Learn About the Parasympathetic vs. Sympathetic Nervous Systems and How Yoga Affects Each

Kristen Shuman
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On a physical level, yoga can drastically affect the nervous system, specifically the parasympathetic nervous system.

Yoga can be a psychosomatic, purely physical, or spiritual practice with a plethora of documented benefits for overall health. It is known to bring the body, mind, and soul into harmony.

Yoga is a practice that can rejuvenate and re-energize the body, and simultaneously have a calming effect. It can benefit those that need a boost or, conversely, need a reduction in stress levels.

Read: This Is Your Brain On Yoga

As a practice, yoga deeply benefits the nervous system, and in turn, increases overall physical and psychological health.

In this article, we’ll discuss the many benefits of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, including the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
 
 

Parasympathetic vs. Sympathetic: What’s the Difference Between These Two Divisions of the Nervous System?

You may have heard lots of talk recently about the parasympathetic versus sympathetic nervous systems, but you might not be 100% clear about their differences.

Here’s what you need to know:
 

The Sympathetic Nervous System

In today’s society, we are always on the go, go, go! Stress is rampant and impacts overall mental, emotional, and physical health.

When the body is in a constant state of movement, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated.

The SNS is a part of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” responses in the body. It is activated in times of stress or when a threat may be perceived.

When activated, it can result in anxiety or increased stress, disrupting the overall balance of the nervous system.
 

 
 

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the sympathetic nervous system’s counterpart in the autonomic nervous system. It is responsible for bringing the body back to a state of homeostasis to counter the stress response.

The PNS is often referred to as the “feed-and-breed” or “rest-and-digest” part of the system.
 
 

Parasympathetic vs. Sympathetic: How Does Yoga Affect Them?

Yoga has been proven to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part), and is therefore an extremely beneficial practice for psychological and physical balance.

Each branch of the nervous system works opposite one another, so that when one part of the system is activated, the other part is suppressed.

In today’s times, the sympathetic nervous system is working harder because we, as a society, are increasingly more stressed and fatigued. This state of upset in the system can lead to poor eating habits, poor sleep, and decreased concentration.

It can also affect mood and emotional responses, thereby affecting emotional and psychological well-being.
 

As a society, we are increasingly more stressed and fatigued.

 
One way to bring our bodies out of this permeating and almost constant stress response is through the practice of yoga.

Yoga influences more than just your nervous system. This is Your Brain On Yoga – 6 Mental Benefits of Yoga and How They Impact Your Brain

While yoga encompasses much more than just pranayama (breathing) and asana (physical postures), these will be highlighted for the purposes of this article.

Need some pranayama right away? Try these 4 Go-To Breathing Exercises For Meditation, Stress Relief, and Overall Wellbeing
 
 

These 2 Yoga Practices Calm the Sympathetic Nervous System + Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System:

Slower yoga practices and breathwork have been shown to lead to PNS activation and mental relaxation.
 

 
 

1. Pranayama

Pranayama, or the “regulation of vital force energy,” is typically translated as breathwork. Regulating and slowing down the breath aids in relaxation.

There are many types of pranayama and many different techniques used to practice. Two types that have been shown to activate PNS activity are deep, belly breathing and longer exhalations. Pranayama helps suppress the SNS, thereby calming the body and mind.

What Is Pranayama and What Are the Main Benefits? Here’s Your Quick Guide
 

2. Asana

There are many yoga postures that can aid in activating the PNS, which – in turn – aids in relaxation and increased emotional and psychological well-being.

One is Balasana, or Child’s Pose. It’s a basic yoga posture with numerous benefits. Placing your forehead on your mat can immediately soothe and bring a calming effect to the brain.

Not sure how it’s done? Here’s How to Practice Child’s Pose For Beginners

Another beneficial posture to practice is Bridge Pose, or Setu Bandhasana. It’s a mild inversion that elevates the heart over the head, stimulating the vagus nerve to bring a deeper state of rest and relaxation.

Another yummy one to try is Legs Up the Wall, or Viparita Karani. It, too, is a mild inversion. Inversions have been known by yogis for some time to bring about calm and rest.

Here Are 10 Reasons to Do Inversions (In Case You Needed an Excuse)
 
 

Parasympathetic vs. Sympathetic: The Takeaway on the Different Sides of the Autonomic Nervous System and Yoga

In summary, yoga has many benefits, including activating the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and increase overall emotional well-being.

Yoga has many documented physiological effects as well, increasing overall physical health through its influence over the autonomic nervous system.

So if you’re feeling stressed, practice yoga! It’s definitely a good place to start.

Need some more practices to activate your parasympathetic nervous system? Try These 4 Restorative Yoga Poses to Relax Your Body and Mind

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Kristen Shuman

Based out of Savannah, Georgia, Kristen is a licensed Psychotherapist and specializes in trauma therapy. She utilizes EMDR, yoga, energy work, and mindfulness techniques in her work with clients. Kristen is an avid yogi and is also a certified yoga instructor and energy healer.

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