This summer, I blogged a lot about savasana, and as I was writing each post, I kept coming back to an effect of savasana that is dire medicine for the bereaved - stimulation of the relaxation response.
In order to understand the relaxation response, we must also understand the stress response. Part of your nervous system - the autonomic nervous system - governs both the stress and the relaxation response. This part of your nervous system is not under conscious control (you can't control your heart rate increase, or change in blood pressure, for example).
The sympathetic nervous system kicks into action in stressful or emergency situations. It governs the ‘fight or flight’ response, which includes reactions such as: pupil dilation, dilation of the airways to make it easier to breathe, increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased blood flow to the muscles, heightened alertness and activity in your brain to help assess situations and make important decisions. The sympathetic nervous system slows all other functions that aren’t related to survival in an emergency situation – digestion, and urine production are two examples.
The parasympathetic nervous system is calming and restoring. It helps you recover from the stress response. For this reason, it is called the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system. It slows the heart rate down, decreases blood pressure, stimulates saliva production and movement in the gut, releases bile (all systems related to digestion of food and absorption of nutrients), and eliminates waste. These processes are restorative and healing and help to build our reserves back up after being depleted by periods of stress.
This is important to be aware of and practice after the death of a loved one because you are under extreme stress for a prolonged period of time. Further, the underlying stress of bereavement, coupled situational stressors such as moments or anxiety, panic (including flashbacks), and even difficult social situations turn the fight-or-flight response up from moderate to maximum. Recognizing that, and learning ways to create relaxation will be invaluable to healing and resilience.
"Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings.” - Rumi
These two systems work in tandem to regulate the internal functions of your body. The key word to understand the healthy functioning of the nervous system is balance. A nervous system that is chronically ON is very taxing for the body and mind. A finely tuned nervous system, one that responds to emergencies when needed, but is also able to shift into a more restorative state at other times is crucial. You need both these nervous systems working together appropriately and efficiently.
One aspect of achieving balance in the nervous system is recognizing the value of both nervous system responses.
In an interesting TED Talk, Kelly McGonigal speaks about "How to Make Stress Your Friend." In this engaging talk, she describes the stress response - the pounding heart, rapid breathing and sweating - and then offers the audience this re-frame: "What if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?"
She goes on to describe a research study that was done at Harvard University. Basically, they taught participants that their stress response was actually helpful. That the pounding heart was preparing them for action, the faster breathing is getting more oxygen to the brain, and so on. Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance were less stressed, less anxious, more confident, on their exam. Fascinatingly, their physiological stress response changed.
Granted, there is a HUGE difference between preparing for a test and dealing with the death of an important person in your life. Huge. This is where the art of awareness and discernment comes into play. In some cases, your stress response may be trying to serve a purpose - to prepare you to meet a challenge, or to give you burst of energy to protect yourself in some way. The stress response, however, isn't meant to be activated all the time.
This is where yoga comes in...
Although the functioning of autonomic nervous system is not under your conscious control, aspects of a yoga practice are, which have a "back-door" approach to the nervous system. Richard Faulds says, "When you do yoga - the deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body - you initiate a process that turns the fight or flight system off and the relaxation response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms."
In periods where your stress is prolonged and intense, developing a relaxation practice is invaluable. The quote above, says it all - yoga is a practice that balances the nervous system. The beautiful thing about yoga is that you can come at it from many different directions. Here are some ways into your parasympathetic nervous system:
Savasana, The Art and Science of Relaxation
Savasana is a Practice
Savasana: Tips and Techniques
Savasana and Sleep