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 expe