The Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the regulator of our visceral system (the guts), and of the basic functions of the body such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, etc. The ANS operates automatically, this means it operates largely outside of our awareness. We don’t consciously make our heart beat, or regulate our blood pressure or aid the digestion. This happens unconsciously.

The Autonomic Nervous System includes the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is concerned with increasing alertness, metabolic rate, and muscular abilities. Further on SNS regulates arousal. It activates when we are stressed, excited, alert or in a physical activity, and kicks in for fight or flight situations.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is mostly concerned with restoring and relaxation, food processing and creating energy reserves. It helps us let go after threat and releases our muscle tension. Opposite to SNS it lowers heart rate and blood pressure, in addition to aiding our digestion. When we activate our PNS our breath naturally slows down and deepens.

In life and on the yoga mat the importance of knowing about these systems is of great importance.

A yoga class should typically start with activating the SNS, to increase the vitality, stimulate and awaken and cleanse the body and mind. Throughout the class the SNS continues to be stimulated and then towards the last third of the class the focus will be on activating the PNS and calming down the body and mind. Without moving into the state of PNS it will be challenging to calm down properly and be prepared for savasana. However, in a Yin class, or other restorative classes, we spend more time in the PNS, as calming down is one of the goals with these kind of classes.

‘When we spend too much time in one state we loose the capacity to stimulate the other.’

So we need to stimulate both of these systems. People love to do things that they love to do. Said another way, when you feel in balance you will tend to keep doing things that keep you in balance. However, when you are out of balance, you will tend to continue to do things that keep you out of balance. Active people love to do active yoga. Calmer people (a nice way of saying less active people) love to do calming yoga. Don't always practice what you love; practice what you need. Active people need more slow paced, restoring yoga classes more than anyone else. And the other way around too, very calm - lethargic people probably need to do more active practices to get energy and activate their SNS.

However, if we think about how most people live their lives these days, under huge pressure, stressed out, burn outs, lifestyle diseases piling up.... After finishing work straight to the gym to have a run or to do a hectic aerobic class, or an upbeat vinyasa flow class. This is firing up under the already activated arousing state of SNS, many are basically living in a state on SNS continually. In yoga we do work on activating both of the systems, however our goal should maybe be to mainly focus on the PNS? As it is a fact that most people are not too calm, but rather the other way around, in the need to slow down, reconnect with themselves, find inner peace and stillness.

So, ask yourself, are you living in the Sympathetic Nervous System or the Parasympathetic Nervous System most of the time, and what can you do, which activities can you do to balance your Nervous System, to balance your life?

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