Have you ever left a yoga class feeling like you’re floating on a cloud? Even if the feeling isn’t so dramatic, I’m sure you’ve experienced a shift after a yoga class that makes you wonder how yoga and the nervous system are connected.
Maybe you go into class feeling anxious and you leave feeling calm. Maybe your mind is going a mile a minute when you roll out your mat but is focused and still after your practice. Then you get to work and find you can actually concentrate for a while!
What’s going on here?
Yoga and the Nervous System
For years, I sensed yoga affected my nervous system. I was loved how the practice made me feel but didn’t wonder much about why that was the case. More recently I started investigating a bit more. One of the best things about yoga short of the grand goal of union with the divine is how well it works to calm the body and focus the mind.
Yoga affects the body and mind in a few ways. For one, by helping us overcome fear and worry, our yoga practice reduces the body’s need for a physical fight or flight response.
But what if your anxiety is “free floating” or more generalized? In other words, you aren’t especially afraid or worried about anything, but you still feel agitated much of the time.
Yoga can directly affect the nervous system as well.
There are many yoga postures that can help calm the body and nervous system. Deep, relaxing stretches like seated forward bend, child’s pose, and of course, savasana are some examples.
When considering how yoga and the nervous system are connected, though, pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation may be even more effective.
Brain Waves, Yoga and Meditation
As you may know, brain activity can be measure in waves. The five known brainwave frequencies are alpha, beta, theta, delta, and gamma. Gamma and beta waves are the high-frequency waves we need to get things done. They are the brain waves of the “thinking mind.”
But what happens when that mind doesn’t slow down?
To calm the mind, we need more alpha wave activity. Alpha waves have a lower frequency. Even slower are theta and delta waves. People in deep meditation often reach theta and delta wave states.
At slower frequencies with more space between thoughts, the mind and body are calmer.
Breath Work, Yoga and the Nervous System
In addition to meditation, breathing exercises help balance the nervous system. For example, the goal of alternate nostril breathing, which most yogis learn early on, is to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Another way to put it is we can balance alpha and beta wave activity with alternate nostril breathing. Breathing through the left nostril is calming, while breathing through the right nostril is energizing.
Simply taking long deep breaths, especially when your exhales are longer than your inhales, also has a soothing effect on the nervous system. You can silently repeat a mantra while you do this. Breathe in peace. Breathe out stress. Inhale in joy. Exhale anger. Use whatever mantra works for you.
Remember, yoga is a practice. If your mind is racing most of the time, it will take time to slow those brainwaves down. The more you practice, the quicker you’ll get there when you need to.
Would you like to explore more yoga topics in depth—perhaps with a group of yoga friends? Get your copy of Yoga Circles, A Guide to Creating Community off the Mat. You’ll find lots of topics and activities for living the yoga lifestyle and enjoying time with like-minded yogis! Click here to order!
Hi, I’m Maria. I created Yoga Circles for you if you want to delve more deeply into the philosophy, practice, and life-changing effects of yoga. I’m also a writer and editor who helps small business owners, wellness professionals, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and connect with readers, clients, and students. Visit my website (link below) for more about that. I’d love to hear from you!
Thanks Maria. I’m writing my book on Spiritual Therapeutic Practices. I came to your post to re-imagine the nervous system. Gracias. Merci
Hi Irene. I’m glad you found the post helpful. Sounds like an interesting book!