Breathing is among the most important elements for a balanced mind. A stressful lifestyle tends to decrease the length and the size of the breath leading to an even more stressed body and mind. Breathing is vital and, although an automatic function of the body, we can consciously control it and maximise its benefits. Specific breathing patterns modify the activity of the autonomous nervous system and the function of the heart. As body and mind are interconnected, such modifications lead the mind to a neutral space where anxiety is automatically decreased, the cloud of thoughts shrinks, and you can easier deal with everyday challenges.
Yoga, a worldwide spread practice, is certainly beneficial for your health, although few people are aware of the inner workings and mechanisms of this ancient science of well-being. In this project, western science meets eastern ancient wisdom in order to bring to light few basic facts on how yogic breathing, exercise and meditation can modify the function of the autonomous nervous system and ultimately the function of the brain itself.
In this project, psychological traits and heart rate are recorded before the beginning of a series of yoga classes, extended on 1-month duration. The same measurements are repeated at the very end, to evaluate long-term modifications of the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and psychological traits such as anxiety and emotional reactivity.
As part of a holistic health system, yoga will benefit you on several levels: i) on a physical, ii) emotional, and iii) professional level. Releasing back and shoulder tensions, opening the upper part of the body, and maximizing breathing capacity is among the first physical outcomes a person will experience. Digestion will improve and you will feel more energized to start your day. This practice will help to reduce anxiety, manage stress and better regulate emotional states. On a professional level, you will gain in mental clarity, meaning that you will be more focused and efficient. Decision making and cognitive abilities will also be enhanced.
The autonomous nervous system (ANS) is separated into the sympathetic (accelerator) and parasympathetic (brake) branches. Stress, in all its forms, activates the sympathetic branch to mobilise the individual in order to successfully respond to the challenge of the situation. This mobilisation costs a lot of energy, so other costful functions of the body, such as digestion, are paused. Long-term repeated stress, an extremely common factor of our modern lifestyle, “trains” the ANS to function mainly on a sympathetic mode. Red mode! Alarm mode! The parasympathetic branch is thus “put aside” and unlearns how to function properly. Parasympathetic activity triggers digestion, puts you to sleep, strengthens your immunity. This dysbalance between the ANS branches leads to several conditions such as exhaustion, mental physical and emotional, poor digestion, inflammatory states, sleep disturbances and of course, mental health problems.
Major part of the parasympathetic branch, the vagus nerve, is a nerve that links the brain to all the abdominal organs (e.g. lungs, heart, diaphragm, stomach, intestines, sexual organs). On every inhale the vagus nerve is deactivated and the heart beats faster (as on sympathetic control), on every exhale the vagus nerve is activated and heart rhythm is slowing down. This is the very natural function of the heart.
One of the main tools in the yogic science is the conscious control of the breath. A wide panel of breathing techniques is used to calm the mind and the body rhythms. Consistency in such practices can train the ANS to properly switch between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity to maintain balance (homeostasis).