Yoga is a popular activity due to its synergy of mind and body challenges. Yoga requires attentional focus and self regulation, whilst also challenging proprioception, strength and flexibility.
Recent research has suggested yoga may be useful to correct imbalances between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity within the body. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems make up the autonomous nervous system in our bodies; ie, the nervous system that is not under conscious control.
The autonomous nervous system is responsible for controlling tasks such as breathing and heart rate. The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response. It prepares our body for an intense physical battle.
For example if you suddenly see a car speeding towards you, your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive to prepare you to jump or run out the way.
In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system has almost the exact opposite effect and slows the body down. It slows the heart rate and is designed to conserve energy. If you are under high stress and blood pressure is rising, your parasympathetic nervous system would kick in to lower blood pressure again.
The body has sensors around the neck, chest and heart that detect changes in blood pressure. The nature of yoga means the body is bent into various positions with the head both above and below the heart.
This manipulation of positions may trigger the nervous system sensors, signalling the brain to change sympathetic or parasympathetic tone. For example, a yoga position requiring your head to go down the floor such as Downward Facing Dog or Dolphin pose, would signal an increase in blood pressure, causing the body to raise its parasympathetic activity.
There are many sympathetic nervous system sensors in the inner ear, and many yoga balances and isometric holds are likely to trigger these. This constant manipulation of the nervous system triggers, improves regulation of the autonomous nervous system.
This means when the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system is truly called into action in response to a genuine threat, the body response may become more efficient.
So if you needed another reason to add yoga into your weekly schedule, consider the benefits to the nervous system. As well as the flexibility, strength and self control benefits, this form of training really does have many avenues of improvement.
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