Yoga & the Nervous System

I like to imagine sometimes Buddha sitting opposite the embodiment of our modern western stress-at-a-desk persona. Both have a powerful charge: the confrontational intensity and pent-up tension vs the silent gravitas and receptive calm presence of the guru of pure presence.

We are at an exiting, and probably an evolutionary necessary, point in time in which the body/mind practice of yoga and wisdom of eastern philosophy is merging and mapping onto western science and understanding. This blog begins to orient you around the Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness, alongside the western bio mechanics of the nervous system and psychology (psychoneuroimmunology).

We see it everywhere - the rushing, the drive, the relentless hurtle that can take over the pulse of our busy lives. I catch myself not walking, but running; shifting suddenly from calm to panic… And that is why yoga can have such a huge impact. Yoga, with its intrinsic mindfulness techniques, breath and body awareness, is an incredible compass to orient yourself and guide you through life – with myriad speed cameras in place to flash you back into slowing down and being here in the present. Why many come to yoga is due to muscular tightness, poor (often closed, apathetic) posture, lack of energy and yet a frantic mind and breath – all these symptoms are often interlinked.

The first thing we notice the moment we step into ‘rush mode’ is our pace quickens, eyes dart, breathing shallows, and our body language closes and contracts. The ‘sense-objects’[1] (objects that we attracted to looking at to reinformce our self of self) reflect isolation, haste, stress, self importance (ego), competition, desire, need (adverts, clothing, others’ behavior, music, newspaper stories). These are called the kleshas – the grabbing and clinging and aversions of the mind that bring us into discontent. Before long, our breath is shallow and fast, mind frantic and body tense.

What we have here is a chicken and egg situation. Fight, flight and freeze mode (activated when running for a bus, confrontations at work, phone calls, tube pushing) is driven by the hormone adrenalin. Adrenalin physically affects our body, mind, emotions and breath… and these symptoms in turn generate a further stress response to the nervous system if the body does not react. This is not just ‘in your mind’: stress and relaxation is lived out in your physical body… and that is where we can tackle it with yoga.


The body and nervous system has meant we have not only SURVIVED but FLOURISHED as a species. However, deep in our DNA are remnants of danger responses that are for the most, inappropriate / obsolete. Research suggests we respond to an email alert with the same nervous response as our ancestors did to a predators’ growl. Our ancestors would commonly ‘ride’ or ‘use up’ the flood of adrenalin with a sprint or hunt response. Then the relief and calm hormone releases post danger to rebalance. However, wedged into a tube or stuck in a meeting we cannot ‘ride’ or see through the nervous response of stress. Thus, it gets locked into the body and mind. On top of that, from our early days of survival we have a ‘negativity bias’[2] so we remember and notice negative experiences more than positive.


Adrenalin is not the baddy, it is essential to our being, but what we can do is recognize the signs of adrenalin, and use it for peak performance. When it is not required, we turn to its counter hormone, oxytocin – the happiness hormone, that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which releases calm, care, nurture and cellular repair responses in the body and mind. As adrenlin levels rise, oxytocin levels fall… so to reduce adrenalin, we trigger oxytocin. By physically undoing tension in the body in yoga practice we are speaking to the nervous system – implying it is ok to relax, and thus we will get an oxytocin response as our breath, muscles and tissues lengthen.

Budddha referred to ‘sense doors’ of the mind – and taught that our understanding of self and other was completely dictated by what we let come through these doors. Bright lights, cold, sudden sounds, direct questions, muscular contraction, shallow breathing will trigger adrenalin: avoid these when choosing to relax. Slower, deeper breathing, low lights, soft sounds and slow movements and warmth will stimulate oxytocin. Work with what Buddha saw as the sixth sense ‘manas’, which is the ability to draw on and conjure senses envisioned in the mind that reflect associations and trigger emotional/hormonal responses. Personlaise a Meditative Visualisation so you have a mental sanctuary to hold still in, ready to shift your nervous response.

Breathing: when stress is high, our body shuts down metabolism and prioritises upper chest, shallow breathing. If stress becomes habitual the muscles that support deeper breath (rib cage, thoracic spine, abdomen) often become stiff and weak. Stretching and strengthening these muscles in yoga practice will invite a deeper natural breath, keeping you calm. Breathing techniques, or pranayamas, can also help re-learn a calmer more nourishing breath.


Lying on your back, support you knees and lower back with cushions. Make sure you are warm, and lighting is low or off. With hands on your belly begin to feel natural breath. Begin to count the length of your inhalation in relation to the length of your exhalation. Notice the pause between the breath. Begin to lengthen your exhalation.

Now visualize a place in nature that you know, that you feel safe, content, peaceful in. Take in as many details as you can of this place. Begin to notice acutely the pause, the still point, between the breath. Allow your body to drop deeper and deeper into that still point with each breath. Smoothly inhaling draw yourself towards your visual sanctuary, and then exhaling, return to the still point, visualizing this also.

When you are out and immersed in family, work, travel, begin to notice the moments of quiet, or silence amongst the noise, begin to notice sights, sounds, tastes and feelings of calm, support and tranquility and make a mental collage of them each day to draw on in moments of stress.