Find Your Off Button: How to Use Yoga for Better Rest and Recovery
The term adrenaline junkie comes from a very specific scientific place: our desire to consistently pump our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is our fight or flight response. Our bodies evolved with this system to make us stronger, more alert, and less vulnerable during times of danger. As athletes, we pump this system daily. The downside? Our bodies are not so good at turning off this system.
Symptoms of Fatigue
There are more symptoms to fatigue than just feeling tired. Those symptoms include difficulty falling asleep, not feeling rested after a night's sleep, requiring a stimulant to get going in the morning, swelling around the eyes that subsides during the day, pain in the low back when pressure is applied, poor digestion, low libido, and many more. If it takes you awhile to get going each day, you may be suffering from fatigue, specifically from adrenal fatigue.
The adrenal glands secret adrenaline - duh - and they also release cortisol and norepinephrine. These chemicals increase the heart rate, dilate the blood vessels, and pump up our metabolism. Athletes love these effects.
Unfortunately, these chemicals also suppress our immune system, decrease bone formation, and may even lead to muscle atrophy if high levels persist in the bloodstream. Individuals who have high levels of these chemicals in the body may be less able to handle daily stressors and suffer from emotional swings.
Fighting Fatigue With Rest Days
To counter the effects of stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, it is important to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the body's rest and digest response, and it doesn't always turn on the minute we lay down. If you've ever gone to bed after a great workout, found yourself waking up throughout the night, and woken up feeling exhausted, you know what I mean.
Just like the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic system relies on neurotransmitters to turn on our rest and digest functions. Primarily, this system uses acetylcholine, or ACh. We must turn on the parasympathetic system to let the body and mind relax as often as possible to counter the effects of our workouts.
Yoga teachers are very familiar with the parasympathetic nervous system, because much of what we do focuses on stimulating this response. How? It's easier than you think.
Using Yoga for Better Rest
When the body receives stressful information, before turning on the sympathetic or parasympathetic system, it asks the brain what to do. This happens at the highest part of the brain, the cortex. The cortex then relates the message through a tiny electrical link called the hypophyseal portal system. This link decides whether to go into fight or flight mode or rest and digest mode.
This all happens in a split second, and if you're sitting on the couch watching TV, you may not catch the stressor when it comes up. If you're in yoga class, though, breathing through a posture or even meditating, you bet you'll catch the stressor. For this reason, studies show yoga actually generates a more restful state in the body than nearly any other form of relaxation. It has even beaten sleep in many studies!
Yoga is relaxing not because the poses themselves are relaxing. In fact, the poses themselves can be quite stressful. Holding a pose, even a stretch, for a long time can create tension in the body and trigger the stress response. However, in yoga, we learn to remain calm despite this initial signal. Studies show us yoga is relaxing because it is stressful. By learning to remain unfazed by the sensations in the body, we turn on the parasympathetic system.
I always tell my athletes, "If you're going to spend all this time and energy building a perfect machine, you better give it an OFF button!" The body is not a perfect machine, and if you run it every day to its capacity, injuries, fatigue, and other problems will come up. Take time to hit the OFF button, to really turn off - not just stop moving - and you'll find you have more energy to enjoy the benefits of your workouts.
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