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Yoga as a Link to Improving ANS Function

Posted by Julie Andres on Thursday, March 24, 2011 Under: sivasana
(A diversion from the Eight Limbs of Yoga)

The autonomic nervous system is the part of the peripheral nervous system that acts to control a variety of functions within the trunk area of the body. As I learned from the brilliant anatomy teacher, Dr. David Li Lam, “The autonomic nervous system regulates the activity of smooth muscle, cardiac muscle, and certain glands. It usually operates without conscious control but [is] regulated by the hypothalamus and brain stem. The main input to the ANS comes from the internal organs (interoceptors).” [1]
The parasympathetic branch of the ANS regulates conservation and restoration of energy so that the body is ever-ready for oxygen intake, digestion, absorption, elimination, and lacrimation – unceasing jobs that must be performed from birth to death. Due to the involuntary nature of these activities they are sometimes referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ functions.
The sympathetic branch of the ANS readies the body for emergency responses that may require high levels of energy. Normally, the parasympathetic system is counteracted by the sympathetic system only to the degree that normal functioning can occur, the two aspects working as complements of each other. When necessary, during times of physical or emotional stress, the sympathetic system, or ‘fight or flight’ response, takes over and the ‘rest and digest’ functions can be impeded. This imbalance of the ANS can impair overall adaptation to stress.
Malfunction of the ANS is called autonomic failure, which can lead to conditions where many other functions beyond those within the immediate purview of the ANS are compromised. In extreme situations, when the body has been taxed to exhaustion and cortisol (often referred to as the stress hormone) levels elevate, “ … all physiological systems are affected and slowly but inexorably collapse. Very high cortisol levels degrade protein, cause the immune system to shut down, thicken the blood and alter pain reception.” [2]
Signs of ANS impairment can include a drop in blood pressure upon standing quickly (orthostatic hypotension) or a drop in blood pressure within one hour of eating a meal (postprandial hypotension). These conditions occur more often in people with high blood pressure, even though it may be regulated by blood pressure medication. [3]
Although breathing is primarily autonomic, it can be performed in tandem with the conscious mind, as is evident during the practice of yogic breathing exercises called pranayama (life force practice). During pranayama, asana (yoga ‘poses’), and meditation, students are often asked to ‘notice the breath’ or to consciously inhale or exhale.
Savasana (corpse pose) is practiced after pranayama and asana and is often referred to by yoga teachers as ‘total relaxation’. In this asana, we ask our students to bring their attention to the breath as they completely relax. The purpose of savasana is to integrate the pranayama and asana into not only the gross body, but into the energetic systems known as the nadis, or pranic channels. Savasana is known to create a feeling of calm and well-being in practitioners; a few minutes in this pose is said to create the same results in the body as several hours of sleep.
If practiced on an ongoing basis, savasana has been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure. “The British medical journal The Lancet compared the effects of savasana with simply lying on a couch. After three months, savasana was associated with a 26-point drop in systolic blood pressure and a 15-point drop in diastolic blood pressure – and the higher the initial blood pressure, the bigger the drop." [4] The Yoga Journal Web site entry for savasana also lists calming the brain, relieving stress, relaxing the body and reducing headache, fatigue, and insomnia as benefits to this pose. All of these effects will bring a higher level of equilibrium to the pranic channels and, as a result, to the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system.
As a yoga teacher I endeavour to stress the importance of pranayama and savasana as well as the more physically challenging asanas in the classes that I teach. In this way students will experience an increased ability to consciously manage some of the stressors that can disable optimal ANS function.

[1] Dr. David Li Lam, Langara College Yoga Teacher Training, Anatomy and Physiology, p. 56

[2] Stephen J. Kiraly, MD, FRCPC, Your Healthy Brain, p. 205

[3] American Heart Association, (

[4] Yoga Journal Beginner’s Guide, March 2011, p. 14

In : sivasana 

Tags: autonomic nervous system  savasana  pranayama  stress  blood pressure 

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