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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

inside-out, outside-in | body, mind, and the nervous system

When most people think of yoga, they think of techniques that help us to relax and feel less stressed.  While the many forms of yoga practice can leave you feeling relaxed and less stressed, the path toward relaxation sometimes passes through action and hard work. Yoga is much more than "relaxing"; it is a system of exercises - practices - that help us to balance the body, mind and nervous system.  

Think of the human organism as a constant feedback loop between body and mind, with the nervous system as the interface between the two. When the mind is agitated, it manifests in the body - shallow breath, jerky movements, tense muscles. When the body is sluggish, the mind is slow - lack of energy, inertia, fatigue.  What is so elegant about yoga is that we can intervene at either the level of the body or the mind to find balance and well-being

I would venture to say that many people struggle to "relax" or "be less stressed out" just with the power of their minds. The mind can be so... elusive. But the body is right there, it is tangible and we can see and feel what we are doing with it.  The yoga practices of pranayama (breathing) and asana (postures) let us start with the body to impact the mind and overall well-being

Fo example: think of how you breathe when you get really upset. Probably short, shallow, rapid breaths. This breath reflects your inner state. But it is a two way street:  you can also impact your inner state by manipulating your breath. The breath acts kind of like a thermostat for the nervous system - it both reads and regulates the "temperature" or inner state. To calm and balance the nervous system, in the most basic yoga breathing exercises we deepen the breath and match the length of the inhale and the exhale. In effect we trick the mind into believing it is calm by forcing the body to act like it is calm. 

The breath is the thermostat of the nervous system.

In the yoga asanas, we take this one step further as we put the body into challenging ("stressful") positions and then try to learn how to breathe within them. We thus get to practice staying calm or learning to find balance in stressful situations so that we can do it more easily in our everyday life. Certain asanas are especially effective in unlocking stress in the parts of the body that are particularly involved in the stress response, letting us essentially reverse-engineer stress inside by undoing it from the outside. Discover for yourself in one of my classes!


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