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Your Body on Yoga Artwork
Season 5 - Episode 2

Sympathetic & Parasympathetic

20 min - Talk


Kristin unpacks both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and explains the importance of striking a balance between the two and how this relates to our yoga practice.
What You'll Need: No props needed

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Sep 24, 2018
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Many times in yoga circles, you'll hear things like, oh, our job as yogis is to turn off the sympathetic nervous system, to quell the sympathetic nervous system. That stress is what causes all of our problems, and the sympathetic nervous system should be kind of disallowed. I really couldn't disagree more. The sympathetic nervous system is an amazing part of our bodies. The problem isn't sympathetic.

In fact, we're supposed to pendulum back and forth between sympathetic nervous system, parasympathetic nervous system, every 88 minutes to four hours, somewhere in that time frame. We're supposed to go back and forth gently between sympathetic and parasympathetic. When we're on sympathetic activity, we are focused, and we're doing work, and we're awake, and we're active. Hopefully, right now, you're actually on sympathetic nervous system. As you're watching this, you are thinking, or maybe taking a note, or coming up with a question, or seeing how this affects you.

These are all sympathetic realm. When you're in parasympathetic activity, this is when all the housekeeping activities of the body, things like reproduction, which takes a while, digestive system takes a long time, immune function, things like searching out for little bacteria or viral invaders, that's a long-term activity. So is memory consolidation. This is long-term. When you're in parasympathetic, those actions are heightened.

So best case, in a normal balanced form, we're going back and forth just gently, almost like a little wave back and forth, sympathetic and parasympathetic. The problem isn't that. The problem is when we get stuck in one or in the other. If we get stuck in sympathetic, this is when this overactivation, stress, and all of the physiological changes can really wear down the tissues of the body. Or if we get stuck in parasympathetic mode for too long.

We have a little bit of lethargy or depression even, sedentary, can't really think clearly or get things going. This might be kind of when we're stuck in parasympathetic for too long. A yoga practice, in my estimation, is actually mostly trying to stimulate our sympathetic activation. So if you say we're in chair pose, or you did one of the practices with me in this series, you might have been like, all right, let's get out of this chair pose. Let's just move on from this.

And you had the urge to kind of get off. No one's watching you. You might as well, right? But hopefully, you heard my voice say something like, or your own teacher say something like, breathe, where is your breath, can you feel this? And a nice, easy voice not going straighten your leg.

I didn't say bend your knee. This is what I think is repatterning our sympathetic. Because as humans, we tend to provoke sympathetic so much. There are phones being, and a siren goes by, and we're going from event to event and work to work. And it sometimes gets so overwhelmed and stuck on sympathetic that we get an overblown response.

It's almost like if you were asked to do a task from your boss, like the last thing on a Friday night, it might have been a little ask of your boss. But all of a sudden, you have this big overblown response, like, how dare she? I can't believe, and doesn't she know? This is because you've been provoking and poking sympathetic for all week long, that you just have this fiery response to a small stimulus. And also, if we really need a big bang for our buck in sympathetic, let's say like a tiger is chasing after you, and you need to fight or flight, it's not going to be as available to you if you've been poking it all week long.

Ideally, the yoga practices are stimulating our sympathetic nervous system, but helping us to reframe our relationship to it so that we have this momentary pause to go, okay, what am I actually feeling? Where is my breath? What is the actual situation? What am I creating actually in my mind? What is reality?

And that we can choose our response rather than just kind of going through this habitual hamster wheel of a stress response. Let's look a little bit more closely at what actually happens physiologically in the body when, say, a tiger is coming at you, or if it just stays around too long because we're on this hamster wheel. I like to phrase it as, when you are on orange alert. So if you remember, one of our past presidents came up with this nice rainbow-colored system of how terrified you should be in any given moment, and it's rainbow-colored or chakra-colored, which is nice for us yogis. And so red is like, oh my gosh, hide.

And we're usually, though, and I was just on a plane and I saw a sign that said, we are still currently on orange alert. So to me, that means we'll be constantly terrified. There's no release valve. There's no information. But just always be somewhat constantly terrified.

Now, this is what wears down the tissues of the body. So let's look. So if a tiger is coming at you, your adrenal glands, which are like two little top hats sitting on your kidneys, will release adrenaline. Now adrenaline is kind of like a couple cups of coffee. I know as yogis, you're probably just sipping green tea, but maybe you have a friend that drinks coffee.

So that gives you kind of a get-up-and-go, right? You have the energy needed to do all this great stuff to get away from the tiger or to fight the tiger. Now, if this is on orange alert, it's almost like walking around with an IV drip of coffee all day long. So if you've ever had that second or third cup of coffee, like that one too many cups of coffee, or your friend, you kind of get shaky, right? You kind of get, your mind won't stop.

You kind of have a startle response. You get kind of startled a little bit easier. You may not even be able to go to sleep at the end of night. You have a little anxiety. These have all been linked to an overactivation of the stress response because of the adrenaline or adrenal glands over doing it.

The next thing that happens is that glucose and fats and proteins are released from your fatty liver, your fatty tissues, anything where it's available to you quickly. This is incredibly, beautifully efficient. So you don't have time to digest your burrito when the tiger is charging after you. So the cells need this stuff to do their job, and it's like a little pick-pocketer. We'll go and just steal whatever it needs.

Incredibly efficient. But if you can imagine, if this was on orange alert, it's almost like living with a pick-pocketer. Stuff's going to go missing all the time. So you have muscle wasting. You have extra glucose floating around in your circulatory system.

This can lead to things like muscle wasting and type 2 diabetes or any of your circulatory disorders. You have kind of sludgy blood, strokes and clots and type 2 diabetes all linked to an overactivation of your stress response. Another thing that happens as the tiger is coming near you is you start to produce and release clotting factors, things that will clot your blood, and inflammation responses. So this is brilliant because if you get actually chewed on by the tiger, you won't hemorrhage. The blood's already kind of beginning to get a little clotty.

And if you trip on the way out from the tiger and you sprain your ankle, you already have this inflammation response triggered, which is just super intelligent. Now you can see where I'm going. On orange alert, this is sludgy blood all the time. The stuff on the surface, the circulation that moves to the surface is not getting, the more superficial stuff is not getting the blood it's desirous of. And this is really not sustainable.

Another thing that happens as the tiger is still coming at you, the bronchial passages will dilate. The breath will increase. The deep arteries that go to the skeletal muscles will actually get bigger, wider. And the heart speeds up to push all this stuff through you. Brilliant.

You have all the oxygen that you're needing, the glucose, fats, and proteins. You have all the cellular food, and now the delivery system is wide open for it to get to where it needs to go. Your breath is just kind of, and your heartbeat speeding up is getting there faster. This is super brilliant, but as we can see, not great long-term orange alert. The breathing pattern is actually not sustained, so you'll get something called reciprocal inhibited breathing pattern, which is a fancy term to mean just you're fighting your breath.

So as you inhale and the diaphragm is drawing down, the belly might kind of seem to inflate, so to speak, in a normal average person, an average non-tiger moment. And on an exhale, it domes back in and up, and the belly might be seen to move in towards the spine. Now in this reciprocal inhibited breathing pattern, it's almost like someone standing underneath your diaphragm going, nope, nope, nope. So you're fighting your breath, and you might even kind of suck in your belly on your inhale, and push your belly out on your exhale. You can try it a couple of times.

It's pretty disruptive to your body. And if you imagine doing this one time, two times, that's pretty disruptive, but imagine doing it for a week, or a year, or ten years. It is fighting the intelligence of your breath over and over and over and over, not efficient. Another thing that happens is your pupils dilate. Your brain activity actually increases, and the muscles tighten to prepare for action.

Great, if a tiger's coming at you, you can see more. Your brain can figure out quicker what's going on and how to get out of it. And your muscles are already there. If you want to fight your tiger, probably not advisable, but if you wanted to, or if you wanted to run like the wind in the opposite direction. Long term, though, can't shut off the mind.

Can't release this muscle tension. You have this kind of creeping tension in the body, and the fascia trying to be your best friend goes, oh, you want to be there, okay, I'll help you, and tries to kind of conform to that shape. Eye strain, headaches, all linked to an over-activation of the stress response. Some of this might even be sounding familiar to you. All right, so the last thing that happens is that you fight the tiger and you're victorious, or you've run away and you're safe.

What starts to happen in your own body, get ready for this, is that you start to drip something called oxytocin. And some of you might have heard of oxytocin. Sometimes it's called the cuddling hormone or pair-bonding hormone. It's released in great amounts during birth to stimulate the uterine contractions and then to eject the baby. And it's also starting to drip, and you get a big boost of oxytocin during orgasm.

So you start to drip this oxytocin when you're safe from the tiger, which bio-chemically compels you to reach out for comfort from your social groups, not Facebook or Instagram, but your real-life social support. It compels you to reach out, and you go, oh my God, there was a tiger, he was so scary, I can't believe it, he had big teeth. And then hopefully your friend goes, oh, they're there, you're safe now. And that safe physical touch and that ability to share your story and it to be heard turns up the valve of oxytocin. Now you're flooded with oxytocin, which is actually what turns off the stress response and elicits the parasympathetic response.

To think is insane that we are compelled in our physiology to reach out for support and to be heard. Now you get, as the person helping or hearing or serving that person in the stress response, you also get a big boost of oxytocin. So a beautiful thing for both the person in need and the person helping. Now, finally, you're away from the tiger. Your parasympathetic has been activated and all of your housekeeping activities can be heightened.

Now there are certain ways that we can elicit a parasympathetic response in a yoga class or yoga setting. And hopefully your teacher leaves you after this practice with one of these techniques so we can leave in a state of rest and digest. Some of those things are inversions. When you bring your head below your heart, those baroreceptors kick in and slow the heartbeat and the breathing down in a safe inversion. So if you're freaking the heck out in a headstand or you're freaking out that someone's going to fall on you in an inversion, most likely you're not going to go into rest and digest.

But things like legs up the wall or things like a very safe, supported, gentle inversion might be enough to elicit a parasympathetic response. Deep breathing can help elicit a parasympathetic response, especially with the emphasis on the exhalation. Every time you inhale, the heart rubs up a little bit. Every time you exhale, the heart slows down a little bit. It's called the sinus arrhythmia.

It's just a natural thing that your heartbeat and breath are coordinated. Every time your heartbeat speeds up, there's a bit of a sympathetic lean. Every time it slows down, there's a bit of a parasympathetic lean. Now, if you're extending the exhale phase of breath, this could be enough to trigger a more profound relaxation response or parasympathetic activation. We can also have repetitive movement.

So whether that's knitting or running or swimming or sun saluting, this might be this repetitive action, might be enough to elicit the relaxation response. Now, calm sounds, sounds that are pleasant to you, things like music or mantra repetition, these might be enough to elicit relaxation response. Now, sounds are very... We're all very individual about that. So if someone was playing like Sounds of the Rainforest in a yoga class, I'd be ticked off.

Be like, where's that monkey? But someone else might be like, well, that was transformative. That brought me to another realm, right? We're all just so individual. But repetition of mantra or the soothing voice of a teacher could be enough to elicit parasympathetic.

Now, silence. So nice, right? Silence can be enough to elicit a relaxation response. Also, perceived physical safety. So you could do all the left nostril breathing, hanging upside down, mantra reciting, but if there's a tiger pacing outside the room, it's not going to happen, right?

So physical safety being well fed, well nourished, aware of what's coming in through your senses. So if you're watching a ton of CNN and Fox News and MSNBC and all these internet news things and all this stuff, your brain can't process it very quickly. So you have to be careful what you're bringing in to your life. All of your kind of your house needs to be kept in order for the body to know that it can relax. The good news is, because that sounds sometimes hard, the good news is the attempt alone at any of these things can be enough to trigger the relaxation response.

And it's kind of like money in the bank. A little bit goes a long way and it accrues some interest. And so you might have to start with a three week restorative class in Bali where you're fanned with palm fronds and you're being fed grapes. But eventually it just takes one deep breath for you to be able to reconnect to this rest and digest. So I hope that we learn as yogis how to utilize these techniques to bring about a more desirable, a more balanced state in our own body.


Jenny S
1 person likes this.
I’ve been hoping you would do a season on this subject...I love the way you use similes metaphors (in all your classes) to help explain what could otherwise be technical and dry. Thanks so much for your sweet and often funny self!
Kristin Leal
Oh that's so kind Jenny ! I'm really happy you're here!
Caroline K
2 people like this.
Playing the nervous system lectures over and over again. Not just for m own life/practice, but thinking of the physiological effects of chronic stress or trauma, starting in childhood which is a contributing factor to early onset diabetes and all kinds of illnesses. One can only imagine that children subjected to violence, verbal and physical abuse, and other traumas are starting life hugely disadvantaged.
Kristin Leal
Caroline I've been thinking about this a lot these days. The work of Kyra Haglund on this site has been a valuable resource for me and my students. Thank you for being here and sharing your voice to these discussions.
Kate M
I was wondering... does the pendulum shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic NS correspond to the change in dominance of breath flow through the nostrils?
Kristin Leal
1 person likes this.
YES Kate !! When the sympathetic is dominant /right nostril (pingala) is dominant and when the parasympathetic is dominant/ left nostril (ida) is dominant!
Kate M
How cool!!!
Kristin Leal
1 person likes this.
The NS is super cool Kate !!
Kate M
Timely information for stressful times!  Be well, Kristin : )
Kristin Leal
1 person likes this.
oh I'm so happy to hear that it was useful Kate! Sending love:)
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