Over the last few weeks, we looked at yoga poses to nourish you. Specifically they can help you to feel strong, to feel focussed, to feel energised, to feel calm, to feel grounded and to feel happy. This week we look at how yoga can influence our vagus nerve. Don’t be put off about the jargon!
Emotion, stress, inflammation, heart rate, blood pressure, vocal expression, digestion, brain-heart communication and adaptivity. What do these things all have in common? The vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the tenth and longest of the twelve cranial nerves. Most only direct one or two particular functions such as the first cranial nerve controls our sense of smell and the second our sense of sight. The vagus however extends from the brain stem and impacts many areas including your facial muscles, throat, heart, lungs, liver, spleen, pancreas, stomach and intestines. It stimulates the voluntary muscles that effect speech and expression. Your breathing, digestion and heart rate are all directly connected to it.
There are two main branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic branch, which mobilizes you for action (the “on” switch); and the parasympathetic branch, often referred to as the rest-and-digest state (the “off” switch). The vagus nerve is in the parasympathetic branch so helps decrease anxiety and stress and therefore plays a key role in your emotional and physical health. The vagus nerve is called the nerve of emotion as it impacts whether you feel safe and protected in a secure, grounded place. This is why practices that tap into this nerve can improve your state of mind and overall sense of comfort while reducing stress and inflammation.
We need a balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system actions to allow us to respond with resilience to the ups and downs of life. Low ‘vagal tone’ indicates stress and is characterized by anxiety, negativity, weak digestion, depression and inflammation.
The good news is you can help elevate your vagal tone and reclaim balance of body and mind using tools of mindfulness, conscious breathing and physical postures. The goal of a vagus nerve yoga practice is to become increasingly flexible but not in the physical body but in the nervous system. The following vagus nerve yoga practices will help you develop healthy vagal tone, energize as needed, relax as desired and reclaim balance in your life:
- Conscious Breathing: The easiest way to stimulate the vagus nerve is through slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing that emphasises lengthening the exhale. Gradually increase the length of your exhale as compared to the inhale. For example, you might start out with a 4 count on the inhalation and exhale to a 6 or 8 count. This has a calming effect on your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Half-Smile: Since the vagus nerve extends into the muscles of the face, you can increase vagal tone by relaxing the muscles of your face and then slightly turning up your lips. As you smile, imagine your jaw softening and a relaxed feeling spreading across your face, your entire head, and down your shoulders. Notice the subtle changes in the quality of your thoughts and emotions and feel in the moment.
- Posture: Posture is fascinating in regards to the vagus nerve because of its proximity to the carotid arteries in the throat. Wrapped around these arteries are nerves called baroreceptors that monitor and control blood pressure. Simply sitting up straight will help to tone the baroreceptors.
- Vocalization: As one of the areas that the vagus nerve is toned in is around the larynx, you can think of chanting, reciting or singing as core strengthening for the vagus. What you’re singing can make a difference though as sombre songs will not have the same effect as a soothingly reinforced melody.
- Massage: Massaging areas of the body that are stimulated by the vagus nerve can alter its tone and provides a relaxation response. These include tolerable pressure to muscles of face, side and front of neck and head as well as the rib cage and abdomen.
- Open Your Heart: You can gently stimulate the vagus nerve with yoga postures such as Cobra Pose that open across your chest and throat. As you practice, focus on your inhalation to stimulate, uplift and open your heart.
- Wake Up and Stretch: Yoga can provide a gentle pick-me-up for your mind and body. Explore standing postures such as Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 to invigorate your mind and wake up your body. Notice the connection of your feet to the earth to stay grounded to energize yourself in a balanced manner. Allow the breath to remain rhythmic so that you stay rooted and connected to the sensations in your body.
- Release the Belly: You can work with the connection of the vagus nerve as it passes through your belly. From Table Top, flow through Cat and Cow Poses. As you inhale, begin to lift your head and your hips lowering your belly toward the floor as you move into Cow Pose. On your exhalation, lower your head and hips while you lift your spine into Cat Pose. Find your own timing of the movement with your breath. Repeat as many times as you like creating a gentle massage for your belly and spine.
- Behaviour: Practicing kindness, friendliness and compassion to yourself and others as well as being grateful and thankful are all things that can all help your vagal nerve. Take a moment to reflect on a challenge you are facing in your life. Now, imagine someone else facing a similar challenge. Send thoughts of kindness to them and wish them well. See if you can extend that same quality of loving-kindness toward yourself. Wish yourself well. Notice how this feels in your body.
- Relaxation: Taking time to relax at the end of your yoga practice offers an opportunity to restore your body and mind, calm the nervous system and tone the vagus nerve. This can be extended by taking part in the practice of Yoga Nidra, often referred to as “yogic sleep”, which can last up to an hour. Why not try one of my Yoga for Better Sleep workshops where we practice this? Yoga Nidra is the antidote to our stressful, modern lifestyle. Let me know if you are interested and I will tell you the date of the next one.