A student came to me after class yesterday, saying he had trouble in the meditation because of the deluge of random thoughts that was going through his brain like a collage. It is a feeling I have too, my articulation was feeling hunted by the thoughts in my head. Haunted. So we talked for a minute about why this might be, and might be today, and then I asked whether knows much about the nervous system.
Autonomic nervous system
Right now we are talking about the autonomic nervous system, which governs bodily responses subconsciously. among these functions are:
- blood pressure
- heart and breathing rate
- overall muscle tone and strength
- body temperature
- digestion and metabolism
- balance of water and electrolytes
- production of body fluids
- elimination and sexual response
All of these functions must be maintained in a range to maintain the homeostasis of the body. And they happen without consciousness, although there are voluntary practices that can be done that effect them.
The Autonomic nervous system has 2 aspects, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These two aspects are triggered in response to information the body receives. The response is stimulating or inhibiting different bodily processes.
I wrote an article about this for Breathe Magazine, that you can READ HERE.
Sympathetic NS : Fight, flight or freeze
- Heart rate up, blood moves towards the limbs
- Pupils dilate
- Stimulates glucose production for quick energy
- Muscle strength and tone increases
- Increased vigilance – READY for action
- Inhibition of digestion
- Feel less pain
Parasympathetic NS : Rest and Digest / Conserve and Restore
- Heart rate goes down
- Digestion stimulated, increased saliva and bile
- Elimination possible
- Cellular and tissue repair
- Thoughts slow, more feeling
Your body goes through these states all the time in response to the world. Inhale stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, and exhale stimulates the parasympathetic system. In fact the micro transitions between these states can be measured by monitoring heart rate. When we are in the sympathetic response, the heart rate speeds up, in parasympathetic response, the heart rate slows down heart rate. Heart rate variability measures this difference, in response to each breath and is an important marker of overall health.
The Importance of the Parasympathetic Nervous system
Our modern lives are heavily Sympathetic Nervous system dominated. So part of our practices needs to be rest, slow exhalation, unwinding, getting quiet and slowing our whole system down. Do you do this regularly?
It is hugely important. For metabolism and digestion (being constantly stressed out can cause weight gain, and exercising in constant SNS activation means that you won't repair properly). For flexibility of mind and body. For feeling yourself and your body. For healing and health.
Practices for the Parasympathetic Nervous System
For me, one of the most powerful was to move towards a more parasympathetic state is to practice consciously feeling. When you are in the sympathetic response, this is not possible, so the process of moving yourself into feeling is a kind of training process. What do I mean?
After a very difficult event in my life, I thought yoga and meditation would provide me with the tools to cope. But I found instead that I could not concentrate, especially on my own, and I felt stuck in the SNS response. The practice that worked best for me at that time was yoga nidra, which allowed me to relax my body and tune into myself in a completely relaxed place. Even in sitting positions, the tone of the body remains to keep you upright, so it was too stress inducing for me at that time.
Yoga Nidra practices are often recorded, you lay down and listen. Often they take you through a scan of your body, which takes you into a deeply relaxed state.
This practice really helps me on a daily basis, because it can be done anywhere. The simple version is to put your hands on the sides of your ribs, and feel them moving into the hands and away from the hands. For many people, the instruction "focus on your breathing" in meditation is challenging, or confusing, because by focusing on the breath, it starts to change, but the mind starts worrying that it is doing something wrong. With the hands on the body, the sense of touch helps focus awareness and has a soothing effect.
It goes a bit further than that though. Embodying breath for me means tuning into the movement of breath inside my body, specifically the way the diaphragm moves up and down. When you breathe in, the diaphragm shortens and moves down, and when you breathe out it relaxes and moves up. When I tune into this, it connects me to deep full breath (stimulating the PSNS), to my deeper feeling state (PSNS) and to release a chest breath pattern (connected to stress). All of this has a profound effect on dropping into a more parasympathetic state.
I made some audio recordings to help you practice embodying the movement of the diaphragm.
There are many more simple practices that can help you get into a more Parasympathetic state. Just having the intention is a powerful motivator, and knowing and feeling how good it is for you to actively move into the parasympathetic state will help you get there.