Ashtanga Yoga and the Nervous System

I wanted to talk about the digestive system but I can’t talk about digestion without first taking a side road into pain and the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. They are interrelated. All of the organ systems are interrelated and dependent on the other. Together they make up the whole of us on our spiritual journey. 

If we take the sequence to be a formula, a medicine to heal. First we move through the practice to move away from pain and suffering.

In a limited sense this is showing up every day. Standing on the mat. Ekam, inhale the arms up. Period. 

That is moving away from the pain and suffering of our life before we practiced.

Before all of this, this yoga business, I was inauthentic, I played the game of life. It was my own version of hell. If things didn’t go my way, if I didn’t win, then it was the world’s fault. Society was to blame for me not having enough money to live. The world was out to get me. Women were manipulative. I could go on about blaming everyone else for my problems, but you understand this pain.

Some time after Ekam I began to understand that I was responsible for my actions, or my inactions. If I wasn’t making enough money at my job and there was no room for growth, it was time for a revolution. A massive change. Women aren’t manipulative, I didn’t know what I wanted and was allowing myself to be swayed. I took responsibility for my actions.

Taking responsibility for your actions is being authentic.

I was taking action to move away from pain. 

Dve, exhale.


An organism, EVERY ORGANISM, must move out of pain before it can work on other physiological needs. Then it can focus on digestion and eventually reproduction. Plants, humans, bacteria, even half organism’s like a virus must move away from pain before focusing on the finer qualities of living.

We are fragile beings. We are born almost a year early. And by some miracle a few of us make it to adulthood. We continually teeter between chaos and order. Our nervous system is no different. 

It is divided into two sections.

The order part functions automatically, on auto-auto-pilot. We call this the autonomic nervous system. No cognitive thought goes into making this system work. (not much cognitive thought went into naming it either) It is a brilliant system, simple and takes care of the necessary functions of life and living.

The autonomic Nervous system is our internal locus of control. It is responsible for organ system function; heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, pupil response to light, and urination. The basic coughing, sneezing, swallowing, or vomiting. 

Because scientist can’t leave good enough alone, or there needs to be a yang for every yin, they divide this automatic system into 2 components that work opposite each other. We have an automatic system that takes care of “feeding and breeding” and it’s antagonist, the “fight or flight” mechanism. 

The “Fight or Flight” system called the sympathetic nervous system. It’s quick to respond. It stems the most primitive part of the brain. The part associated with self preservation. Like when you stand up from sitting, the sympathetic system jumps to action to prevent a sudden loss of blood to the head by regulating heart rate and blood pressure. The primary muscle we often associate with the ‘fight or flight’ is the psoas muscle. The muscle that burns when we hold the leg out in utthita hasta padangusthasana in the 7th and 14th vinyasa. The psoas’ animal instinctive nature is to help us get away quickly. It’s why that muscle burns when the count is slow.

When we perceive danger, via visual or physical stimuli, the brain sends a signal to the adrenal glands. The message is, kill or be killed. This message is flashed out to the rest of the body that we need to take action.

Epinephrine is released into the blood stream from the adrenal glands located above each kidney. Epinephrine is a chemical signal that flies around in the blood shutting down non-essential organs like a Star Trek episode where Kirk is demanding from Scotty to give us more power. Scotty re-routes power from one system to boost the power thrusters, or something like that, and they get maximum warp.

Do not consider painful what is good for you - Euripides

The body responds to this signal by opening up the blood vessels in some areas and closing down other systems. Our heart rate speeds up. We breathe faster to oxygenate the surging blood rushing around our vital organs and muscles. Blood moves away from the organs that deal with digestion, accessory organs.

We have a limited amount of time to make use of this response before it burns out and we have either made it, or made a meal for someone bigger than us. 

We need these special systems to escape pain, danger, or the threat of pain or danger. A mechanism for self preservation.

Order is necessary. It builds structures and society. Without the autonomic system we would not be here. We would not be able to sleep. 

But chaos is necessary to spur change and innovation. In this case, chaos is what we control. This part of the nervous system is called the Somatic Nervous System or voluntary nervous system. 

This is the arm reaching for the coffee or the alarm snooze button. This is the system that gets us into ‘trouble’ and takes us to the moon.

We need one foot in order, and the other in chaos.

Controlled chaos is the diaphragm contracting. Remaining contracted. Remaining while the carbon dioxide builds up in the blood stream and oxygen is depleted. The mind become restless, distracted. We stress out. Eventually we either give in, or pass out and the autonomic nervous system kicks back in and takes over lung functions once again.

By slowing down our breathing in stressful situations we train brain function to focus and remain calm, make rational decisions. With continued practice we train our organ systems to operate more efficiently and effectively. 

The US Navy Seals go through a training that, “is designed to push you mentally to the brink, over and over again, until you are hardened and able to take on any task with confidence, regardless of the odds - or until you break.” - The Red Circle, Brandon Webb. Notice any similarities with Ashtanga Yoga?

In Mysore practice we go to that place of fear, every day. Our anxious minds race between thoughts; will I break, will I have the energy, did I eat too much last night, did I have a BM before class, can I do this and get to work on time, etc.

When we train our breathing, we train our heart to slow down because our muscles demand less oxygen. Our lungs can exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide more effectively with higher profusion in the alveolar lining. (we will learn more about this in the respiratory system) 

We become individuals who no longer react to stress, but respond to it. We can become creative individuals because we can control the stress rather than reacting to it, and because of that we can evolve our society and our being. 

If we don’t control this stress reaction it may develop into PTSD, and/or numbing via any number of methods. Remember, the body fights to preserve vital organs, the heart, and brain. But, the body cannot sustain functioning in a stressful environment. For one, digestion stops and if we don’t get the required nutrients, the body burns itself up.

Morgan LeeComment