March 3, 2011

You can lead the horse to the yoga mat, but you can’t make him do parasympathetic yoga.

When it comes to yoga, I’ve always been like those racehorses rearing to get out of the starting gate.

Actually, when it comes to anything, I’m that racehorse… yet my first introduction and training in yoga was in a gentle, introspective, meditative tradition. And there actually existed, as I found out, an even gentler and more introspective yoga tradition, one where you rested in Shavasana after every pose! I confess I made fun of that in an unenlightened moment or two.

When five years later, I found Ashtanga yoga, I thought, “Wow! This is great! A style of yoga that’s athletic, gets your heart pumping, stretches and strengthens you and still manages to be meditative and leave you stoned by the end of the class! Where do I sign up for this?”

Now, after fifteen years of practicing and leading hard-core yoga classes, I’ve been developing an appreciation for the nuances of the slower, gentler, more introspective approach. For one thing, I found physiology and biochemistry useful in understanding what we’re going with yoga. Here’s the “For-Dummies” version:

  • – There are the muscles you have direct control over. Those are the ones with which you practice yoga.
  • – Then there’s the breath, which, made rhythmic, acts as a gateway between the conscious and the not-so-conscious muscles (e.g., your pupils; or the muscles that generate the peristaltic action in the intestines to move stuff along)
  • – At the level of the not-so-conscious part of the body, there’s the sympathetic system, which is what kicks in under instances of danger or physical or psychological stress. The sympathetic system gears the body for fight-or-flight by shutting down digestion and reproduction, while stimulating the adrenals and increasing heart rate and blood pressure. This is why if you’re, say, careening out of control in your car and facing a life-or-death situation, it’s not a time in which you feel particularly amorous. (Unless you’re really weird.)
  • – The other part of the not-so-conscious part of the body (okay, technically called the autonomic nervous system) is the parasympathetic system. The parasympathetic system kicks in when the sympathetic fades out, and it does things like stimulating digestion and increasing blood flow to the genitals, and is generally speaking responsible for those times when you feel contented: after a good meal; lying on a beach, listening to the waves; and hey, even after a great yoga class, when you’re stoned out of your gourd.

All of the foregoing is to bring back home the point that the slow, gentle yoga actually does a far better job of turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (and hence letting the body regenerate) than the hard-core yoga does. Don’t get me wrong – we still need exercise that gets the heart pumping, stimulates growth factors, and all of that good stuff, but relative to the pace at which we live and the daily stressors, we, by and large, don’t get enough of the parasympathetic.

So I’m planning on being more sympathetic to my parasympathetic. More slow-mo yoga classes for me and a more relaxed rhythm in the more intense classes.

Except I caught someone asking one of my students at the end of my uber-gentle classes whether the class might be beginning enough for them. “Well – it’s not a beginning class!” my student responded. “You do do some hard things in here!”

Apparently I still have a ways to go to rein in the racehorse.

Picture credit: Kathy789

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