Yoga & The Nervous System

Shirtless young man meditating while practicing yoga sitting with hands clasped at beach against clear sky during sunset

As I lead my yoga class, I realized once more how much not only did those in my class needed the time to destress and recenter, but so did I. When we struggle with anxiety, depression or PTSD we can get stuck into a spiral of negative thinking and worry more than necessary. All that stress does not only affect our physical health but also compounds our background chatter. This is why it is important to clear the debris from the mind.

I am sure by now many of you have already heard about the functioning of the nervous system in all its splendor, as well as the positive effect that yoga exerts on it. You may also know some yoga techniques to help reset and calm your nervous system, but do we really understand how the intricate mechanisms of this complex system work and all that it entails? — although not even neuroscientists fully understand all the ins and outs of the nervous system, some essential aspects are already known and there is growing evidence that yoga contributes to its regulation.

First let’s recap on what is the nervous system:

“The human nervous system is a tremendously complex; and to a large extent; still unknown part of the body. It transmits electrical and chemical energy to initiate movements, identify threats, perform digestion, regulate heart rate, execute breathing and originate thought. It is divided into two main parts:

-The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system encompasses all nervous tissue outside the central nervous system and includes nerves and ganglia (groups of neuronal cells).

-The peripheral nervous system is further divided into the autonomic nervous system (which controls involuntary functions such as breathing) and the somatic nervous system (which controls voluntary functions such as walking).”

Although yoga has the potential to exert its effects on all parts of the nervous system, yoga teachers and practitioners tend to be primarily interested in the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, as it is over these divisions, that the practice can most directly influence.

What is the sympathetic nervous system? — the sympathetic nervous system is known as the “fight or flight” response. This is the part responsible for alerting the body to a possible danger. However, as smart as our body is, the sympathetic nervous system has not yet caught up with lifestyle changes. For example, you can’t properly differentiate between the stress of a life-threatening situation and the stress of an important work meeting. The body perceives the threat of an annoying boss, in the same way that it would perceive the threat of a lion about to attack us.

This type of stress can become chronic. The persistent and incessant email notifications that reach us every night after our work hours have ended, condition us to remain in a sympathetic state. This chronically strains both the body and mind, and can lead to a wide range of stress-related ailments. In addition, chronic stress can cause our endocrine system to produce more stimulating hormones, which, in turn, perpetuates the stress response cycle.

Now you may think, that in Yoga we seek to not stimulate the sympathetic nervous system; you would be wrong. In yoga practices we activate the sympathetic nervous system constantly, but we do it in a control time and control setting; we do this through longer postures and faster flows — what this does is reset the clock of your nervous system and brings it back to a steady pace.

And what is parasympathetic nervous system? — the parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest” response. This part of the autonomic nervous system counteracts the sympathetic response. It works as the “brake” of the nervous system: it slows down the heart rate, stimulates digestion, slows down the pace of breathing, withdraws blood flow from the extremities and returns it to vital organs, releases relaxing neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, among others.

In the practice of yoga, we extol this part of the nervous system because it helps us relax the body and mind already tense excessively. We use specifically focused practices, such as restorative yoga to achieve more relaxed states. This is more the type of yoga I focus on most of the class, as my classes are gear for people who struggle with PTSD and Depression — my classes include very simple and fundamental yoga stretching, breathing/pranayama and meditation with EMDR (Eye movement desentization reprocessing) techniques to help quiet the mind and experience peaceful stillness within.

As you can see, yoga has a strong connection with mind and body. But what exactly happens to our brain when we practice yoga? — I will share with you some of the most surprising results studies have proven take place after only 40 minutes to an hr. of pure yoga — this means yoga mostly focused on the calming of our nervous system:

1- It increases our sense of happiness: surely more than once we have heard of substances such as dopamine and oxytocin, chemical components that, when released in sufficient quantities, increase our feeling of happiness. Well, according to studies carried out at Boston University, during the practice of yoga, our levels of GABA increase; a neurotransmitter that directly affects the central nervous system and calms brain activity. This especially benefits people who have difficulty relaxing and concentrating.

When we do yoga regularly, there is an increase in dopamine and oxytocin, which helps us feel more relaxed and prepared to better manage any stressful situation that comes our way. Antidepressants and anxiolytics try to achieve these effects but with countless side effects.

2- It drastically helps reduce stress: any yoga practice is beneficial to the body. However pure yoga focuses on restorative yoga, which focuses on simple exercises at first, then some complex postures; usually inverted postures, for this help reduce the amount of cortisol in the brain and then transitions back to gentle stretches that focus more on breathing. Cortisol is a hormone that fires when we are nervous. Also in stressful situations, the amygdala — responsible for basic emotions such as anger or fear — is activated and the activity of the prefrontal cortex gets overwhelmed. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for managing self-control and introspection, which affect our decision-making process. Numerous studies show that through regular yoga practice, cortisol levels fall, which help keep stress and all the chemical reactions associated with it at bay. Even after a single yoga session, saliva samples have been taken that demonstrate a reduction in cortisol levels.

3- Improves memory and learning: gray matter is part of the central nervous system, which is responsible for muscle control and sensory perception. Harvard Medical School has found that after two months of practicing yoga, the density of gray matter in the hippocampus increases. In the opinion of the researchers, the density of this part of the mind leads to increase our awareness and improve both memory and learning capacity.

Changes have also been observed to occur in the amygdala, the part of the limbic system responsible for controlling our anxiety levels. In summary, these studies conclude that the higher the density of gray matter, the greater our ability to learn and relax.

4- One of the best antidotes to depression: the depression rate in Western countries today is ten times higher than it was two generations ago. Our response to stress usually involves resorting to harmful substances as tobacco, alcohol, harmful drugs (this does not include plant medicine) or abuse of medications — all these have very negative consequences for our physical and mental health.

Scientists who study the brain have discovered a biological component linked to happiness and/or resilience. Apparently, people who consider themselves happier or are more resilient, have a healthier prefrontal cortex. Pure Yoga has proven to help built healthier neuron connections — rewiring of the brain.

5- Because it helps the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic nervous systems, yoga helps us relax from the inside out. The parasympathetic nervous system is our best ally, and yoga stimulates this part of the brain facilitating our relaxation and helping us to recover balance in daily life.

6- Cultivates enteroception; detect stimuli or sensations that come from our organs.

7- Promotes Neuroplasticity: the latest research also suggests that the brain processes information faster and makes decisions more easily by increasing the number of folds present in the cerebral cortex. Yoga and meditation are therefore a way to speed up mental activity.

In other words, we don’t have to settle for the brain we’ve lived with so far if this has not worked well for us. We know that we can establish changes since the brain is endowed with a quality known as plasticity. Therefore, if we feel unable to address stressful situations or go through a season in which we are sadder, we can resort to yoga and meditation as a tool to help us transform our mood and help us achieve the balance needed to aid the healing process; as yoga helps promote a deep connection between the body, mind and our inner spiritual being.


By Sofia Falcone

I passionately believe one person can make a difference. I write from my own experiences and interests. It is my greatest hope that by writing about my own challenges, victories, hopes and learnings, others may feel inspired to believe more in their inner power and to fully embrace themselves!

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