We feel better when we walk out of yoga class than when we walked in. So there’s a reasonable question to ask. Why do we feel so good after yoga practice? Like many things in modern life, it comes down to stress. When we are stressed, our body activates the “fight or flight” response. This is part of our sympathetic nervous system. Several involuntary responses follow, such as the release of stress hormones, increased heart rate and blood pressure, the activation of our immune system, etc.
The key to stress management is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that calms you down. It works to counteract your sympathetic nervous system and tells your muscles to relax, lowers your heart rate, and lowers your blood pressure.
The parasympathetic nervous system can be activated when you calm your mind and body. This happens with meditation and with yoga poses that encourage deep relaxation. These include forward bends; sitting, supine, and prone postures; and inversions. These poses should be held for a relatively long time to allow your body to relax and develop slow breathing. There are many other types of poses, like backbends, handstands, and arm balances that are very powerful and beneficial. However, these poses do not activate the parasympathetic nervous system as well.
In the end, it’s pretty simple. Yoga was designed to improve our health and balance. It’s no surprise that it does what it’s supposed to do.
© 2011 Eric Borreson