One of the challenges in a profession where you are continually caring for others—such as massage therapy—is regularly taking the time for self-care, so your own well doesn’t run dry. Here we invite you to consider yoga to replenish yourself and take care of your nervous system.
In Western culture, the word yoga has practically become synonymous with physical postures and stretching; however, yoga encompasses so much more than the physical body. Our philosophy is any body is a yoga body—strictly speaking, all that is needed is the breath. The quality of the breath influences cognition, mood and overall wellness more than most people would imagine.
Flexible Neurons = Flexible Behavior
Developing a yoga practice for self-care will change the brain both chemically and structurally. As with manual bodywork, releasing deep muscular and fascial entanglements through yoga can change the limiting belief systems that habitually hold the muscles in rigidly stereotyped ways.
You show up on the yoga mat how you show up elsewhere in your life. How you move and breathe reflects neural patterns that drive your behavior on a much bigger scale every single day, like a psychophysiological operating system on which your beliefs, drives, self-confidence and other traits run. One of the quickest ways to get in there and reprogram that operating system is to increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is the peripheral network of nerves that connect organs and muscles to the brain and spinal cord. It has two branches: The sympathetic branch amps up the fight-or-flight response when we are stressed, whereas the parasympathetic branch encourages relaxation and cellular repair; it is the rest-and-digest neural machinery.
Ideally, these two branches are in a balanced dynamic tension with one another, with neither one dominating and both actively engaged. But as we know all too well, the rush demands of modern life tend to rev up adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol, often knocking us out of balance.
Yoga restores that balance through increasing parasympathetic activity. When the body can shift out of chronic fight-or-flight hyperactivity, healing mechanisms then kick in. Yoga is a powerful, natural medicine.
One of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that originate in the brain, the vagus nerves travel down the neck and branch out to communicate with organs throughout the torso. These nerves are bidirectional information highways between brain and body; they are the dominant carriers of the parasympathetic message to relax, rest and digest. They tell the heart to slow down and reduce blood pressure; they signal muscles to contract in a peristaltic wave to efficiently move food through the gastrointestinal tract.
Yoga postures and deep breathing stimulate the vagus nerves. Expanding through the upper chest and torso will mechanically stretch and stimulate these nerves to restore autonomic balance. Simply clasping the hands behind the low back and pressing the chest forward can do wonders to change heart rate and elevate mood.
Parasympathetic tone also improves with an optimal breathing rate of six breath cycles per minute, which is the best rate to allow heart and lungs to synchronize and self-regulate. A longer exhale further boosts parasympathetic tone, so go for a four-second inhale and a six-second exhale.
These two simple practices can be done in just 10 minutes a day to dramatically shift us physically and emotionally. This simple self-care routine can unify mind, body and spirit.
To be effective healers, we must take care of ourselves first. Yoga is an ideal technique and conduit of healing that brings our clients to a place of greater health, wholeness and vitality.
About the Authors:
Beth Shaw, E.-R.Y.T., C.M.T., is the founder and president of YogaFit Training Systems Worldwide, the largest yoga teacher-training program in the world. She is recognized internationally as a leading expert in mind-body fitness. Stephanie Shorter, PhD, was trained as a sensory neuroscientist and cortical electrophysiologist, and has long been interested in perception, cognition and consciousness.