate your choice too. You too will begin to hear unexpected benefits derived from yoga and how fortunate you will feel.