IAYB goes back to school: the physiology of yoga (YTTT)

On the third weekend of yoga therapy teacher training (YTTT) at re:source yoga, we started to get into the nitty gritty of the practice. I have to admit that I couldn’t get too excited about the Physiology of Yoga – it brings back memories of high school biology classes. Anatomy and posture feel concrete to me, but the systems within the body feel much harder to access.

But I did gain a better understanding of the systems and pathways that communicate essential information through the physical body, and their subtle energetic counterparts. As our teacher and guide, Carina Raisman, pointed on the first evening, there’s a close link between anatomy and physiology: anatomy provides the “container” while physiology makes up the “contents.”

The proper alignment of anatomical systems (bones, muscles, tissues) sets up the optimal conditions for flow of energy and fluids. Energy is distributed through the body via an interplay of systems:

  • nervous system
  • respiratory and circulatory system
  • immune and lymphatic system
  • digestive system

 The Marvelous & Mysterious Nervous System

For the purposes of the training, we focused mostly on the nervous system, while acknowledging that all the systems work together. Since everything in this training builds upon itself, we can be sure that it will come up again in future modules.

The central nervous system is how the brain communicates with the parts of the body, via the spine. It’s infinitely complex, especially for a 15-hour weekend, so we concentrated on the autonomic nervous system, which is made up of:

  • sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – stress response: “fight or flight”
  • parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – relaxation response: “rest and digest”

Yoga, of course, stretches and relaxes the muscles to have an effect on the PNS. It opens up the pathways for system – the less tense the organs and muscles are, the less taxing on the heart and breath.

This is pretty heady stuff, so luckily we had an opportunity to put it into practice. At the end of the first full day, we did an asana practice in which we held the poses for a long time, keeping muscle tone. Not enough to strain the muscles, just enough to impact the nervous system and have a restorative effect.

We learned that when we stay in the postures long enough, the golgi tendon organ kicks in. The body feels a prolonged amount of strain and sends a signal to the brain to release the tendon, allowing relaxation and extension at the same time. When we focus on aligning the bones, the blood vessels and veins dilate to restore the PNS.

An Elemental Understanding

We also explored the correlation between the elements and the parts of the body. The five elements of yoga act as a framework for the body’s systems and their physiological function. The way I interpreted this is that the elements are part of nature, and so the body follows the laws of nature that in turn govern our internal environment.

This is the relationship between the elements and the body:
Earth – bone/muscle
Water – blood and circulatoin
Fire – liver, stomach, solar plexus
Air – heart, lungs
Ether – fascia, mind

What is the connection between the elements and the nervous system? Carina explains it like this: From the bones (earth) come the white blood cells (water), which are distributed through the body and create heat (fire). The heat is propelled by the respiratory and pelvic diaphragms, which pump like bellows (air).

Space (ether), or lack of space, determines all of the above (often referred to as the bodymind), and is determined by the fascia – which unites and divides everything. Finally, space is determined by the nervous system.

Deeper Into the Vayus

From the elements, we went even deeper into the subtle and esoteric aspects of the practice with an exploration of the vayus: how prana moves in the body (vayus, literally, mean “that which animates and moves us”). Yoga isn’t just bones, muscles and tissues!

We studied an introduction to the vayus, based on Rod Stryker’s teachings:

Location: Pelvis
Function: elimination, mensturation, urination; psychological: letting go (exhale)

Location: Abdomen
Function: assimilation, transforms matter into energy, unites; psychological: turns life experience into wisdom

Location: Heart & Head
Function: restore and regenerate; psychological: draws in (inhale)

Location: Collarbones & Chest
Function: growth, aspiration, enthusiasm

Location: everywhere and nowhere specific
Function: distribute and integrate, inner/outer circulation (aura)

The Whole Picture: From Ailment to Alignment

In short, the biggest takeaway from the weekend training was the correlation between the functions of the physical body, the elemental body and the subtle body. If we’re in synch with the elements, we’re in synch with nature and the bigger systems that govern ourselves. This makes it easier for us to adapt to changes and deal with the stressors of life.

The more the elements are aligned with each other, the more the whole body can be aligned. My understanding is that this starts with the alignment of the bones – especially the spinal cord, where the nerves attach. If the bones aren’t aligned, we’re not using our energy resources very efficiently. The more efficiently the bones hold the body, the more efficiently the muscles work.

Will I ever be able to tell if somebody’s fire is out of balance, or if their Udana Vayu is functioning properly? I’m not sure. One day, maybe.

But I can see how this ties into the global aspects of health: as future therapists, we have to ask what is best for the whole body and the whole person. Then we apply what we’ve learned to the big picture of a person’s health. The body has a logic but it’s not necessarily linear and there’s no specific formula. We’re encouraged to listen to our intuition and balance it with information.

This post is the third in a series as I participate in the 300-hour Yoga Therapeutics Certification course at Yoga Resource. Read the first and second installments.

  1. just shared this on fb. such a service! i teach anatomy in Yoga for Arthritis teacher trainings and just soak it all up … i trust u will be able to sense/see/read just how to benefit ur future yoga therapy recipients with this knowledge, processing it by writing about it for us, and, of course, your own practice of service … jail!

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