Even though I am obsessed with yoga, I think it is only the second best thing we can do for health. The best thing we can do is to have an intimate connection with nature.
Last winter we moved to one of the great yoga hubs of the world, Santa Monica, California. I taught yoga, went to yoga classes every day with talented and famous yoga instructors, got used to paying $22 for superfood smoothies and practically took out a second mortgage at the Whole Foods salad bar. Every day was full of California sunshine and palm trees, but there was an emptiness inside me and a sense of restlessness that I could not quell. One chilly December evening, my wife, two-year-old son and I drove North on Highway 1. We found a long stretch of beach that was isolated with the exception of the distant silhouette of an older woman strolling in her leopard skin coat. A reminder of our proximity to Malibu. I had surfed on Venice Beach every day and played in the parks of Santa Monica with our son daily, but those beaches were filled with a stream of cruiser bike riders, joggers and roller coasters.
There was a quietness to us that night as we watched the hazy pink marine layer softly blend into the ocean’s seemingly endless horizon. I stopped and breathed deeply, not because it says to breathe deeply in a yoga text, but to replace the emptiness I felt in my chest. My heart became more inflated and I could finally pinpoint the source of my unease…
Often in yoga we refer to something called “fight or flight” to account for the mundane worries of the world that may steal our presence during practice.
Fight or flight refers to our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which are the “autonomic” nerves to our organs that are believed to be out of our control. It is generally understood that the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) revs us up or excites us, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) revs us down or relaxes us, but there is so much more to it than that.
I would like to talk about the entire nervous system, including the peripheral or “somatic” part that we do control and how it also ties in. My ultimate goal is to (1) explain how yoga and asana integrate with all parts of the nervous system, (2) help you understand why some poses stimulate certain pathways either consciously or subconsciously, and (3) show how to pair the PNS an SNS into a yoga class for those perfect sensations whether you’re shooting for peak asana or something more subtle.
Part 1: Nervous System Integration
The PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) does not inhibit the SNS (sympathetic nervous system), they are both excitatory systems. Ideally, these systems are in balance with each other, one waxing while the other one wanes. The SNS excites us when it is time to fight or flee (heart races, eyes widen and dilate to look out, lungs open up, sphincters close, digestion stops, adrenals release epinephrin, liver calls for energy stores to become sugar) while the PNS excites us to rest and digest (eyes constrict, heart slows, sphincters relax, digestion begins, liver calls to make energy stores). Notice that with each, the organs are being stimulated for a purpose but not two purposes at once. IBS is a problem where a confused gut becomes dually excited, so stress causes a painfully mixed reaction of both PNS and SNS activity.
We can say energetically the SNS is a plus and the PNS is a minus however the minuses don’t turn off pluses and the key to sustainability is balance without extremes. This way we can experience healthful levels of excitation to lift us up while also providing our body with energizing rest that restores us. Unbalanced SNS may drive anxiety or anger and too much PNS may make one lazy or depressed. The demands of the modern world frequently drive us into too much SNS and subsequently we get adrenal fatigue.
There is also the “somatic” nervous system which controls our skeletal muscles and sensations like pain or comfort. It is a bottom up model where our somatics work in concert with our emotions and intelligence to change and modulate the outputs of the autonomics. When properly aligned, or at least comfortable in asana, we lose the over-excitation that comes from the protective need of the PNS or SNS, and this is when we feel yoga relax us into a state of presence where our thoughts and control of wellbeing is not influenced by our external altercations or stimuli. Here we may hypothesize why yoga “miraculously” healed Iyengar and Paramahansa Yogananda. It is also part of the scientific basis for osteopathy whereas other forms of modern medicine try to only adjust outputs to organs and therefore cannot create true natural healing from within.
Part 2: Stimulatory Effects of Poses
Nerves pass up and down through ganglia or “switchboards”. SNS switchboards are located along the thoracic and lumbar spines and is why dancer pose is so exhilarating. PNS switchboards are located at the neck and sacrum and is why child’s pose is so relaxing.
That perfect experience in poses like camel balances both PNS and SNS switchboards by evenly distributing the curve to make us feel proud, strong and energized through the mid-spine while at the same time making us feel relaxed but poised and protected through the neck and pelvic regions. When poses are properly embodied, somatics to the brain speak comfort and we perceive a safe place, the SNS or PNS are balanced and naturally go back and forth between excitatory states without extremes. Extremes overly heighten the system and drive one towards the opposite excitatory state, ie. crunching of the lumbar spine in camel that suddenly drives us into child’s pose, or a pigeon pose that just doesn’t feel accomplished without having to be a mermaid.
Part 3: Pairing of Asana and Flow
As yoga teachers, we must be experts in neuroplasticity and ask ourselves what we want to achieve, and then strategize a practice that uses somatics to balance the body and mind without extremes or drastic autonomic cycling. Yoga thus provides a way for teachers and students to actively remodel how the body handles stress and disease.
All yoga poses have their perfection, but we want to teach to the needs of the students. Compliment sustained flow of poses affect both SNS and PNS equally in turn, but don’t push one system too hard. This creates an enjoyable and sustainable practice. From an anatomical model, movement and engagement in the thoracic and lumbar spines stimulate the SNS more. The PNS is stimulated more through the neck and pelvic regions. Asanas that intensify awareness in these parts of the spine or add rapid cyclic motion to them will heighten the effect, as do focused assists and touch.
Thoughtfully creating your yoga class can involve more than just warming up and stretching the muscles and joints and also include fully balancing the needs of the automatics. Classes that build to those climactic poses do so best though the gradual crescendo of SNS excitation of the thoracic and lumbars without overstimulating a premature collapse into the PNS. Restorative flows can calm us down greatly by stimulating areas of the neck and pelvis. Asanas that go back and forth without pushing one too far gives us something enjoyably and sustainably in between.
In a standard yoga teacher training, you learn how to build heat or create cooling in various intensities, and think ahead as to where and why this is important for the rest of the class. A deeper art is understanding why some poses stimulate certain autonomic pathways either consciously or subconsciously, and how to build flow to pair the pathway for those perfect sensations whether you’re shooting for peak asana or something more subtle. Embodiment that allows the somatics to deliver sensations of safety and wellbeing avoids triggering the protective need of the SNS or PNS. Doing so balances the the SNS and PNS into naturally healthy oscillations of excitation without extremes and is fundamental to helping students truly feel yoga liberated from the instinct of fight or flight.
By Dr. Jonathan Bloch, Blissology 300-hr YTT graduate Check out Jonathan’s teacher profileto learn more.
Whether you are preparing to hit the ski hills this season, play golf next season, perform fall yard work, or simply are wanting to continue to walk and perform all your household chores with ease and efficiency, it might be helpful to be knowledgeable about the term ‘core’ and how timing of our core contributes to quality of movement whether we are participating in sports or activities of daily living.
The ‘core’ can be interpreted in many ways, depending on who is explaining it. Some leading spine researchers debate that a true ‘core’ even exists (O’Sullivan 2012 interview here). Scientific reviews of high level (level 1) evidence conclude that there is not any one superior exercise for chronic low back pain. The popular belief that core stability exercises are essential to prevent and address back pain is not supported by research (don’t shoot the messenger) (Smith et al 2014). Sure, these exercises may help some people; but not for the reasons we may think. This debate is for another post. That said, we all likely have heard of the ‘inner core’ described as a group of muscles surrounding the trunk and described as a cylinder. The main function of these muscles is said to create spinal stability and control the intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) when the rest of the body is in motion. There are 4 main muscle groups that make up the inner core: Transversus Abdominus (TA), Multifidus (MF), Pelvic Floor muscles (PFM), and the respiratory diaphragm. TA is the deepest abdominal muscle that wraps around your abdomen like a corset, and is connected to tissue surrounding the spine. When TA engages, it assists in increasing the pressure inside the abdomen, which can be one of many factors that contribute to trunk stability. MF is a deep spinal muscle which makes up the back part of the core. It is a postural muscle that helps keep the spine erect. The PFM’s are the bottom part of the ‘cylinder’ or core. More information about the role of the pelvic floor and the factors that influence its function is here.
The respiratory diaphragm makes up the top part of the cylinder. When all of these muscles engage in a coordinated manner, they help to maintain the pressure in the abdomen which then provides the stability to the spine and pelvis. It is important to note that the timing of these muscle engagements is needed for efficiency of movement and function, which is why I often like to refer to this phenomenon as “core timing” instead of “core stability.” For optimal core function, these muscles will activate in a sophisticated and coordinated during movement and are ideally engaging at a variety of intensities, automatically, throughout all movement, all day! Julie Wiebe, PT, describes the core strategy system as ‘piston science.’ Antony Lo, PT, discusses the refined recruitment that continually changes in response to each task as “tension to task.”
A common misconception is that “strong abdominals protect the spine”. In fact, as described above, the abdominal muscles make up only one part of the core. Furthermore, coordinated ‘timing’ of the engagement of the TA is important and not just the mere ‘strength’. The famous “6-pack” or Rectus Abdominus muscle that many fitness fanatics train is not the muscle we are trying to target here. Instead of engaging TA adequately, you may be using or over-recruiting the Rectus Abdominus (as evident by the abdominals popping out and up) to compensate for the TA that may not be recruiting appropriately.
Core timing or core training can play an important role in any rehabilitation program. A healthy core means a healthy foundation from which our limbs can move with more power and efficiency. However, can we actually volitionally ‘train’ each muscle to engage in a perfectly timed and refined way? It’s quite a sophisticated and automated system: there is debate on whether or not we can actually cue the timing of the core adequately. That is also for another post!
For now, I will say that in my clinical experience, cueing breath and ease of movement seems to improve core timing (therefore movement efficiency and performance) more than actually cueing TA, PFM’s or MF to voluntarily ‘engage.’
Brent Anderson, PT, PhD, explains a similar approach, and uses two real-time ultrasounds to illustrate this concept here.
Core timing can be an essential part of any regular workout routine. Whether you enjoy recreational sports, competitive sports, pilates, yoga, or enjoy working out at the gym, addressing your core (through breath) can improve your abilities and enhance your overall performance.
If you experience low back pain, then a visit to your physiotherapist or other trained health care professional would be a good idea. See “Truth About Back Pain” for more info on myths vs truths about back pain and the myth of core stability here.
**This article is not intended to act as medical advice, nor to diagnose or replace your current treatment. Please seek clearance and guidance from your licensed healthcare professional prior to participating in any of the tips, advice, practices or movements mentioned in this article.
By Shelly Prosko, PT, PYT, CPI, Blissology 200-hr YTT graduate Check out Shelly’s teacher profileto learn more.