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Understanding The Nervous System and the Importance of Asana...

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice that originated in India. The Rigveda is believed to have been the first text mentioning some forms of meditation and contemplative practices composed between 1500 and 1200 BCE. There are various paths of yoga, and different types of yogis follow these paths to achieve their goals. Some well-known paths include Hatha Yoga (physical postures), Raja Yoga (meditative and introspective), Bhakti Yoga (devotion), Karma Yoga (selfless action), and Jnana Yoga (knowledge and wisdom). The goal of yoga according to Patanjali, the ancient Indian sage and philosopher, is outlined in the Yoga Sutras, a foundational text on the practice of yoga. Patanjali's goal of yoga can be summed up as the attainment of self-realization and liberation (moksha) through the control of the mind and the cessation of the fluctuations of thought (citta vrittis).

Most modern forms of Hatha Yoga integrate Patanjali's "Eight Limbs of Yoga" (Ashtanga Yoga). These are the progressive steps that practitioners can follow to achieve self-realization. These eight limbs are:

  1. Yama: Ethical principles and moral restraints.

  2. Niyama: Self-discipline and observances.

  3. Asana: Physical postures.

  4. Pranayama: Breath control.

  5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses.

  6. Dharana: Concentration.

  7. Dhyana: Meditation.

  8. Samadhi: State of deep absorption and oneness.

Out of these limbs Asana: Physical postures, Pranayama: Breath control and Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses are the limbs most commonly practiced in modern yoga studios. These limbs aim to build strength in the body, correct posture misalignment, improve breathing capabilities and help reduce sympathetic tone leading to increased health benefits.

Dan Fanthorpe in Baddha Konasana
Baddha Konasana

is what we want to develop through the practice of yoga. The nervous system is a complex network of nerves and cells that transmit signals between different parts of the body. It consists of the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which includes the nerves that extend beyond the CNS to the rest of the body. The nervous system plays a crucial role in controlling and coordinating bodily functions, including movement, sensation, and cognitive processes. It is the system that connects us to the world around us.

Stress can have a significant impact on your nervous system. When you experience stress, whether it's due to emotional, physical, or psychological factors, your body's natural "fight or flight" (sympathetic nervous system) response is triggered. This response involves the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can affect various aspects of your nervous system:

Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the "rest and digest" response, which helps the body conserve and restore energy, promote relaxation, and maintain internal balance (homeostasis). When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it slows down the heart rate, promotes digestion, increases salivation, constricts pupils, and encourages various other functions essential for maintaining a calm and rested state.

Regular asana practice has been shown to reduce the fight or flight response leading to decreased stress levels, lower blood pressure and improved mood regulation. This is partly due to the release of endorphins, the body's natural stress-relievers. Yoga can also lower cortisol levels, a hormone associated with stress. It has also been shown to increase Neuroplasticity: which refers to the brain's ability to reorganize and adapt by forming new neural connections throughout an individual's life. It's the brain's remarkable ability to change its structure and function in response to experience, learning, environmental changes, and even damage. Certain yoga postures involve complex movements that require the brain to create new neural pathways.

What differs between Yoga exercise and other forms of exercises is the emphasis on breath control and its response under stress, in this case, it is the physical asana. Pleasurable discomfort is how I like to describe Asana. One of the main lessons in asana is to be OK with the physical and mental sensations that arise under the pressure or force of asana (back bending, forward folding, twisting, etc.). Breath regulation can guide us to be calm in a stressful situation, this is also what we consider to be good stress.

Self-awareness refers to the ability of an individual to recognize and understand their own thoughts, emotions, beliefs, desires, and intentions. It involves having a clear perception of oneself as a distinct and separate entity, as well as an understanding of one's own personality traits, strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. When we put ourselves in a position of good suffering or pleasurable discomfort like when we practice yoga, it starts to build decerning knowledge (pratyhara), which is the process of peeling back the layers of the mind. As we get practised at distinguishing between consciousness from matter, can lead us to higher states of meditation.

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