Our nervous system is divided into two subsystems. The somatic nervous system includes all the things under voluntary control: waving, hugs, winking, jumping, etc. The autonomic nervous system includes all of our involuntary actions: heartbeats, cell reproduction, unconscious breath, brain function, etc.
Within the autonomic system there are the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems:
Sympathetic: Fight or Flight (or Avoid)
Parasympathetic: Rest and Digest
The Fight or Flight response is a survival tactic that helps us respond to stressful situations. It’s what makes your muscles tense up, your face turn red, your mouth go dry and what makes us feel like lashing out or running away, even if we never actually get to that point. The Fight or Flight system is wonderful and useful… if you’re being chased by a bear. It’s not so helpful when we’re dealing with actual stresses in our lives: arguments, work stress, deadlines, traumas, etc.
On the other side of Fight or Flight is Rest and Digest. This should be our “normal” autonomic status, but it doesn’t always work that way. In Rest and Digest, our body cares for us: we can literally digest food, rebuild tissues, slow our heart rate and rest our mind.
Many people who encounter stress on a regular basis stay in the Fight or Flight response for extended periods of time, unable to Rest and Digest. This is when we see increased physical effects of illness, disease and mental health issues. When we are always in an agitated state, we cannot let our bodies do what they are meant to.
Although the autonomic system is a system of uncontrollables, there is one aspect that we can move into the controllable column and alter the way the rest of the autonomic system reacts to an external situation.
Breath is the only involuntary function in the body that we can bring under conscious control. When we learn to control the breath, the heart and mind follow. When we get into a stressful situation, if we slow down the breath we are able to think more clearly, respond more consciously and get back to Rest and Digest more quickly.
Yoga is training for life. Ever wonder why your instructor holds you in poses that are borderline stressful? It’s training for external stresses. When you can hold a stressful pose and learn to breathe, you can take that tool off your mat and into your life.