The Art and Science of Relaxation

Last week I ended my blog with a quote from Wayne Dyer:

“You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.”

While trying to decide what to write about this week, I started going through my notebook from yoga teacher training. I came across a page that has this quote in all caps in the top left corner. The page is titled “Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System.” So brace yourself. We’re about to get all sciencey about that awesome feeling you get at the end of yoga class.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) work together to help you respond to and cope with daily life. Parasympathetic activation is the base state of the body, brain and mind. Think of it as the “rest and digest” state. But for most of us living in today’s world, daily life involves a myriad of stresses that activate the SNS. Loud noises, traffic, televised news, and internet ads all send us into the “fight or flight” response of the SNS. As a culture, we’re on SNS overload. Our cortisol levels are chronically high, and consequently, we end up with weakened or confused immune systems that can create a variety of health problems.

Yoga and meditation, on the other hand, activate the PNS. At the beginning of class, we “tune in” to our breath and cultivate a slow, steady, diaphragmatic breathing pattern that reduces blood pressures and slows the heart rate. At the end of class we lie in savasana and once again enter that “rest and digest” state. Often, we don’t want to leave that state. We reluctantly rise up from our mats looking sleepy-eyed and a bit disheveled yet completely at ease. That’s the parasympathetic baseline state!

With regular practice, we can learn to be more aware of and respond differently to stress-inducing thoughts or circumstances. We can maintain a slower, steadier diaphragmatic breath that redirects blood flow from the heart, lungs, and muscles to the digestive and reproductive organs as well as the endocrine and lymphatic system, allowing us to better extract nutrients from our food and more effectively eliminate toxins that can lead to health problems.

While we might not be able to make it to the yoga studio every day, we can do mini meditations any time of the day in order to activate the PNS. It doesn’t have to be complicated. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath for a minute or more. And in that way, as Wayne Dyer says, you can control what goes on inside.

But if you crave that blurry-eyed, blissed out, “yoga stoned” state that a really good savasana brings, and if you’re one of those people who wish you could just lie in savasana for an hour, then I invite you to come to the sound healing meditation that Kindred Vibes is doing this Saturday at 4 pm. They truly bring art to the science of relaxation. Sure, the science is still there at work, but the music of David’s crystal singing bowls and the resonance of Liz’s voice during the guided meditation (not to mention her gift for reiki) make the science seem insignificant. And it’s an Arts Week event! There’s no better time to give this form of meditation a try. All you have to do is lie there.

See you at the studio!