The Nervous System through the Eyes of an Anesthesiologist

By Eding Mvilongo for Yoga Medicine®.

The nervous system is a complex network that regulates our vital functions, our actions, and even our thoughts. Its central and peripheral portions link all body systems via nerves communicating through different types of receptors. Moreover, the peripheral portion can further be characterized as either controlling voluntary movements or involuntary reactions (“fight or flight ” vs. “ rest and digest”) to a situation. One could spend years (!) studying its intricacies, but we typically do not spend a lot of time thinking about these inner workings, focusing instead on the end-results of interactions with our environment: how our heart rate increases when we feel stressed, the withdrawal of our hand upon contact with something extremely hot, or stopping movement when we feel excessive pain in a limb.

As a practicing Anesthesiologist, I came to Yoga Medicine®’s Nervous System and Restorative Yoga module with a solid knowledge of the nervous system and the physiology behind its activation. After all, I alter levels of consciousness, motor, and sensory responses to nervous stimuli for my patients to obtain the best treatment for their conditions. Most of my work is done with chemicals that affect the brain by modifying the production and/or elimination of messenger particles called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters relay the information between the different body systems; changes in their concentration can directly influence how we move, how we think, and our emotional state. Also, acute and chronic pain result from neurotransmitters activating receptors that respond exclusively to intense and potentially damaging signals: nociceptors. Responses generated by these nociceptors could result in lasting unpleasant, unwanted sensory and emotional experiences. As such, acute and chronic pain management is also an important component of my patient care. Using medication is currently my method of choice to address stress and pain issues, yielding a variable degree of effectiveness and patient satisfaction…

However, as a yoga teacher, I brought some big questions to this training. For instance, could practicing yoga help regulate the nervous system to the extent of getting results comparable to those obtained with chemicals (and avoiding undesirable side-effects)? And if so, how? This module gave me an insight on how we can find ways to modulate responses generated by the nervous system for both wellbeing and mindfulness.

A key teaching point for me was that the stress and the pain response to a situation are heavily influenced by the emotional memory one has in regards to similar past events. This causes acute and chronic changes in brain chemistry, which in turn affects both the mind and body. Yes, we need a certain level of stress to enhance our performance or ensure our safety: we want the increased heart and respiratory rates to pump that oxygen-rich blood to our muscles and our brain at critical times! Unfortunately, chronic exposition could gradually transform into a physiological and psychological exhaustion state with devastating long-term consequences impacting our cognitive abilities, our behaviors, our relationships, our energy levels, and our athletic performance amongst others…

Restorative yoga is an excellent tool to balance our emotions, nourish the body, and most importantly, rewire our stress response patterns through relaxation, meditation, body awareness, and breath-centric practices. It focuses on emphasizing physiological goals rather than physical ones. For instance, supported yoga positions are held during longer periods to relax the body and reprogram our central and peripheral nervous systems activation process in a down-regulatory manner. Stimulation of the diaphragm through breathing exercises, pranayama breaths, and myofascial release also enhance this down-regulation. Props (]blankets, blocks, bolsters, straps, chairs, sandbags) are used to minimize the effort exerted in poses and allow for maximal relaxation.

It is crucial that an adequate environment be provided: a warm, dark, quiet safe place will foster a sense of well-being and encourage introspection (awareness of what is going on within ourselves), and visualization. As a yoga teacher, I am there to facilitate the students’ journey and guide them through what is accessible to them.

And yes, I strongly believe that this practice will impact my students and provide a useful way to deal not only with the stress (or pain) in everyday life, but eventually to prepare and cope better when faced with unexpected challenges. As an extension, I also plan to introduce the notion of visualization and breath work with patients consulting for pain issues. After all, the mind can be a powerful ally to help achieve our goals.

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