The majority of us (myself included) have an over-active sympathetic nervous system—living in a near continual state of flight, fight or freeze.
One branch of the autotonic (or involuntary) nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system increases heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels, and muscle tension; while the other branch, the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-digest and reflect-redirect), lowers heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and blood sugar levels, and muscle tension.
When you stop to consider that your nervous system is at the center of our mind-body network—affecting our physical, emotional and mental bodies, as well as our immune system, pain pathways, and deep visceral body—it becomes apparent just how important balancing our nervous system is for our overall health and wellbeing.
The next time you find yourself feeling stressed out, tired, anxious or just plain tense, try one or two of the yoga poses below to calm your nervous system and bring your mind-body network into a state of balance.
1. Reclining Bound Angle Pose
Quieting your mind and practice deep breathing in Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose). As your breath begins to deepen, try lengthening your exhales past your inhales and notice it’s calming effect.
As best you can try reducing sensory stimulation (light, sound, etc.) by turning down the lights and closing your eyes. Using an eye-pillow is ideal for calming the nervous system in supine poses.
2. Supported Bridge Pose
Lying in a supine position with your head below your heart, such as in Supported Bridge Pose, calms the nervous system.
Furthermore, the connector nerve cells of the parasympathetic nervous system are located in the brainstem and the sacral section of the spinal cord. Placing light pressure on your sacrum by releasing the weight of your front body onto the block stimulates the rest and digest response.
3. Waterfall Pose
From Supported Bridge Pose take your legs straight up into the air for Waterfall Pose, which is a restorative inversion.
The heart is still higher than the head, calming your nervous system, but now the legs are higher than the heart — reversing the effects of gravity on the feet and legs and giving the heart a break from pumping so hard, reducing your heart rate and helping to regulate blood pressure.
For the most relaxing variations of this pose, trying resting your legs up the wall in Viparita Karani.
4. Bound Angle Pose
Seated forward folds have a profoundly calming effect on the body and mind, turning you inward physically, mentally and emotionally. Baddha Konasana
If flexibility allow place a block under your forehead, releasing your jaw and neck muscles, and lightly stimulating the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to help balance your nervous system. Or sit on a blanket or bolster to facilitate a more relaxing forward fold.
5. Supported Child’s Pose
Completely releasing all muscular tension is one of the best ways to calm your nervous system, which is one of the reasons Restorative Yoga is so healing.
Try a restorative Child’s Pose, releasing all of your weight onto the bolster and closing your eyes. You may even considering turning down the lights to further reduce sensory stimulations.
A wide-kneed Child’s Pose, which relaxes the pelvic floor, is a great way to kick in the rest and digest branch of your nervous system.
Image credit: Nir Livni Photography / Yogi: Meagan McCrary