Challenge and the Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic Nervous System

Reflections of a curious Yogi

Today in class I felt my butt proverbially “kicked”. I was challenged by the continuous strength it took to keep up with the sequences offered by Kyla our instructor. Challenge comes in so many forms and in yoga can be the best lesson you’ll take away into every day life. It can be found by taking on a new pose or focusing the mind.

Challenge is important to every day practice and incorporates the science of the Sympathetic Nervous System vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System to teach us about ourselves.

The Sympathetic Nervous System charges you up

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for an increase in heart rate and is related to the stress response. Back in Palaeolithic times it helped the heart rate and adrenaline work together to help us escape from a sabre tooth tiger. These days it helps us rush from one appointment to another, completing those daily tasks while time bites at our heels.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System cools you down.

The calming sensation of the parasympathetic nervous System is our body’s natural ability to let us decompress after a long day. Some ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system according to are saunas, attention to physical sensation and deep even breath.

The two work together in your yoga experience

In class, yoga poses are designed to activate the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems as a “yin and yang” balancing act to help you get back to that even keel state of mind. Kyla MacKinnon’s class tends to really do this well. With an even amount of challenge and restful poses the cleansing sensation is deeply felt by the end of practice.

So why activate the Sympathetic Nervous System?

As I delved into research on the two systems I wondered why in the $&!? we would want to activate the system that so often causes the tension and negativity in our daily lives? In her article “The Power of The Sympathetic Nervous System” Robin Sands points out the importance of posing challenge to activate the system in order to learn how we can move through stress as it presents itself. In practice we do poses like wheel, which like many back bends, activates the Sympathetic nervous system. If we can learn to approach it with a sense of calm the pose becomes a metaphor for those stressful daily moments. Perhaps at first it strains our breathing, all sorts of emotional responses flood in as we attempt the pose. This was one such episode Taylor McGillivary coached me through after attempting a back bend that surprised me by activating intense stress.

So, the challenge of this type of pose may induce stress, however, the way we approach them day after day will continually expose our usual tendencies and allow us to re-direct those habits to healthier alternatives like breathing and steadying the mind.

And we all love the Parasympathetic

Unless you are a stress chaser! Which we’re all guilty of at times. Rest poses will activate the parasympathetic nervous system to rebalance and help the body let go of the previous fire; letting cleansing blood and prana rush through the body in a moment of pause after having pushed ourselves through the “fight or flight” sensation of stress to find the other side of recovery.

Examples of Poses for the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Legs up the Wall Pose

Child’s Pose

Standing Forward Bend

Examples of Poses to ignite the Sympathetic Nervous System

Wheel Pose


Camel Pose

At the conclusion of today’s class we had a full and echoey “Om” that rang through the room followed by words read aloud by Kyla. The author was Danna Faulds whom I tried to remember her name but just couldn’t. However when I returned home and did a quick search it seemed she found me. And so I leave you with her words of letting go:


By Danna Faulds

There is no controlling life.

Try corralling a lightning bolt,

containing a tornado.  Dam a

stream and it will create a new

channel.  Resist, and the tide

will sweep you off your feet.

Allow, and grace will carry

you to higher ground.  The only

safety lies in letting it all in –

the wild and the weak; fear,

fantasies, failures and success.

When loss rips off the doors of

the heart, or sadness veils your

vision with despair, practice

becomes simply bearing the truth.

In the choice to let go of your

known way of being, the whole

world is revealed to your new eyes.