In the same way we strengthen our muscles through training, we can strengthen out nervous system through yoga. It does this through stimulation of the Vagus nerve, which controls all our bodily functions and dictates how we respond to stress
The positive impact of yoga on the body is not just limited to strengthening and toning the musculoskeletal system. Perhaps more importantly, it helps tone and regulate the nervous system. Popular science tends to pay a lot of attention to musculoskeletal health when we talk about strength and wellbeing, however the nervous system often gets neglected.
In today’s digital age we are “always on”, constantly bombarded with stimuli which distract us and demand our attention. This puts our nervous system into a reactionary state, which manifests as stress, anxiety and ultimately illness. Remember the last time you come off the back of an intense period at work and fell ill with a cold almost straight away? Maybe it happens on the first day of your beach holiday? We've all been there...
The truth is we are not very good at incorporating relaxation into our lives. We are workaholics – products of an over-doing, stressed-out culture that strongly rewards type-A behaviour and multitasking. Little value has been placed on this element of health & fitness until recently.
A workout for the nervous system
In the same way we strengthen our muscles through training, we can strengthen out nervous system through yoga, and the scientific proof for this link is mounting. Yoga is thought to do this through stimulation of the vagus nerve, which is responsible for our breathing, heart rate, digestion, and even how we process the world around us.
One study states that yoga regulates the nervous system by increasing vagal tone, which in turn correlates with reductions in the amount of stress we accumulate over time (allostatic load). This basically means that the higher vagal tone, the better able our body is to respond to stress.
People with higher vagal tone are more emotionally flexible and resilient – they move from excited to relaxed states with greater ease. For example, they recover faster from fights with loved ones and the small things don’t bother them as much. Someone with low vagal tone is more sensitive to stress and disease, has weak digestion, a higher heart rate and difficulty dealing with emotions. Low vagal tone correlates with health conditions such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain and even epilepsy, all conditions shown to improve with yoga practice.
So how can you increase vagal tone? Just like exercising a muscle, yogic practices such as pranayama (breathing techniques) and ujyai breathing during postures increase the activity of the vagus nerve. This has the added benefit of stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the body down.
These effective breathing techniques are incorporated into Urban Guru's Classic & Compact Corporate Yoga programmes and can be included in a module on DoJo Corporate Mindfulness Workshops