As yoga teachers and therapists students often come to us and tell us they have digestive issues or hormonal imbalances, auto-immune disorders, or cancer. They’ve shown up because they’ve heard great things about yoga and they believe it may be able help them.
If you’re nervous about how to help a student or client facing these kinds of health issues consider the following.
Think of your immune system as a perfect mechanism blessed with two different settings. The first setting switches on to protect you from damage from outside threats like being eaten by a tiger. It gives you the ability to run away from the tiger by sending more blood to your leg muscles so they can work more effectively and efficiently. It also releases a surge of hormones into your brain, heightening your survival instincts, and sends a cascade of hormones into your body which increases the physiological materials it needs to more quickly repair any damaged tissue, in case the tiger bites or scratches you. It makes you fast, instinctual, and recuperative.
All sounds well and good, right?
Yes, if a tiger is chasing you.
But most of our stress is not because of eminent physical danger. It’s because of a provoking email, a traffic jam, or 70-hour work week.
The downside of this amazing stress response system is that in shifting blood flow to the extremities it is shunted away from the digestive system causing imbalances such as irritable bowel syndrome and heart burn, among other possibilities. Shifting the hormonal balance in the brain and body can create depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances. In preparing to repair damage inflicted by the tiger, inflammation is being fostered system-wide which can cause chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, and osteoarthritis.
And while the immune system setting number 1 is being activated, immune system setting number 2 is deactivated. This other immune system setting protects us from inside threats like bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. The body can’t fight the tiger and the flu virus at the same time. It says – let’s get away from the tiger and then we’ll deal with the flu.
Clearly shifting the scales away from the stress response and Immune system setting number 1 is important to regain health.
Yoga, pranayama and meditation practice have been proven to turn the dial on the immune system response by directly affecting the parasympathetic nervous system. The PSNS tells the body that all is well and restores balance by shifting blood flow back into the digestive system and other vital organs, stops producing stress hormones, and fosters a healthy mind state.
So when working with students with serious imbalance and illness just remember that by bringing them back into balance through coordinated, meditative moving and breathing their physiology can shift and create a system-wide reorganization oriented towards balance and health.