By Nava Dabby

Imagine you have just finished the most memorable yoga class you have experienced to date. You are lying still in your Savasana, embodying the very essence of bliss. Noticing, perhaps, that today it wasn’t so hard to release the back of your neck, to soften the space between your eyebrows, or to relax your tongue away from the roof of your mouth. You could probably stay in this Savasana all day…. And maybe you will! Why not? I mean, the teacher said, “stay as long as you like”… and this just feels so great… BUT WAIT! You have to pick up the kids at 3:30! Then you have to make dinner! What about all that laundry you have been putting off??!

That feeling of panic erases the yoga class from your mind and almost reverses the relaxing effects of your Savasana. More specifically, it activates your sympathetic nervous system, which makes up one part of your autonomic nervous system and helps direct the subconscious functioning of your body. We also refer to the sympathetic system as “fight of flight”, because it is the system that prepares your body to fight an enemy, or run quickly away from danger. To do this, your adrenal system pumps out epinephrine and norepinephrine to optimize your muscular strength and speed, as well as high levels of cortisol, a particular stress hormone, which signals there is a danger. Among other hormones, you adrenals also secrete mood stabilizers such as dopamine and serotonin, to soften the shock.

This cocktail of hormones is amazingly powerful and effective if you come face to face with a polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba. However, it also affects you in your day to day life. It can be activated in a split second – when you realize you’ve locked yourself out of the house, or you’re stuck in traffic and late to pick up your kids, or you hear a very loud and mysterious noise.

How is this relevant to your yoga practice? That feeling you experience in a challenging yoga posture is also a sympathetic nervous system response, for example when your teacher asks you to hold dolphin plank for 60 seconds, and your heart starts to beat before you have even set yourself up. But when you wind down your practice and come into more supported postures, such as reclined hero pose, or Savasana, your parasympathetic nervous system comes into play. The parasympathetic system is attributed with “rest and digest”, and is in charge when you feel calm and comfortable. During sleep, or meditation, there is very little stress and the sympathetic nervous system can relax. In these moments your parasympathetic nervous system activates in order to take care of several important functions that are stalled in moments of stress – including salivation and digestion. It is also the required state for the body to start repairing and rebuilding damaged tissues.

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are vital to a healthy body when they function in harmony. However, we live in a fast paced culture that often ignores the detriments of stress on the body. Practicing yoga, particularly restorative yoga, helps to balance out the nervous system and reverse the effects of the daily “fight or flight” we experience. Breathing, moving, pausing, and being present are fast and effective ways to activate “rest and digest”, and they are available to you both on and off your mat.

The next time you realize you’ve lost your wallet, or someone sits waaaaaay too close to you on the TTC and you feel your heart beating in your throat, try this: Close your eyes, breathe, pause, repeat. Notice how much more balanced you can feel just by slowing down and paying attention to your breath. In fact, it is scientifically proven that slowing your breath to 6 breath cycles per minute will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and give you that post yoga brain in as little as 3 minutes.

The breath is a fascinating tool and is literally the portal to mental and physical health. The best part is that it’s yours to explore, both on and off your mat, at absolutely any moment.


Nava Dabby discovered yoga by happy accident while studying at McGill University in Montreal and found it was the perfect compliment to the stresses of student life. The love affair never stopped, and yoga is still a huge part of her life – as a teacher and as a practitioner. Her newest passion is restorative yoga and all of the incredible benefits it affords both body and mind. With a background in international development and environmental studies, Nava has traveled extensively and loves cycling, hiking and backpacking all over the world. When she’s not at a yoga studio, you can find her curled up with a book, listening to records or wandering around discovering Toronto.

Nava teaches Restorative Yoga at Union every Wednesday evening at 7:15 pm. Sign up to take a class with her.