Interconnectedness – our nervous system and immune system
These two seemingly separate systems with different functions are now widely accepted to be interdependent. Although the exact mechanisms are still being teased out by research, the current wealth of knowledge in the field of neuro-immunology suggests that the nervous and immune systems are in constant dialogue. They both effect the other in health and disease via the actions of the adrenal glands and the communication of neurotransmitters.
The classic scenario of being run down, stressed out and then subsequently falling sick is familiar to us all. When the nervous system is imbalanced the immune system’s optimal functioning is compromised. However, as yogis we can make use of this synergy and practice in a way that will help balance our nervous system – thus in turn supporting the functioning of the immune system, as we’ll explore below.
स्थिरसुखमासनम् ॥४६॥ sthira-sukham-āsanam ||46||
One’s connection to the earth (asana) is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).
This Sutra can apply directly to our choice of asana practice; our experience during our asana practice as well as how we connect to our living-world. Refining our ability to create this balance between effort (Sthira) and ease (Sukham) takes time and practice.
Here are a few ideas as to how we continue this exploration with more awareness.
Our choice of yoga style
Are we choosing a practice that will balance our nervous system and in turn support optimal functioning of our immune system?
Firstly, what type of practice do we choose on any given day? Yes, we all have our preferences, different bodies and different minds gravitate to different styles of yoga. Are we choosing the practice that will balance our nervous system and in turn support optimal functioning of our immune system?
I practice and teach Vinyasa Flow Yoga. My body loves to flow, my mind revels in the movement as I find it helps me settle into progressive stillness and presence. However, I know that I can wire myself (over-activate my sympathetic nervous system) even more if I only practice rigorous heating asana. In other words, I find Restorative and Yin practices harder, more challenging. At times I feel too restless and energetic to wind down, as if I need to exorcise the energy inside before I slow down, comfortably. This denotes my more rajasic tendency. Raja being one of the Three Gunas with Sattva and Tamas.
The path of most resistance is where we grow
Recognising this I am committing to weekly Restorative practices, Yoga Nidra and refining my Savasana (Yes! Making sure I am as invested in this posture and stance as my Virabhadrasana 3). A student of mine calls this ‘power avasana’ . . . whatever it takes. Through refining my ability to tune-in, listen and witness, I can appreciate that Satva (the sweet spot of balance) means for me that I need to balance my over rajasic inclination with more stilling tamasic practices.
Equally, you might resist the thought or experience of a strong dynamic yoga practice. Would we be more balanced if we committed to adding some more heat and fire to our practice? This might fortify our immune system further as exercise is believed to help boost the production and efficiency of our natural killer cells. In turn, research suggests that activating your sympathetic nervous system through asana practice followed by relaxation, helps deepen and optimise the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system).
Balance is key. Empowered, we can add a little bit more yang to our yin, or yin to our yang and work with and for our nervous system and immune system.
On our mat – harnessing breath
Breath is the perfect tool at our disposal to create more balance in our nervous system. The sympathetic branch of the nervous system functions mostly involuntarily. Our Pranayama practice necessitates the voluntary regulation of breath thereby directly accessing our nervous system. Sama-vritti pranayama (equal breath) is our starting point, as we begin to bring our inhale and exhale into harmony we embody more balance and equanimity.
I often say to my students “Go nowhere you can’t take your breath with you”, as counterintuitively and all too often we hold or shorten our breath when we are focused on ‘achieving’ a posture. This only creates tension and contraction in our bodies. Throughout our practice bring the emphasis back to breath initiated movement versus movement initiated breath. Our breath is our mirror, revealing when we are overexerting and putting our bodies under stress (i.e over stimulating our nervous system).
By maintaining balance between and within our inhales and our exhales we are physiologically soothing and healing ourselves. As we begin to slow down and wind down at the end of our practice we can start lengthening the exhale. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system and encourages the body to settle and calm down even more. Blissfully, we arrive at a state of ease through conscious awareness and deliberate effort. The art of fine-tuning our breath involves knowing the difference between optimal and detrimental effort.
The Lord of the sense is the mind, The Lord of the mind is the breath; the master of the breath is the nervous system; quietness of the nerves and concentration depend solely on the steady, smooth, and rhythmic sounds of inhalation and exhalation – Geeta Iyengar (Yoga, A Gem for Women)
Off the mat – Human being or Human doing?
Off the mat we have the same opportunity (and more responsibility as we’re off our mats for more hours of day). We’re householder yogis, we have bills to pay and families to feed. Naturally and necessarily we will spend most our waking hours working, producing, commuting, engaging, in other words activated and stimulated.
Bringing balance into our daily lives might be a simple practice of a delicious soothing bath once a week. It could be a 10 minute Yoga Nidra Practice before bed. Or maybe it’s simply but radically doing one thing at a time – i.e. not ironing, texting, catching up with your partner and watching the news all at the same time. Quieten the noise and stimulation. It’ll all get done, yes it might take longer but you’ll feel less spent after . . . perhaps.
We can also become more aware and intimate with the natural cadence of our breath throughout our day. We might notice that we are holding our breath or shortening our breath when rushing around or earnestly focusing on our work. With awareness we can regulate our breath wherever we are and whatever we are doing.
A healthy counterbalance
The primacy we give to all the doing in our lives can also maintain chronic imbalance. Of course, we have lots to do, our lives are busy and fast-paced. We are pulled in many different directions whilst playing many different roles. Typically we judge being as lazy, unproductive and guilt-inducing. Yet, the first thing we tell our loved ones, friends and colleagues when stressed and spent is “take it easy”; “be gentle with yourself”, “rest”. Why do we only stop when forced by exhaustion and ill health? It’s maddening how we know the answer but we rarely apply it to ourselves. I believe how we chose to live daily impacts directly on our health and sense of well-being. If we allow for a bit more chilling and relaxing to counterbalance the constant doing and activity we might be able to sustain a vitality and harmony without the crash and burn.
Ultimately we want to make our yoga practice impactful. By making deliberate choices as to what we practise and when; how we harness our breath throughout the practice; and through the choices we make concerning our relative input and output we can become ever more empowered, vital and serene.
In light of the symbiosis between our Immune functioning and our nervous system, the practice of yoga offers us an opportunity to influence our health and inspire our sense of well-being. Aren’t we lucky?