Parasympathetic Dominance: The key to less stress

Just relax. Sounds simple, right?

But how often do you truly relax? Really, truly, RELAX?

Most people think they relax when they sit down and watch tv, go for a walk or read a book. But as far as the accepted clinical definition of relaxation goes, these activities are far from relaxing.

Each is a stimulant. They require the brain to respond to stimuli and keep the sympathetic nervous system running, both so that the brain can filter the stimuli, and so any dangers that might arise can be responded to accordingly.
The clinically accepted definition of relaxation is termed “The Relaxation Response”. It is generally characterised by a reduction in blood pressure, respiratory rate, body temperature and resting heart rate, and relaxed muscles. Overall oxygen consumption is reduced, while there is an increase of oxygen to the brain.

Parasympathetic dominance in the nervous system is effectively what occurs when relaxation is apparent in the body. This enables the body to counter cortisol levels and effectively release stress from the cells.

A recent study compared "The Relaxation Response" to another similar de-stressing program, the "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction". While both of these styles of de-stressing are based on meditation practices that we use in yoga, the findings highlighted the differing areas of the brain that are influenced when employing each method. It was found that "The Relaxation Response" strengthened neural pathways related to deliberate control, whereas the mindfulness program was linked more to sensory awareness mechanisms in the brain.

So how do we achieve this state?

There are many breathing and meditation techniques that have been studied and are shown to induce relaxation. Many have shared characteristics - such as, studies have show that it is known to be easier to relax when one is warm, comfortable, and feeling safe in a dark, quiet space with little to no stimulation of the senses. In a sense, simulating the state we were in when we began our life journey in our mother's womb. A generous amount of time to enter the desired state of relaxation is also required - trying to 'feel relaxed' cannot be rushed, as that negates the whole purpose of the exercise!

In restorative yoga asana, the body is completely supported and comfortable. The nervous system responds with less stress when the body is symmetrical, so it is critical that time is given to ensure the body is evenly supported. There should be minimal stretch sensation, or any effort felt at all, when the body is in a restorative yoga pose. This reduces neuromuscular activity, including pain messages, warning signals and proprioception, which aids the nervous system in entering parasympathetic dominance.

Restorative yoga gives the body time to enter the state of parasympathetic dominance. Many postures are held (with no effort) for around 20mins, giving the body and mind enough time and space to relax.

Blankets keep the body warm during restorative yoga, and eliminating the use of music and scents (like essential oils and incense) will ensure more students will relax. Eye pillows help block out light and the sense of sight, aiding the transition to pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). The gentle pressure on the eyes from the eye pillows also stimulates the ocular vagal reflex, activating the vagus nerve and hence aiding parasympathetic dominance.

Dominance of the parasympathetic nervous system is where all the deliciousness of restorative yoga happens.

Studies show that restorative yoga can help weight loss, cardiovascular disease, stress levels, improve sleep, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and more.



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