training your nervous system

Training Your Nervous System

Stress and Relaxation

When teaching people about their stress and relaxation responses I try to be careful not to demonize the stress side of things. It seems to me that in the “wellness world,” we overemphasize the rest/digest response without touching into the importance of activating. Calling it “fight or flight” is a little bit misleading. Let me explain.  

What I’m talking about here is your autonomic nervous system, which splits into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for activating you, it’s not bad.

When the SNS is dominant your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing quickens, blood is shunted to your limbs and away from your core, digestion slows, your pupils dilate, you sweat. Your body is activated to move, to get going, to engage, and yes, to fight or flee for survival. 

Your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for bringing you back to homeostasis, for relaxing you. It’s not that it’s better than your SNS.

When your PNS is dominant your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, your breathing slows, blood returns to your core, you carry on with digestion, you rest. Not needing to project out into the world, your body’s resources can be used for recuperation, maintenance, and growth.  

Regulation and Dysfunction

A healthy, regulated nervous system is one with a dynamic interplay between SNS and PNS dominance. A body that starts up and gets going as needed and, when the pressure is off, returns to a resting state. It’s like a healthy muscle that contracts and gives you strength when you need it, and softens into relaxation (not chronic tension) when you don’t.  

The dysfunction comes into play when the dance between activation and relaxation gets chronically pulled in one direction. I think this is why us wellness people overemphasize the PNS. As a culture and at this point in history, we’re chronically pulled towards stress.

Without time to relax and without practice doing so, it seems we’ve gotten rusty at softening into rest. In many of us, the SNS is dominant most of the time, so in yoga we talk a lot about activating the PNS. However…

Yoga activates both stress and relaxation

In a yoga practice we’re often activating the SNS. Think about how it feels to do an invigorating breath of fire or hold a challenging posture for a bit of time. It feels activating right? Your heart rate increases, your breathing quickens, you sweat. It’s the SNS in action on purpose and for good reason. 

Part of why yoga helps people in seemingly mysterious ways in life is because it gives us a controlled opportunity to go into SNS dominance and return to PNS dominance, sometimes over and over again within one practice session.

By maintaining awareness and control of your breath even as it changes in class, and modulating your effort when your breath gets out of control, you’re working with your nervous system.

After a challenging practice (SNS dominant), you’re invited to lay on your back and relax completely during savasana at the end of class (PNS dominant).

Remember, a regulated nervous system knows how to shift between an activated state and a relaxed state based on the needs of your environment. Yoga trains a regulated nervous system.  

Yoga for PNS activation

Now, there are styles of yoga that aim for PNS dominance throughout the entire session. I’m talking about restorative yoga, yoga nidra, and some gentle yin yoga practices.

When the SNS has been working on overdrive and the PNS is hard to find, dropping into rest might take quite a lot of time. If you’ve ever had trouble sleeping, being alert at night when you should be at rest, you know how impossible it can feel to de-activate, slow down, and slumber.

These passive styles of yoga help your brain and body register where you’re at currently and from there, walk the path to PNS dominance. They help you and your nervous system learn to consciously relax.

It takes time and repetition. The practice accumulates, the path becomes easier to find, and your body remembers what it feels like to actually rest. Sometimes we can be so far away from that experience it’s almost scary when we tap into it again. That fear is the SNS reasserting its chronic dominance. Which is ok! Like I said, it takes time.  

Different strokes for different folks…and a challenge

I think it’s super cool there are so many different way to practice and train our nervous systems to be better at rolling with life.  

If you’re the type that hates savasana, I totally get it. You might challenge yourself to occasionally take a yin or restorative yoga class from a trauma-informed teacher. Consider that resting might be as challenging for you as a vigorous workout is to someone else. It’s worthwhile to practice.  

If you’re the type that melts easily into a puddle and has a hard to getting up and going, you might challenge yourself to occasionally take an active yoga class like a gentle hatha or vinyasa flow from a teacher that knows how to work with beginners (even if you’re not a beginner). Your feet might drag all the way there but I have a feeling you’ll walk a little lighter afterwards. It’s a nervous system thing.  

The importance of experienced teachers

As a side note, the reason I mention teachers with certain experience is because sometimes yoga classes, just like people, can be imbalanced from a nervous system perspective. Honestly there is nothing wrong with this, it’s like going to a workout class and feeling tired afterwards.

If you’re aiming for the nervous system benefits of yoga, though, I’d caution you against doing a class where you feel blown out and sluggish at the end of it. Return to the classes where you leave feeling nourished, balanced, and at ease. 

Through your nose, take a deep breath in….and out…all the way out… 

Image by Wojtek Pacześ from Pexels