By Lynn Martyn
What exactly are we doing in Yoga that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest system?
Breathing more deeply, slowly, and evenly.
- Close your eyes right now and take one breath in to feel your lungs filling up with air, opening and lifting your chest, spreading your ribs.
- Breathe out slowly and evenly, feeling your chest dropping and lowering.
Simply changing our breathing in this way activates the parasympathetic nervous system because it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body, helping your muscles relax and lowering your blood pressure and heart rate.
When you’re stressed, your breathing is probably fast and irregular as our primitive cave person “fight or flight” instinct is triggered. This raises our heart rate, helping us get ready to escape or fight danger. When the body’s stress response is constantly stimulated over a long period of time — as you may have experienced during lockdown — the heart rate and blood pressure increase, muscle tension increases, sleep quality diminishes, and health can deteriorate.
Practicing Yoga counteracts stress and its negative side effects by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, or as George Mumford, meditation coach to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant calls it, the “rest and digest” system.
This is why Yoga is so useful in a moment when we are under a tidal wave of bad news, uncertainty, home confinement, isolation, or even worse the COVID-19 illness itself. And the stress of lockdown isn’t just temporary stress, but weeks and weeks of cumulative stress which chronically raises the heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol, causing sleep problems, tiredness, and weakening the immune system.
The magic of Yoga is that while you are moving or meditating, you are paying attention to the breath or synchronising breath with movement. My favourite Yoga teacher, Stewart Gilchrist, often says “switch your breath on” at the start of class. He’s cueing his students to turn on the parasympathetic magic.
These physical and mental benefits carry over when you step off your Yoga mat the same way a ballerina holds her beautiful, erect posture not just while in dance class, but all day long, even at the grocery store. It’s the same with Yoga; you bring your ability to deep breathe, triggering relaxation with you wherever you go — when you’re making dinner, driving the car, watching the news, fighting with your spouse, putting the kids to bed.
I often say to my students when holding a difficult pose that the breathing is the most important thing. If they can continue deep, even breathing while wide-legged straddling the mat with their head touching the floor, hands clasped and arms overhead — they can breathe through anything — even COVID-19 lockdown.
Lynn Martyn is a biologist and experienced, trained vinyasa yoga teacher. Yoga has been an integral part of her life for more than 13 years. Lynn’s YouTube channel was created with the mission to keep her students, family, and friends’ children moving and healthy during COVID-19 lockdown.