Embody the Nervous System with Yoga

Perhaps it is the climate of our nation, but I am overdue for a geek blog. If the words “gray matter” intrigue or excite you, or if you just wonder why savasana feels so good, please enjoy.

Gray matter is brain tissue located in the cerebral cortex of the brain.  Studies have shown (you are going to have to look them up on your own) that there is a decrease in grey matter in individuals with chronic pain. It is a downward spiral: decrease in grey matter can lead to memory loss, decreased motor response and emotional problems like anxiety and depression. But guess what? Yoga can increase grey matter! The process requires that we get out of our head and give our brain “feel feedback” from the rest of the body.

To understand the importance of how yoga helps to mentally connect us to our physical body, you need to have a basic nerd understanding of the Nervous System.  The brain thrives on stimulation; it is what allows the continual growth and repurposing of neurons, the specialized cells of the Central Nervous System (CNS).  As babies, we have to  learn to move the arms and legs with sensory motor awareness from the brain and spine – the CNS. More specifically, the motor cortex of the brain sends impulses from the neurons to the muscles.  The motor cortex is a chunk of the cerebral cortex (yep, back to gray matter), that is involved in control and dishing out orders to the muscles to create movement. Most of us don’t remember having to think to learn to crawl, but it was difficult stuff. With repetition, movements like walking become effortless.

Like a baby first learning to crawl, trauma, chronic pain and disease can make us work to make what were once conditioned reflex movements happen. Sometimes we are able to make those movements, but don’t realize that muscles that once turned on automatically are in a permanent state of savasana and other muscles are pulling 70 hour work weeks. Depending on previous physical and/or emotional trauma, we can experience diverse loss of sensory motor awareness (coined Sensory Motor Amnesia by Thomas Hanna).  This is no longer a response to the actual damage. It is a learned habitual behavior by the brain. These habits can only be permanently changed by relearning sense of movement through movement- the big word – neuroplasticity – and it takes the disciplined, captivated mind of a yogi!

If the nervous system never experienced physical or emotional trauma, the benefits of yoga would rest solely on who wears the best pants. In a healthy adult, the brain and spinal chord respond to conscious thought by sending nerve impulses from the senses and the Central Nervous System to the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS – the nerve fibers that branch out from the spinal chord to all parts of the body that receive and send messages to the brain). The CNS also sends hormones and chemicals through the organs and the rest of the body.  Think of the CNS as driving on the nerve expressway and the PNS as getting off to take a local, more distant route; it is two way traffic. In individuals who have disconnected from their bodies for numerous reasons, nervous system response time can be slow, like driving the Kennedy into Chicago at 5pm on a Friday.

The Peripheral Nervous System is divided into the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS – stuff just happens, ignore it and you don’t need to do a darn thing) and the Somatic Nervous System (voluntary “I got this” system). The ANS is mainly responsible for involuntary responses such as heart rate, digestion and breathing. This system is no buttercup and will do its job without coddling, but yoga recognized the ability to positively influence the ANS through asana, pranayama, meditation and thought patterns. The ANS is famous for hosting our good twin and evil twin, Parasympathetic and Sympathetic; except nether of them are actually evil, unless they are getting all the attention all the time. The sympathetic throws tantrums on a diet of STRESS and the parasympathetic thrives on RELAXATION. When the sympathetic is acting out, it hangs out with troubled kids like Amygdala, who feeds fear to our brain. In this overstimulated, noisy, multitasking, ever present electronic-devices world, our ANS often needs a timeout – a safe space to overindulge the peaceful parasympathetic. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are structured to deepen our sensory withdrawal from all the external rubbish (pratyhara – the 5th limb) and nurture the parasympathetic or Relaxation Response (as termed by Dr. Herbert Benson in his 1975 book).  Encouraging the sense to go internal can be as simple as watching the breath breathe (pranayama – the 4th limb of yoga), or it can be more systematic.  In a yoga practice that includes postures (asana – the 3rd limb of yoga), we bring awareness to the muscles, bones and breath.

The Maya Kosha model of yoga teaches that we are multi-layered beings. Our first layer  is the Annamaya Kosha; our outermost physical body.  We may dress it up and look at it in the mirror but this layer where our muscles and bones live needs to feel like part of something bigger inside of us. When we do formal techniques in yoga like progressive muscle relaxation, the mind and body both benefit. The overlying goal in squeezing specific muscles then releasing them is to see where tension is held in the Annamaya Kosha.  The body/brain relationship goes on a date to Cognitive Connection where they dine on skeletal muscles and sensory organs…the Somatic System gets a romantic interlude!  Additionally, when we do yoga postures, the Somatic System provides voluntary control of the body movements and tells the brain the position of the body in space through specific nerves called proprioceptors.  Normally, the voluntary activities of the Somatic System happen effortlessly below the level of conscious awareness. Unfortunately, somatic signals don’t come to us in the form of words. When we are able to experience them, they are felt as bodily sensations. Yoga strengthens this conscious feeling based interfacing from the brain to the periphery of the body. Incoming (sensory) and outgoing (motor) messages change lanes freely between the CNS and the organs, muscles and glands.  The expressway and local routes are wide open!

If you read this far, here is your bone: There is no need to re-read this or study the nervous system.  Embody means “to embrace, to give a concrete form to, to provide with a body”.  Yes, simply provide your brain and nervous system with your body! It also doesn’t matter why you come to yoga, what style of yoga you choose, or if you can stand on your head.  When you are on your mat and feeling yourself, your grey matter is having a party in your brain!!!  As long as you stick with your practice, the party can get bigger and will never run out of cake.

Next Up:

When we are stuck on the jam packed CNS expressway with the radio playing a cascade of adrenaline and cortisol; the psychological and emotional healing that takes place in yoga.

Namaste, Megan

Morning

At the end of this longest darkness I see you and remember who I am.

Not able to tell if the day starts with snowflakes floating or fog resting; fingers fumble to write.

The window is a stoic wall.  My heart is the window.

In the safety of this sacred space I am learning to open.

Genghis Khan no longer holds the mic.

First shaking off the astral dust of last night’s dreams.  Attempting to make sense of what remains.

A dried sea sponge in need of your salty water, I taste you. Soak me. Fill me. Expand me beyond form.

My house of mirrors is too dark to see in Brahma Muhurat. Pure fire strength only reflects light.

Follow the flame inward and know my outward appearance.

Purity comes in self practice.

Before warm colors splatter the sky always the question – how can I be better today than yesterday?

Namaste, Megan

Why Kids Need Yoga

There are plenty of reasons why I practice yoga.  My choice to teach, however, came from the desire to share the healing aspects and the belief that the earlier in life we learn the mind/body connection, the better. I spent my late teenage years with a paper bag close at hand.  Breathing into a paper bag to stop anxiety attacks is not cool when you are in college.  Fortunately, I went to school in “granola head” Boulder where meditation and pranayama (breath regulation) were all the rage.  So I slipped into yoga though the backdoor. I did not even qualify it as yoga at the time. Asana (physical poses) were not mentioned, nor did I need them since I found plenty of pleasurable ways to get my heart rate up outside in the mountains.  Yoga was all about calming, centering and allowing myself to slow down.

As babies, we all come out breathing fully in and out of the belly.  By the age of twenty, when I was instructed to inhale and fill my belly, it felt completely awkward. At some point in childhood, my natural breath stopped flowing below the lungs. And worse, but also common, was that  I was a reverse breather which means the abdomen went in on inhalation; one of the side effects of stress.  Thankfully, I had a holistic doctor and just enough hippy in me to enroll in a class called SMART (Stress Management and Relaxation Technique) for actual college credits.  As humiliating as breathing into a paper bag was, imagine my distrust and pessimism when I was told plugging one nostril and breathing out the other would calm the anxiety.  The idea that my breath was was not just oxygen and carbon dioxide but a powerful universal energy source was difficult to fathom. I had reached the age of skepticism. Dorothea Hover-Kramer explains the difference between skeptics and cynics: “ Skeptics are persons who ask a lot of questions and evaluate results for themselves, so healthy skepticism is a good stance toward any new or unusual approach…  Cynics, on the other hand, are people who deny the existence of anything they do not understand.”   Skip ahead twenty five years.   After successfully controlling panic disorder with meditation and pranayama, even through two hormonal pregnancies including twins, there is no skepticism surrounding the healing power of yoga. Like most people, I could make all the excuses in the world not to practice, but know the alternative is returning to prescription anxiety medications.  The Alternate Nostril breath that was once ridiculously uncomfortable is as natural as brushing my teeth now – and I can tell if I forget to do either.

The body’s ability and desire to resort to a healing state at any age is amazing. The trick  is to reach inward and find the method that works.  Even old dogs can learn the tricks of intentional breathing and meditation if we are open and willing. But kids intuitively get it. They still know who they are. They can watch the attached Avatar video explaining the Chakra energy centers with open-minded amazement instead of cynicism.  The research side of me wants to know if there is an average age when we begin to doubt the universal connection. The mother in me knows it is my job to help my kids remember who they are.  As a yoga teacher, the motivational “what if” that perpetually goes though my mind is:  If someone had taught me before I was twenty that learning to control the breath controls the mind, would I have had full blown “I think I’m having a heart attack” panic episodes? And if we can share this tool with our children, shouldn’t we?