Often when we think of the flexibility associated with yoga, we think of physical flexibility like the downdog pose shown in this picture. The breathing practices of yoga help to bring flexibility or resiliency to your autonomic nervous system. What do we mean by that?
The Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems. When you are stressed or anxious or depressed your Autonomic Nervous System is not optimally working. In other words, the Sympathetic Nervous System or our stress response is working way to hard. Our Parasympathetic Nervous System, our relaxation response is not getting the attention that a healthy body and mind need. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is the default response of the Autonomic Nervous System. When we are not dealing with a person or situation we should be relaxed so our body can function with ease.
We often think of the word stress in a negative way but in reality the stress response of our nervous system is necessary and important. When needed, the stress response kicks in to deal with situations that cause an alarm bell, the amygdala, in our brains to go off to caution a possible fearful, dangerous or harmful situation. This triggers a chain reaction of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to flow throughout the body. These stress hormones, in conjunction with neurotransmitters, initiate all of the necessary body functions to be ready to fight, flee or even freeze.
I often use the example if you step off a curb and a car comes whizzing by you, you automatically jump back onto the curb to avoid the dangerous situation of getting hit. This was your sympathetic nervous system or stress response in action. Remember, the alarm bell in your brain goes off and triggers a chain reaction.
When a danger or fear has passed, the relaxation response, the default, should take over once again.
Heart Rate Variability
The flexibility or responsiveness of our autonomic nervous system to go back and forth from sympathetic to parasympathetic is related to our heart rate variability. We all have the ability to increase the flexibility of our autonomic nervous system. This is what allows us to perk up when we need to deal with a stressor and relax when we need to as well.
It’s when this part of our nervous system becomes inflexible, or another way to say it we get “stuck” in the sympathetic mode, we get those feelings of stress, anxiety, depression or you’ve likely heard the term nervous breakdown where you can hardly function any more.
Through the process of learning basic yoga breathing practices you can bring back the proper regulation to your nervous system that is needed to feel calm and collected even in tense situations. A well-regulated nervous system can even help you to sleep better which is so necessary to feel rejuvenated in the morning.
As explained in the book “The healing power of the breath”, the level of activity of the parasympathetic nervous system can be measured using the natural fluctuations in heart rate that are linked to breathing; these fluctuations are used to calculate heart rate variability or HRV. Changing the rate and pattern of breathing alters HRV, reflecting shifts in the nervous system activity.
There is a direct connection between the breath rate and the heart rate.
When you breathe quickly it correlates with a fast heart rate. When you breathe slowly it correlates with a slower heart rate. Are you beginning to see the connection between the fast breathing associated with anxiety and the fast heart rate you may have felt when you are nervous or anxious? The way we breathe is a direct indication to our brain of our level of safety.
Yoga Breathing Practices
There are a variety of yoga breathing practices which provide a quick and effective method of changing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system – the longer, slower breathing practices. Practices such as Belly or Diaphragmatic breathing, Ujjayi (Ocean) Breathing, Brahmari (Humming Bee) Breathing and Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril) Breathing, to name a few. When we breathe in this way we are sending messages to our brain by way of the vagus nerve that ultimately lead to activating our relaxation response.
If you are interested in learning more about yoga breathing practices to help regulate the autonomic nervous system, check out the online course “How to Manage Anxiety Using Yoga Breathing Practices”. These breathing practices are great for all sorts of mood management including stress, anxiety, depression, and ADHD.