For those of you who regularly practice yoga, especially restorative based classes, you’ll be familiar with the calming and grounding feelings you can experience after class. I remember the first time I felt this relaxed, yet focussed, state many years ago from a candle light yoga class (an instant love affair for me as my natural disposition tends to be one of a anxious Chihuahua wound up on caffeine). It wasn’t until years later in my yoga training that I learned some of the physiology behind this process; a kind of east meets west moment.
I had been practicing a posture in my training called Viparita Karani (legs up the wall), which is known for its ability to ease anxiety and stress, and I began to wonder, what is going on in this posture that leaves me feeling so relaxed? My research led me to an article on treating adrenal exhaustion, which explained how inverted poses, done in a restorative way, can stimulate baroreceptors in the neck and upper chest which ultimately calms the nervous system. The what receptors? How come I had never heard of this in my Kinesiology training? Well this needed some investigation… here’s what I learned:
The sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the fight or flight system, is responsible for releasing adrenaline in our bodies. It winds us up by elevating the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, tensing the muscles, and increasing blood flow to the brain for increased alertness. This system is good for emergencies, but when activated chronically such as in times of high stress and chronic pain the hormones released by the adrenal glands will slowly break down our bodies and immune system and leave us feeling wound up and unable to sleep, which ultimately leads to a whole host of other problems (see “When the Body Says No” by Gabor Mate for an excellent read on the effects of stress on the body).
When we invert our bodies there is an increase of blood flow from the lower half of our bodies to the upper half of the body and specifically to the baroreceptors (blood pressure sensors) in the neck and chest. When the baroreceptors are activated by an increase in blood pressure they trigger a reflex called the baroreflex which reduces nerve input into the adrenal glands, slows the heart rate, slows brain waves, relaxes blood vessels, and reduces the amount of stress hormones circulating in the bloodstream. All of which shifts the body towards a calm and relaxed state, facilitating sleep and regeneration of the body (key ingredients when dealing with injuries, pain, and insomnia).
This process of unwinding the sympathetic nervous system takes time, so for therapeutic purposes, find an inverted position that is restful, such as a modified Viparita Karani where the legs are elevated over a surface such as a bolster or stool, or even over the end of a couch as shown in the image above. Aim for 15 minutes or longer and try elevating the pelvis slightly higher by placing a folded blanket or bolster underneath the hips for a more effective inversion. For further relaxation benefit, try lying a heavy folded blanket placed over you abdomen/chest (also shown above). Give this posture a try and notice how it leaves you feeling calm, relaxed, and ready for rest.