Change is continuous. Health is a constant balance not an endpoint. The lens of traditional Chinese medicine, dating back 3,000 years, views our life force, called Qi, in relationship with and subject to external stresses and internal forces within the human body. These opposite but interdependent forces within – what makes up Qi - are described as yin and yang.
Yin is soft, yielding, being and quiet. Yang is active, expanding, doing and loud. The seed of each is within the other. The symbol of yin and yang expresses this view of the continuous process of change. Balance and imbalance influence health and disease. These timeless truths make sense.
In western science, yin would equate to our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Yang sounds a bit like our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). We need both.
Simply put, our nervous system is the body’s operational headquarters sending messages back and forth between brain and body. What we think, how we move, and how we respond to stimuli are controlled by our nervous system. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is divided into parasympathetic and sympathetic. Our heartbeat, breathing, digestion happen because of the ANS. We don’t have to think our way through these automatic bodily functions.
And yet we can influence how our nervous system responds to external threats and internal messages. Remember the sympathetic side, just like yang, motivates us to go, react, interpret, accomplish, protect. Our parasympathetic side, just like yin, encourages us to step back, observe, soften our response, rest.
And let’s face it. Our Western culture, polarized and contentious, has keyed up our sympathetic nervous system. Our “on switch” seems stuck.
Yoga therapist and author Jill Miller recommends “turning ON your OFF switch” by stimulating your relaxation response. She calls her framework, the 5 Ps of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). And her target is to stimulate the PNS by toning its longest cranial nerve, the vagus nerve. Scientific researchers are doing extraordinary work exploring how this nerve influences our gut, our mental health, our physical wellbeing. This inquiry is somewhat inconclusive but promising.
And the practical implications of fostering relaxation are self-evident – better sleep, mood, calm and energy. Let’s commit to practicing Jill Miller’s “5 Ps of the parasympathetic nervous system”.
Perspective – “I am listening.” Approach time set aside for self-care with the mindset to pay full attention to what your mind, body, breath are saying. Are you feeling agitated? Is your body tired? Is your breathing shallow? Bringing your friendly awareness to your current experience leads to a more relaxed, nonjudgmental frame of mind.
Place – “I feel peaceful.” Find a spot where you can cultivate quiet and calm. It can be anywhere – home, outdoors, the gym, work – as long as you feel safe and comfortable.
Position – Lying down is the quickest way to relax. No surprise. You are no longer holding yourself up and negotiating your body’s relationship to the downward pull of gravity. Your postural muscles, heart and lungs reduce their sympathetic tone. Lifting your pelvis higher than your heart (placing a block under your sacrum in supported bridge or a blanket under hips with legs up the wall) boosts this effect.
Pacing – Observing the natural cadence of your breath and altering its tempo changes the body’s physiology. Extending the exhalation longer than the inhalation fosters the relaxation response.
Palpation – Touch or self-massage, using hands or therapy tools, hydrates the tissues and improves circulation. Myofascial release changes the resting tone of your muscles and surrounding fascia. This decreases sympathetic activation.
“Turn ON your OFF switch.” Practice mindful movement, breathing, and meditation inviting ease and respite from our sympathetic-driven life.