Our autonomous nervous system (ANS) is in charge of the regulation of involuntary body functions such as digestion, cardio-respiratory activity, urinary excretion, and reproductive function.
The ANS consists of two antagonistic (opposing) parts which work by counteracting each other to maintain a balance. These parts are respectively called the sympathetic and parasympathetic system.
This kind of functioning matches many aspects of Yin-Yang theory; sympathetic nervous system would correspond roughly to the Yang aspect (active, fast response, stimulation of activity oriented towards the outside world) while the parasympathetic nervous system shares many characteristics of the Yin aspect (passive, in charge of nourishment and regeneration, activity directed towards the inside world).
Action of Sympathetic/Parasympathetic System
The sympathetic system was designed to provide fast action in case of life-threatening danger, as would be normal for a prehistoric man trying to hunt down a hamburger. It prepares us for a "fight-or-flight" reaction: blood flows to the muscles, the pupil dilates, the heartbeat accelerates, glucose is liberated into the blood (if we need to run), while blood flows to the abdomen and digestive activity decreases (we have to spare energy on that level meanwhile).
The parasympathetic system was designed to provide rest and adjust the system once the hamburger is obtained, and one had to get the best of it! As a result of parasympathetic activity, a first phase salivation is activated, gallbladder is ready to secrete, and the digestive tract moves more actively. Heartbeat relaxes, pupils contract.
Parasympathetic activity leads to energy saving, and concentration on perceptions of oneself rather than the outside world. It is observed during sleep, hibernation, and deep relaxation. This is a Yin effect that leads the activity towards nourishment and regeneration.
Permanent Urgency of Modern Life and Sympathetic/Parasympathetic Activity Imbalance
As a result of modern way of life, there is a general tendency to a sympathetic shift. Constant stimulation of senses (audiovisual ads, city noise), multitask working, and around the clock availability contributes to the prevailing of permanent urgency and to the hyperactivation of sympathetic activity.
On the other hand, most people do not belong anymore to supporting social structures and family members are often living far away from each other. This leaves many people without direct emotional support, anonymous and isolated in the metropolis. As a result, our environment is easily interpreted as hostile and dangerous. In few words, we've become victims of stress.
Symptoms of Sympathetic Hyperactivity
If you experience digestive problems (sluggish digestion, constipation, heartburn), have a dry mouth or hot flushes, anxiety, suffer from palpitations or have difficulty to sleep, you may be experiencing sympathetic hyperactivity.
Sympathetic hyperactivity is a correlative factor often observed in depression, heart condition, obesity, type II diabetes, and when maintained over a long time, it weakens the immune system. We are depriving the body of its regenerative and nurturing properties and logically illness feels invited.
3 Pranayamas to Balance the ANS
Breath is normally controlled involuntarily by the ANS, but we also have a voluntary control over the breathing muscles. It is a gate between the voluntary and autonomous aspects of our physiology and can allow us to gain control over a hyperactivated sympathetic system.
Yoga techniques, through breathing exercises (Pranayama) or stretching of muscles, can help stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the main component of the parasympathetic system. Through a regular practice, stress levels can be reduced and health is promoted.
1. Abdominal Breathing
Lie down so that gravity won’t interfere with your moving diaphragm. Close your eyes. Let the breath relax to normal pace and depth. Bring your attention to the area under your navel. Take a slow deep breath, letting the belly relax and expand. Feel the expansion both outside and downward: as you inhale, feel the air pushing down against your perineum. Don’t force anything. As you exhale, gently pull the navel in and up toward the spine. Keep the chest relaxed.
If you are not aware of your body, you can help yourself by putting one hand below the navel and one on the chest. On the inhale, the hand on the navel should raise toward the ceiling following belly movement. On the exhale it should lower steadily. Monitor the chest with the other hand. It should stay still and relaxed.
2. Lunar Breathing (Chandra Nadi Pranayama)
*Posture for the following exercises: Sit in Easy Pose (or your favorite meditation pose), with the spine straight. If you are a beginner, you can also seat on a chair, but keep your spine straight and your chest open with relaxed shoulders.
Close the right nostril with the help of your right thumb, putting the thumb below the nostril orifice. Slowly inhale through the left nostril counting to a count of 5. Exhale to a count of 5. Follow during a minimum of 3 to a maximum of 10 minutes.
This breathing is particularly useful for people suffering of hypertension.
3. Crow Beak Breathing (Kaki Mudra Pranayama)
Hands are lying on the knees in Chin Mudra. Gaze towards the nose tip, with nearly closed eyes. Purse your lips and slowly inhale. Exhale smoothly through the nose.
This exercise works on the tongue and mouth which are innervated by the vagus nerve, favoring the parasympathetic activity. This is a cooling pranayama, perfect for hot weather and when excessive sympathetic activity manifests as sweating, hot flashes, and more.