Finding Flow: Yoga and the Nervous System

Does this scenario sound familiar?

You’ve had a long day. You spent most of the day at your computer, in meetings, or pulled in many directions. It has demanded a lot from you.

From work, you run errands, head home to prepare dinner, take care of the kids, etc.

The first time you get still and consciously breathe might not be until your head hits the pillow that night, and while your body is tired, your mind is wired. You spend a few minutes breathing deeply but can’t seem to shut off.

More Yoga, Less Stress

Yoga and the nervous system - Steph Sanders Yoga

You’ve probably heard that yoga is an anecdote to stress. Yoga does a beautiful job of helping us relax and release tension while strengthening our body, boosting our immune system, and calming the mind.

Whether you realize it or not, the style of yoga you do directly relates to your nervous system and how you feel after a yoga class, breathwork session, or meditation.

When we understand what our body and mind need, we can determine what kind of practice to do from one day to the next.

If you’re curious about which style of yoga is best to do when you feel stressed, tired, or lazy, read on. Or, to skip the science, just scroll further down.

The Nervous System

As defined by Wikipedia, “In biology, the nervous system is a highly complex part of an animal that coordinates its actions and sensory information by transmitting signals to and from different parts of its body. The nervous system detects environmental changes that impact the body, then works in tandem with the endocrine system to respond to such events.”

The nervous system coordinates all activities in the body, from heart rate to digestion. It adapts to changes both inside and outside the body. 

The word “animal” is also important here as we can forget that we, too, are part of nature. Therefore, we can look to nature when caring for our primal tendencies. 

There are two parts to the nervous system: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). We will look closer at one of the three subsystems in the PNS, called the autonomic nervous system. This includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.


Yoga and the nervous system - Steph Sanders Yoga

The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of mobilizing energy to respond to danger, referred to as our fight or flight response.

Imagine the energy needed to fight or run from predators during the ancient cave dweller’s era. It was indeed life or death, whereas nowadays, our “threats” can include someone’s reactions to us, losing a job or relationship, or anything we perceive as a threat.

Our body doesn’t know the difference between a life-threatening situation and an impending deadline. It responds the same. 

We commonly refer to the parasympathetic nervous system as our rest and digest state. This state is optimal to allow our bodies to digest food, restore proper hormonal flow and maintain a healthy heart rate. We feel calmer in this state.

It is easy to assume that we want to be in a parasympathetic response as much as possible when actually, we want to fluctuate and flow from sympathetic to parasympathetic.

To be clear, we need both and want a healthy relationship with both. 

The Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System

Each inhalation is upregulating, stimulating our sympathetic nervous system response. Each exhalation is downregulating and activates our parasympathetic nervous system response.

We are constantly moving back and forth from parasympathetic to sympathetic responses, and the ease of traversing back and forth is important. For example, when we get stuck in one pattern and are hyper-stressed, we can lose our ability to return to balance or homeostasis. 

Getting stuck in fight or flight can lead to chronic stress/tension, increased cortisol levels in the body, and problems with digestion.

This is why it’s beneficial to practice deep breathing, focusing on longer exhales. Yoga helps us get back to a parasympathetic response. For instance, when we “om” in class, it’s one long exhalation, activating the “rest and digest” response.

Yoga and the nervous system - Steph Sanders Yoga

When Deep Breathing Isn’t Enough

Things get interesting and slightly more complex when our go-to practice doesn’t do the trick. Yes, taking deep breaths can help us shift into a parasympathetic state, but other times, it might not be enough, or other methods could be helpful. 

If we have been seated all day, even while using mental energy, there is still a lot of physical energy we haven’t used, and if we feel stressed, we often need to move this energy to shift into a more calm parasympathetic state.

Sometimes we need to use the energy that we are in (stressed/sympathetic response) BEFORE we can see change and swing in the other direction. We are animals and aren’t meant to be sedentary like we have become in our modern tech-driven society.

You often see animals shake after a confrontation with another animal. They are shaking the remaining sympathetic (fight or flight) energy from their body.

Yoga and the Nervous System

Yoga is terrific at triggering both sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. When we understand our system’s current state, we can improve our ability to return to balance more quickly. YES! A big win!

This means that a dynamic vinyasa, slow flow class, shaking meditation, or walk in nature might be more helpful than going to a yin class or only doing meditation straight after work. This doesn’t mean that the yin or mediation won’t be beneficial. Still, a dynamic class might be more effective in defusing the sympathetic system and using the pent-up energy stored in the body, which can be felt as stress, being wired, a very active mind, anger, or irritation.

Which type of yoga should I practice and when

ScenarioType of yoga practiceWhy?
Busy day,
seated for long periods
Dynamic Yoga
Gentle flow
Helps use and release sympathetic energy and can shift us into a parasympathetic response – rest and digest, calm.
For example, it feels easier to settle into savasana after a dynamic yoga practice. The body is prepped and the mind is more relaxed.
Chronic stress, fatigueIf you are naturally flexible, you have more elastin, softer, or more pliable connective tissue/fascia. This is a parasympathetic constitution. Doing more strengthening yoga can be helpful to balance your body i.e. to find balance, it’s beneficial to focus on strengthening rather than yin or deep stretching.There is an imbalance of sympathetic energy to the point of exhaustion so a gentler approach can help stimulate a relaxation response – helping us feel calm, safe, and comfortable.
Feeling sluggish, unmotivated, stagnantDynamic yoga
Gentle slow flow to Ashtanga
Activating breath
If we have too much parasympathetic energy (freeze state), movement can help shift this – some may prefer gentler movements at first. Activating/energizing breathwork can move stagnant energy and make us feel more alert, awake, and aware.
To create a healthy relationship with sympathetic (fight or flight) systemDynamic yoga
Activating breath
This gets us more comfortable with “holding charge” or experiencing challenges in the body and system. Think of the feeling of breathing in a challenging pose and how this builds a focused mind and sense of empowerment. This also improves respiratory and cardiovascular health and boosts the immune system. 
Naturally flexible/hypermobile and yoga comes “easy” to youFocus more on strengthening If you are on the tighter end and find yoga “hard” or challenging because you “can’t touch your toes” you most likely have more collagen in your tissue which is more structured, less moveable.  A sympathetic constitution. A yin practice will be helpful for you to lengthen out and work with the facia. 
Stiff, less flexible, you find yoga “hard” or challenging because you “can’t touch your toes”Focus more on stretching and lengthening – yinIf you are on the tighter end and find yoga “hard” or challenging because you “can’t touch your toes” you most likely have more collagen in your tissue which is more structured, and less moveable.  A sympathetic constitution. A yin practice will be helpful for you to lengthen out and work with the facia. 
All yoga can trigger both the sympathetic and parasympathetic but intentionally focusing on a certain style can help create more balance.

The connection between FLEXIBILITY and the Nervous system

Why are the last two points in the chart interesting?

Identifying which type of connective tissue we have can help us determine which style of yoga is beneficial for us to create more balance. We could generalize and say that people who are often attracted to yoga tend to be more elastin in their connective tissue. Poses may appear to come easier due to being more naturally flexible. This shows that being inflexible isn’t a good reason not to begin yoga. Instead, it supports starting a yoga practice no matter how still you feel. More on this topic soon.

Yoga and the nervous system - Steph Sanders Yoga

Why Understanding the Nervous System Matters?

The list above is a general way to begin understanding the effect of yoga on our nervous system. Given the day you’ve had and where you find yourself on the spectrum of nervous system responses, I encourage you to see what works best for you. 

Like yoga, our bodies and systems are not one-size-fits-all; what might work for you won’t work for someone else. If you have a busy workload and life and only do Ashtanga yoga, it may be worth exploring other options, inviting a more calming nature to your system, for example. 

When in balance and healthy, the nervous system and the related responses offer us a feeling of safety in the full spectrum of human experiences. 

Reflect: Do you know if you spend more time in one system than the other? Do you have an idea of what you could begin to do to find more balance in your system?

Acknowledgment: I’d like to credit much of my learning and understanding of the nervous system to courses and books from Kimberly Ann Johnson. She is a doula, somatic experience practitioner, and sexological bodyworker. She works and shares extensively through the lens of the nervous system. I cannot recommend her courses and podcast enough if this subject interests you.