5 Divisions of the Nervous System
The nervous system and increasing its resiliency is an important benefit to slow yoga. Unfortunately, yoga teachers talking about yoga’s benefit to the parasympathetic system has become like the grocery stores labeling gummy bears as gluten free. OK, maybe not the best analogy, but the point is that yoga benefits the whole nervous system. We over use the benefits to the parasympathetic nervous system because its so relatable to many people and we want everyone practicing yoga.
So let’s take a moment and learn about the 2 main Systems; Central Nervous System (CNS) and Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). The PNS is then broken down into 3 subdivisions; Somatic (SNS), Autonomic (ANS), and Enteric (ENS). The ENS is a subdivision of the ANS, but is said to work independently of the CNS so it may not always be included in discussions about the nervous system. Not to be forgotten, The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems work in conjunction with one another as part of the ANS. Head here for a diagram if you’re head hurts from all of those acronyms. I’m doing my best to explain a complex, detailed system at its simplest.
Central Nervous System
The brain and spinal cord make up the CNS. Therefore, it performs all three functions of the nervous system; sensory, motor, and integration. The brain and spinal cord collect information from our physical and emotional senses as it relates to our external and internal world and act as the control center (command station) to ensure our survival. Using yoga as a tool to improve Proprioception is a way in which we make the CNS more efficient.
Peripheral Nervous System
Separate from the brain and spinal cord are the remaining nervous system tissues; motor neurons, and sensory receptors and neurons. Neurons (nerve cells) carry messages through electrical pulses through our nervous system. A receptor is what receives information and generates nerve impulses for transmission. The motor neurons collect messages from the CNS and send them to the appropriate body organs. On the other hand, the sensory receptors and neurons collect messages and send them to the CNS. In Summary, motor neurons communicate from CNS to PNS, but sensory neurons and receptors communicate from PNS to CNS. As mentioned previously, there are 3 subdivisions of the PNS; Somatic, Autonomic and Enteric.
Somatic Nervous System
The Somatic System is the voluntary system which we have control over that regulates skeletal and muscle movement. Basically, as you practice yoga and decide where to place your limbs and when to contract muscles etc, you are using the SNS. However, emotional and physical trauma can result in us holding physical patterns that inhibit our fluidity of motion. Using yoga as a tool to discover and heal these patterns will help bring this nervous system into equilibrium. I don’t mean making sure everyone’s body works like everyone else’s. The goal is to understand an individual’s own skeletal and muscular structure and what balance of the SNS means for each individual. Yoga helps us to find our physical blocks that interfere with smooth transfer of energy throughout our body. Using intentionaly subtle movements in our yoga practice helps bring awareness we may otherwise not notice in our day to day routines.
Autonomic Nervous system
The ANS is the involuntary system generally out of our control that regulates communication from our internal organs to the CNS and vice versa. One of the three sub divisions, the enteric nervous system, can act independently of the CNS. The other two subdivisions, Sympathetic and Parasympathetic, work in conjunction with each other in response to internal and external stimuli.
“The nervous system dance is complex and highly changeable – that’s why the word “homeostatic” is not really accurate. “Homeodynamic” makes more sense. It’s this ability to adapt that underlies our capacity for resilience.” Kristine Kaoverii Weber
Sympathetic Nervous System
The Sympathetic system is know for its fight or flight response that increases things like heart rate and blood pressure simultaneously in response to stress. It is a much needed part of our system that gets a bad rap due to our inability to pay attention to the impact of our own choices that keep us under constant stress (not shaming. I’m guilty of this too). Also, the effects of trauma can push the system into overdrive as well. Yoga practices that focus safely on improving our interoception help us to build the window of tolerance between the SNS and PNS.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The Parasympathetic system is know for the rest and digest response that increases things like digestion and salivation while reducing the heart rate. However, the problem underemphasized in yoga is that some individuals are stuck in the PNS system. The SNS does not respond appropriately to internal or external stress (potentially as a result of trauma or chronic stress) and is suppressed . I love this image that explains the window of tolerance between the SNS and PNS. Unfortunately, the constant focus on how yoga makes us feel great by jump starting this rest and digest system leaves out a large portion of society dealing with depression, poor self care, etc. Slow yoga is a great tool for expanding our window of tolerance.
Enteric Nervous System
And finally, the ENS is the system also known as the intrinsic system or “Gut Brain”. As mentioned before, it can act independently of the CNS with its own reflexes. It is a division, that I myself need to dig further into, but as expected, it is tied to mood. Interestingly, most of the body’s serotonin is produced in the digestive system. Serotonin is known as one of our happy chemicals that that contributes to well being. The ENS also plays an important role in our immune system. It receives and sends messages to release inflammatory chemicals that might result in diarrhea or vomiting. When the ENS is not efficient or out of balance, any individual with a chronic illness can explain the frustration in trying to understand what’s going on within their body. Yoga practices that work towards increasing vagal tone and bringing awareness to sensations of the gut may help with the efficiency of messages between the gut and the brain. Please note that “trusting your gut” does not always work when other parts of the nervous system are misinterpreting messages. Yoga is complimentary to good therapists and doctors.
Its is fair to say that we are complex beings with awesome systems attempting to keep us balanced. Slow yoga is a tool that helps offset the damage done by environmental as well as internal stressors. We need more yoga that trains the nervous system, is breath centric with simple movement and helps individuals with chronic illness. Please reach out with any questions and I’ll do my best to answer. May you have less worries and more smiles!
My biggest Challenge of 2019
The beginning of 2019 I decided to up the physical athletic prowess and lose the baby fat. I had been working out 4 days a week and decided to join my sister in her 2nd round of BeachBody 80 day obsession. After all, we had her and my son’s 2019 weddings. But more importantly, being active greatly impacts my mental health and I could have an easier time with yoga poses. I was feeling proud as I succeeded through a week of workouts. Unfortunately, I got really sick and was down for the 2nd week (in retrospect I realized this was a pattern for me).
Fortunately, I happened to have a 6 month follow up visit with the new doctor I had seen in August 2018. I brought up how I’ve had issues with energy through my adult life and how I was just getting over being sick and realized I hadn’t brought it up as a concern in August. He ordered blood work for all the common Illnesses that cause chronic fatigue. While waiting for the follow up appointment and results, I tried to get back to working out. However, I couldn’t make it through a single workout and always felt worse. Eventually, I stopped trying. I went from working out 4 days a week to doing nothing. Not even yoga asanas.
I learned at my follow up appointment that the culprit was the Epstein Barr Virus. 90 percent of people are infected at sometime in their life, but it remains dormant in most people. Without going into more detail about my health and history and exact prognosis, I basically reached a point where physical exertion only made me feel worse and more exhausted.
Why does this make me excited about 2019?
My yoga practice for most of 2019 consisted mostly of meditation and learning more about the benefits of slow yoga. Anyone with chronic illness understands the frustration of not feeling well and constantly researching/searching for answers. I have put in a lot of time studying yoga that is accessible to those of us that struggle with physical activity. I have a new found respect for slow yoga and its benefits like increased resiliency of the nervous system, decreased inflammation and better self regulation. Improved proprioception and Interoception through slow yoga can also improve our relationships, sleep, and immune system. (See here for more: Why is it Good to Improve Interoception with Yoga? )
I cant claim that I understand how it feels to have other chronic illnesses. However, I can claim to understand more how the population is underserved by wellness based slow yoga. Other yoga styles provide health and wellness for many that are physically able. More importantly, when lack of energy and physical exertion present a challenge to doing those styles, slow yoga is wonderful and nourishing.
I invite you to join me this year. I have some exciting offerings coming and am building a community to support you through your wellness journey. Join a new supportive community and learn more.
What is Interoception
Mindfulness, Interoception, and the Body: A Contemporary Perspective by Jonathan Gibson states that “most of the literature currently supports a working definition of IA (Interoceptive Awareness) to include a perception of the internal state of the body. This contemporary definition includes sensory awareness that originates from within the body’s physiological state as well as a person’s appraisal, attitude, belief, past experiences, expectations, and contexts, what is often referred to as top-down perceptions“
Top-Down vs Bottom-Up
In top-down processing we use our cognition to arrive at our perception. If you recall in my previous blog, Is Yoga Actually Useful for Proprioception Improvement?, I discuss how yoga can make us more aware of our physical sensations. Moreover, this improved physical awareness helps improve things like strength and balance. Thus, proprioception is more of a bottom-up processing where our perception effects our cognition. On the other hand, the improvement of top-down Interoception results in better emotional and behavioral regulation
If you’re a visual learner, this is a great picture that explains Proprioception vs Interception.
Yoga that Improves Interoception
Slow Yoga allows us more time to pay attention to our feelings as we practice (am I hungry?). Also, in our fast paced days, allowing these moments while we practice gives us the time we may need to notice and process feelings we’ve put aside for convenience or as a result of trauma. Trauma may make slowness intolerable for some, so be sure to ensure the slowness is within your tolerance time limit.
Yoga with Pauses
Allowing time in your practice to pause and notice sensations can help you understand how different flows or poses impact your energy, your irritability, your misconceptions in life. Yes. Pausing during our yoga practice can lead to pauses in our daily life that allow us to see our expectations and beliefs differently.
Be kind to yourself while you practice yoga. While going slow and taking pauses may improve our awareness, we want to notice how we feel without judgement. Reframe any negative thoughts that arise so that a sense of trust in yourself and your abilities is front and center in your practice. This kindness is especially important for those that have a chronic illness.
The frustrations from being chronically ill can result in a disregulation of our interoception. Instilling the above three concepts into our yoga practice helps improve our interoception and emotional regulation while focusing on wellness.