Feeling Better From Brain to Belly: Befriending Your Vagus Nerve with Yoga
For those who’ve been following my story, you know the past few weeks have been all about rest and healing for me. (For those who haven’t, I recently underwent a bilateral mastectomy.) My daily yoga practices have changed…understandably… but not ended. For obvious reasons, my physical movement is restricted and my energy is low, my digestion is off and sleeping is not easy.
Meditation, breathwork and gentle movement have been my saviors and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. A huge benefit of these practices is the positive effects seen in several key areas of the body. There are many nerves and tissues throughout our bodies which, if worked properly, can elicit such a beneficial effect. The vagus nerve is a prime example of this and hence warrants a full discussion as a place to start and continue the healing process.
Warning: There is a lot of information here, but it is a must read that can change your life from head to gut … literally.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve (Latin for ‘wanderer’) is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It runs from the brain, passing and contacting the tongue, vocal cords, throat, heart, lungs, diaphragm, liver, spleen, large intestine, small intestine, pancreas and kidneys and ending as a ball of nerve endings in the stomach.
Why is it important?
Called the “nerve of emotion,” the vagus nerve serves as a communication superhighway relaying messages from the gut to the brain and back. As the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), it oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including:
- immune response
- heart rate
- most importantly, the PNS is known as the “rest and digest” or relaxation response because it restores the body back into balance after a stressful event.
When the body is in a sympathetic state, its primary focus is being able to defend itself or flee from a dangerous or threatening situation. This “fight-or-flight” response is what we refer to as being stressed. By contrast, when in the parasympathetic state, the body is calm and composed and able to focus on resting, healing and digesting. Our ability to smoothly and easily return to a relaxed, non-stressed state depends on the activity, or tone of the vagus nerve.
Your Health, the Vagus Nerve and Yoga
From a purely scientific perspective, vagal tone is a measure of cardiovascular function that facilitates adaptive responses to environmental challenges.
- Low ‘vagal tone’ is characterized by anxiety, negativity, weak digestion, depression and inflammation, all indications of stress
- ‘High vagal tone’ is associated with lower blood pressure, improved digestion, better mood and reduced anxiety.
Researchers who study the mind-body effects of holistic practices like yoga have found that by incorporating even a few yoga practices each day, you can increase vagal tone. And I hope by now, you recognize that good vagal tone is key to optimizing your physical and mental health.
Improving Vagal Tone
Think of the vagus nerve like a built in de-stressor. With practice, you will be able to engage it at any time. In a world where we experience situations that continually elicit anxiety and stress, it’s worth knowing some quick and easy strategies for toning the vagus nerve in order to bring your body into a state of balance.
6 Yoga Practices to Tone the Vagus Nerve
1- Slow deep breathing
One of the simplest and most effective ways to tone the vagus nerve is deep diaphragmatic breathing. Practicing three-part yogic breathing in which the belly expands outward and the exhale is long and slow sends a signal through the vagus nerve to the brain that says, “time to relax.”
*Quick Tip: To slow down your exhale, imaging letting air out of a tire and exhale with the sound of “shhh.”
2- Singing and chanting
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords and the muscles at the back of your throat, so singing, humming and chanting can activate it. Research has shown the ‘Aum’ or ‘Om’ mantra to be particularly effective for cultivating a sense of calm.
If chanting isn’t your thing, instead try adding a mantra to your asana practice when you exhale into a pose. Using a mantra on the exhale calms your nervous system by helping to increase the length of the exhale. Forward bending postures and twists, like Uttanasana and Sage’s Twist, lend themselves to this. Choose a simple mantra, such as Om or Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, and chant it aloud you exhale into the pose.
3- Body scan with progressive muscle relaxation
Scan your body to identify where you are holding tension and then consciously release those areas. This will help to activate the relaxation response.
*Quick tip: Focus on releasing the tension around the eyes, face, jaw and tops of the shoulders
4- Practice poses that open the chest and neck
Your vagus nerve passes right behind the sternocleidomastoid muscles (SCM) and in front of the scalenes which tend to be the tightest muscles in the neck. From there, it branches down into the thorax (or chest). Gentle stretches that target the neck and chest can help trigger the relaxation response.
1. Gazing at the wall in front of you, gently bring your right ear toward your right shoulder. Allow your eyes to also turn toward the right.
2. Take 4 or 5 breaths, noticing any sensations in the left side of your neck. Then inhale your head back to center bringing your eyes forward. Pause for 1-2 breaths to notice how your neck feels before repeating to the left.
3. Repeat the movement again, this time directing your gaze the opposite direction. Take time to notice any sensations in your neck, throat and face.
5- Stimulate the belly
Because the vagus nerve culminates its journey in the gut, yoga poses stimulating the belly help balance as you move the spine, belly, chest and throat.
Or practice twists, such as this simple seated twist done on the floor or in a chair:
1. Inhale your arms out to the sides, palms turned up. As you exhale, turn your belly to your right, allowing your left hand to rest on your right thigh and your right hand behind you on the chair or floor.
2. With your next inhale, lift your arms to chest height as you return back to center. Exhale to the left, allowing your hands to come to rest along your left thigh and back. Alternate twisting to each side two to three more times, finishing by staying to the right.
3. Breathe as you maintain the twist, lengthening your spine with each inhale. After 2-3 breaths, slowly rotate your head to gaze over your left shoulder. Again, stay for 2-3 breaths before inhaling back to center with arms outstretched. Repeat the hold to your left, this time turning the head to the right.
*Bonus Practice: Try this belly stimulating sequence.
Meditation has been shown to activate the PNS. In fact, studies have found that practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) is especially beneficial for vagus nerve activity. Similar to chanting, meditation stimulates the relaxation response by slowing heart rate and respiration, relaxing the muscles of the abdomen and slowing brainwave activity.
No matter your age or ability, nor whether you are recovering from surgery, treating a lifelong illness or simply want to supercharge your nervous system, the Vagus Nerve is a great place to start.