Nourishing Your Nervous System In Stressful Times
In these unprecedented times, it is more important than ever to cultivate an awareness of the role stress might play in your daily life, and mindfully incorporate simple techniques into your self-care regimen that aid in supporting what may likely be an overworked and burned out nervous system. I include the following three techniques in my own self-care practice to help nourish, rebalance, and support my nervous system.
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The mother of Restorative Yoga, Judith Hanson Lasater (1995), defines this practice as “the antidote to stress” (p. 3). Restorative yoga encourages deep relaxation through a series of passive poses that use props to support the body. Use of props is essential for supporting the head, neck, spine, and all joints (shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, ankles), and the most common props incorporated into a restorative practice are yoga bolsters, blankets, yoga blocks, yoga straps, sandbags, and eye covers such as a lightweight eye pillow or small cloth.
The main benefit of this practice is that it restores the nervous system and allows it to complete the “stress cycle” by helping it to switch from sympathetic (flight or flight) activation to parasympathetic (rest and digest) activation. Restorative yoga is not just physiological relaxation, it is a deeply nourishing practice that can counteract the physical, mental, emotional, and energetic effects of chronic stress. It is particularly beneficial in times of challenge, change, or distress, but anyone in any situation can benefit from it, and the practice is gentle enough for those with mobility limitations or those recovering from injury, illness, or surgery.
Poses are practiced for an extended period of time, often for 5 to 10 minutes or more and combine physical comfort with breath awareness, which are the two most valuable techniques in facilitating stress reduction. Even 10 to 20 minutes of Restorative Yoga a few times a week will provide your nervous system with a much needed chance to recover. My recommendation is always “less is more.” Rather than risk the possibility of feeling overwhelmed by the practice, whether by trying to find an extended period of time to practice or by squeezing in too many poses (both of which could promote feelings of stress and thus negate the benefits of it all together), I recommend that you choose 1 or 2 poses to start and practice each of them for 5 to 10 minutes. This will gently introduce you to the stillness and quiet needed to experience the practice and receive its benefits. Once your body, mind, and especially your nervous system have become acquainted with this stillness, you can build upon your practice by increasing the number of poses or the length for which you hold each pose.
If you are new to Restorative Yoga I suggest the following three poses to try out, all of which are covered in detail in Lasater’s book Relax and Renew:
Basic Relaxation Pose: You will need a blanket or yoga mat to lie on, a blanket or towel to support under your head, and a rolled blanket or towel, or a round yoga bolster to support under your knees. Optional is an eye cover to reduce visual stimulation. Come to sit on your mat or blanket. Place the bolster or rolled blanket behind your knees with your legs extended. Have a folded blanket or towel handy to place behind your head. Support yourself to come down onto your back and make sure the knee support stays in place and the blanket under your head supports down to the base of your neck. Cover your eyes if you would like and let your arms fall open away from your sides with your palms facing upwards. Remain in the pose for 5 to 20 minutes, focusing on deep, conscious breaths in and out through your nose. When you are ready to come out of the pose, move slowly and gently, by first rolling onto one side and then using your arms to support you in coming to a seat.
Supported Child’s Pose: You will need a blanket or yoga mat underneath you to pad your knees and two flat yoga bolsters or two pillows stacked one on top of the other to support under your belly and head. If you have sensitive knees I recommend having an additional folded blanket or bolster nearby. Optional is a sandbag to place across your low back or along your spine to provide some comforting weight. Come into a kneeling position, sitting back on your heels with your knees wide apart. Place the bolsters or pillows lengthwise between your thighs and the extra blanket or bolster behind your knees so that you are sitting on it. Place your hands with arms outstretched to either side of the supports in front of you. On a deep inhale, lengthen your spine and then exhale down onto the supports beneath you, turning your head to one side and allowing your arms to wrap around the supports or gently stretch out in front of you. Optionally you can place the sandbag on your back at this time. Remain in the pose for 5 or 6 minutes, but be sure to switch the direction of your head half-way through. Focus on deep conscious breaths and when ready slowly come out of the pose the same way you came into it. Be sure to support yourself with your hands as you come back to sitting.
Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose: You will need a folded blanket to support behind your head and neck. Optionally you may like to have a blanket or pillow to support beneath your low back and hips and an eye cover as well. You will also need access to a wall. Place the blanket or pillow next to the wall, and have the folded blanket handy for behind your head. Come to sit with one hip next to the wall. Lower down onto your elbows and in a rolling motion swing your legs up against the wall as you come to lying on your back. Make sure that you are close enough to the wall that your knees do not lock or hyperextend. Place the blanket under your head so that it supports down to the base of your neck. You may stretch out your arms in a T shape or even bend at the elbows with palms facing up in a “cactus” shape to provide a gentle opening through the chest. Remain in the pose for 10 to 15 minutes of deep conscious breathing. To come out of the pose, gently bend your knees in towards your chest, roll onto one side, and carefully press yourself up to a seat.
Please keep in mind that with all restorative poses, there should be an absence of sensation. You may feel a little tightness if your body is not used to being in these shapes, but you should never feel pain or a sense of active stretch or discomfort. Restorative poses are poses of being, not doing. You should feel comfortable, supported, and able to release all effort in your body.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word often translated as “breath control” (Bryant, 2009, p. 571). B.K.S. Iyengar (1981) defines Pranayama as “the conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention, and exhalation. Inhalation is the act of receiving the primeval energy in the form of breath, and retention is when the breath is held to savour that energy. In exhalation all thoughts and emotions are emptied with breath: then, while the lungs are empty, one surrenders the individual energy, the ‘I’, to the primeval energy, the Atma. The practice of Pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgment” (p. 10).
Pranayama is beneficial in promoting relaxation and connecting to our parasympathetic nervous system, our state of restoration. When the body engages in conscious breath practices, the mind is quieted and the nervous system has a chance to recalibrate. Studies have shown that breath practices help reduce stress, lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, reduce depression, better regulate emotional reactivity, improve immunity and digestion, and decrease fatigue, among many other benefits. With breath practice, consistency is key and will further enhance the benefits experienced by the practitioner.
If you have not experienced Pranayama before, I recommend starting with two simple practices, both of which are calming, grounding, balancing, and relaxing:
Square Breathing: this technique can be practiced sitting or lying down on your back. Make sure to take a comfortable position and support your body in any way that will reduce effort. You might like to take Sukhasana (Easy Seated Pose), crossing your legs and placing a yoga block under your seat. Your hands can rest on your thighs or knees and you may also close your eyes to better facilitate visualization. The concept of this breath practice is to envision in your mind’s eye the shape of a square. Breath is through the nose on both the inhale and exhale, or you may choose to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Bear in mind that with any breath practice, emphasis on or elongation of the exhale further promotes relaxation. A count of 4 is generally comfortable for most. To begin, inhale deeply to the count of 4 as your mind’s eye travels up the left side of the square, traveling along the top of the square hold the inhale to the count of 4. Exhale slowly to the count of 4 as your mind’s eye travels down the right side of the square, and finally, hold the exhale to the count of 4 along the bottom edge of the square. This completes one full cycle. Continue in this manner for 1 to 5 minutes, completing the practice after holding a final exhale.
Alternate Nostril Breathing: This technique is best practiced seated in Sukhasana. Your left hand can rest palm facing upwards on your thigh or knee. Optionally you can take the mudra (hand gesture) of Jnana Mudra by connecting the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb, forming a circle. You will use your right hand to alternately close each nostril as you breathe. Use your thumb for the right nostril and your ring finger and pinky for the left nostril. You have the option to form a mudra with the right hand as well, this one called Vishnu Mudra. The index and middle finger both fold down to rest on your palm while the thumb, ring finger, and pinky remain extended. To begin, lengthen through your spine, gently close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale deeply though your left nostril. Next, switch so that you release your thumb from your right nostril and gently close your left nostril with your ring and pinky fingers. Exhale slowly through your right nostril. Maintain the hand position and inhale deeply though your right nostril. Finally, switch once again so that you close your right nostril and release your left nostril. Exhale slowly through your left nostril. This completes one full cycle. Continue in this manner for 1 to 5 minutes, completing the practice after a final exhale through your left nostril.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1976) defines Yoga Nidra as “the art of relaxation” (p. 11). This practice is used for deep relaxation, stress management, and as a tool to awaken your deepest potential. It is a powerful technique in which you learn to relax consciously: “a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental, and emotional relaxation” (p. 1). The ultimate purpose of Yoga Nidra is to relieve the threefold tensions of body, mind, and emotion and to take you deep into a state of unity with your inner being.
Yoga Nidra is practiced in Savasana (lying on your back with arms and legs outstretched and palms facing upwards), either supported with props or not, whichever is most comfortable. You may close your eyes or even place a light cloth over them. It is a scripted meditation in which you are systematically guided through the five Koshas (sheaths), or subtle layers of being into the liminal state between the conscious and the unconscious.
This subtle yet powerful technique is a practice in awareness and intention. Especially if you are new to the practice, it is common to drift in and out of sleep, but regardless, you will still receive the benefits.
Practicing Yoga Nidra requires a facilitator, either in person, via an online platform, or by listening to a recording. There are many apps that offer Yoga Nidra recordings, such as SpotifyⓇ, InsightTimer, or even videos on YouTube. My recommendation is that you research and find one that works for you. I base my selections on how I resonate with the person’s voice. It is important that you feel encouraged to completely relax, so you must be comfortable with how the voice sounds. One of my favorite facilitators is a podcast available on SpotifyⓇ called Supernova Yoga Nidra. Practices vary greatly in length, so to start you could try a shorter 15 to 20 minute recording and then progress to longer options.
Yoga Nidra can be a difficult concept to grasp just by description. It truly needs to be experienced to understand the magic of it!
Remember that with all of these practices consistency is your greatest asset. The nervous system responds to habit, so the more you can regularly incorporate these practices into your daily life, the greater benefit your nervous system will receive, to the point that relaxation becomes habitualized and your nervous system can more easily complete the stress cycle, switch back to the parasympathetic system for restoration, and better respond to stressful situations.
Four texts that I utilize and highly recommend if you want to delve deeper into any of these techniques are:
- Bryant, E. (2009). The yoga sutras of Patanjali: A new edition, translation, and commentary. North Point Press.
- Iyengar, B.K.S. (1981). Light on pranayama: The yogic art of breathing. The Crossroad Publishing Company.
- Lasater, J.H. (1995). Relax and renew: Restful yoga for stressful times. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
- Swami Satyananda Saraswati. (1976). Yoga nidra. Yoga Publications Trust.
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