Yoga and your Vagus Nerve
Pay attention to how you feel after nice yoga, meditation, or breathing session. Calm. You know, the yoga high. Ahhhh. This is because you just spent about an our stimulating your vagus nerve.
There are ways you can have this feeling while you are at work, driving, cooking dinner, and other times throughout your days using the practices of yoga.
You want to pay attention to not get too far from this feeling in your everyday life.
When you feel like this, your heart is more efficient, your breath is deeper and slower, your body heals, repairs, fights disease.
The farther away you get from this feeling, the less your body can repair and take care of itself. And you could experience more emotional disturbances.
And more importantly KNOW WHEN YOU SLIP AWAY from this feeling. Which takes a level of awareness that is healthy for us.
And remember your tools to slip back into it; Mindfulness of your thoughts, your breath, your posture, your bandhas, tone of your voice, gratitude, and simply to just RELAX.
This is what all this yoga is about. Yoga is a self soothing tool, through its practices yoga is all about strengthening your vagus nerve. That is what is giving you the feeling of calm.
What are you thinking? Our thoughts are powerful. I have spoken of using your mind to heal your body or welcome more of something you want in your life, on the flip side we also need the awareness to realize when our thoughts become harmful to our physiology.
Our thoughts alone can set off an inflammatory response in our body. If you are under threat, this is good.
The pro-inflammatory cytokines that are released when we are anxious or stressed are released to jump into action to kill an invader or microbe, or repair damaged tissue from an injury. If there is no real threat, those inflammatory molecules are still released but not put to work — this is the root of chronic inflammation.
More recently it was discovered inflammation sets off feelings of anxiety. It creates a vicious cycle; anxiety drives inflammation and inflammation drives anxiety. How do you break it? By strengthening your vagus nerve.
This is called vagal tone or autonomic balance. Medical literature usually uses the term autonomic balance, if your autonomic nervous system is not in balance, meaning your vagus nerve is weak healing is very difficult.
When vagal tone is weak inflammation is higher.
One of the ways to reduce inflammation (and therefore anxiety) is by stimulating your vagus nerve to put a brake on the sympathetic arm of your autonomic nervous system. There are many ways to stimulate your vagus nerve to do that — and it turns out these are practices that have been taught for millennia through yoga, religion and other spiritual practices, including mind body exercises.
One of the most direct means to decreasing your stress response is Mindfulness. Just pay attention to what you are thinking — Check in often with your thoughts. Be an observer of your own mind, and pay attention to what you are saying to yourself. This is mindfulness.
When you practice mindfulness you lower inflammatory cytokines in your bloodstream— this is not psychological it is physiological – it directly effects your body.
It was quite an eye opening moment when I read the unconscious mind processes about 20 million bits of information per second, things like heart rate, breath rate, hormones secreting, senses sensing — millions of processes happen in our body all day long — while our conscious minds processes 40 bits of information per second (which is mind boggling as well).
This makes me understand you can’t nip always anxiety or inflammation with mind over matter — you need to decrease the autonomic stress response that is happening below the level of consciousness and increase vagal tone to override inflammation in the body.
Anxiety creates a bodily — physiological response — it is NOT just mental or psychological. While our thoughts can set off anxiety and inflammation, so can a virus, an infection, and bad food. If you have inflammation, there is a higher chance you deal with some anxiety.
And your vagus nerve is right in the middle of it all and has a lot to do with inflammation and anxiety.
In addition to mindfulness and other practices to improve vagal tone, an anti-inflammatory diet is very important as well to decrease inflammation and reduce unconscious stress in the body.
Diet turns out to be a huge deal — inflammation from processed grains and processed oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower are the worst culprits and processed foods in general will set off the inflammatory response that leaves you feeling anxious. You know that feeling, you feel anxious about something but you don’t know what and you are not under any threat. That is anxiety from food, and those inflammatory cells start to destroy your body.
When we feel stress, the symptoms are explained in terms of muscle tension, increased HR, sweaty palms, racing thoughts –but what many people are not aware of is that it also fires up our immune system. There are all sorts of “threats” out there that do this — viruses, bad bacteria, allergens, parasites, cancers cells, your boss, someone you don’t like, financial worries — worries of all types; less obvious but also inflammatory and harder to escape are our mental threats.
We can break the stress cycle and get back to repair and regenerate. A feeling of safety is what breaks the stress cycle. When we feel safe and secure in our own body and environment the stress will stop.
This brings me to what is really important in yoga—yogas effect on your nervous system and your vagus nerve. Our vagus nerve is the tool we have to tame the nervous system, reduce inflammation in the body, and reset ourselves to rest, digest, and rejuvenate. Our vagus nerve is what gives us Calm.
Yoga is not about perfecting postures. Becoming overly obsessed with your body and posture in yoga —and you begin to miss the point of yoga — miss the point of why we are practicing at all.
Yoga is not postures — the postures are a tool to relax the vagus nerve by releasing tension and tightness from the body.
Purpose of yoga?
Yoga helps us bend without breaking — Bending without breaking = resiliency. One of the ways we gain resiliency is how well we handle stress when it comes our way. A strong vagal tone will raise the barre on what you can handle without setting off a pro-inflammatory process in your body.
Yoga gives us tools for this — that is what is more important than the pose. The pose is a method to help gain control over your nervous system
Breath is another one of the tools. Breathing puts you deeply in touch with yourself, especially the way we breathe in our practice and need to keep our awareness on our breath to move in rhythm with our breath — this creates the necessary mindfulness that can calm an inflammatory response in the body.
And while the breath is the heart of our practice and greatly effects our vagal tone, it seems all the practices of yoga stem around stimulating your vagus nerve — including of course our style of breathing.
Yes yoga is really all about the vagus nerve. From the breathing, to the drishti (soft eyes), chanting stimulates the vagus nerve, mindfulness and meditation, postures, bandhas, all these are about strengthening vagal tone.
It’s a small world … I’ve following some research in 2018 on the vagus nerve done by a Dr. Steven Porges (“Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory” published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience February 27, 2018). I had blogged about this here and here.
About a year or so later I was reading Eddie Stern’s new book “One Simple Thing” and was quite surprised and happy to hear the yoga teacher he hired to make the yoga protocol for his vagus nerve study was Eddie Stern! This is particularly relevant for us ashtangis — while the protocol was not a full series of any type, I feel quite certain the protocol involved what makes ashtanga yoga ashtanga — Vinyasa, bandhas, drishti. The last chapter in Eddie Stern’s book outlines this work he did. I will reference some of it there.
Eddie Stern was asked by researcher Dr. Steven Porges to develop a yoga protocol for a series of studies he was doing on the vagus nerve. These studies compared yoga to exercise.
- The first study was done on adults and blood pressure, one group did 30-40 minutes of yoga and the other group did exercise; the result of the study showed the yoga group dropped Diastolic blood pressure 4 mercury points below the exercise group and lowered 7 mercury points overall total blood pressure.
- They did a second study on middle school students and GPA. One group had 40 weeks of yoga, the other group had 40 weeks of gym class. The yoga group increased their GPA by 2.7 points over and above the gym group.
Why did yoga make this difference? It’s effect on the nervous system. if you are at the willy nilly of your thinking mind and nervous system you are much more likely to have more adrenaline and cortisol in your system — the stress hormones. Not only do those stress hormones drive inflammation by releasing the pro-inflammatory cytokines, these stress hormones attach to receptors in prefrontal cortex interfering with your decision making process, and shifting you to your amygdala or survival thinking mode.
Your ability to focus is dependent on the state of your nervous system – too much stress or activation of your SNS (sympathetic nervous system) along with too weak of a PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) impairs your cognitive function —and many other functions in your body are impaired by the state of your nervous system, such as blood pressure, digestion, immunity, healing and any other regenerative and rebuilding processes in the body.
Vagal tone opens up pathways to higher brain functions — this is what the yoga term raising your kundalini is about. By shifting our brain power from limbic system (where the amygdala is) to prefrontal cortex we can respond with more love and understanding and less ego and self motivation.
When we practice mindfulness changes happen in our brain, your amygdala gets smaller and your prefrontal cortex grows and gets more dense. When we let stressful thoughts dominate the opposite happens — your amygdala grows and your prefrontal cortex shrinks. Yoga positively effects our brain, it is not just a physical practice.
Your brain on Yoga
A study released in December 2019 looked at yoga and brain plasticity:
(https://content.iospress.com/articles/brain-plasticity/bpl190084 Neha P. Gothe, Imadh Khan, Jessica Hayes, Emily Erlenbach, Jessica S. Damoiseaux. Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature. Brain Plasticity, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.3233/BPL-190084)
The study looked at regular yoga practitioners — defined as 3 or more years of yoga practicing for at least 45 minutes 3-4x per week and compared their brain scans to the “yoga naive”.
The yoga group showed a positive effect on the structure and or function of the hippocampus (learning and memory), amygdala (stress and emotions), prefrontal cortex (decision making and our active thinking part of our brain)— particularly helping this part of the brain be more “dense” by increasing cortical thickness and a few other brain systems such as the default network mode — which is another area I am researching, our DNM is when our subconscious childhood related behaviors take over and we don’t realize it.
Consistent yoga over a period of years correlated to better cognitive tests scores and improved emotional regulation —these types of degeneration are usually associated with age related decline, yoga reversed the effects of aging.
Yoga down regulates the stress response and tones or even “strengthens” the vagus nerve — or stimulates it to relax us — the vagus nerve is 80% of your PNS. Let’s learn more about our vagus nerve and how yoga interplays with it.
Vagus, vagabond, vagal tone
Your vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body — hence its name implies wondering (vagabond) it wonders all through your body from your brainstem to your gut, attaching to most of our organs, sensing and reading the information then sending its decisions to the brain.
The vagus nerve attaches to 4 of your 5 senses, visceral tissue in your face and body monitory for signs of tension, it continues downward attaching to your trachea, larynx, voice box, heart, lungs, diaphragm, liver, spleen, pancreas, stomach, kidneys, and intestines.
- The only sense the vagus nerve does not monitor is your nose — the nose has a direct path to your brain. The cilia hair in our nose are actually ol factory nerves that transmit directly to the amygdala. This means scent is one of the quickest ways you can send a message of calm or worry to your brain. Scent is only 1 synapse away, from setting off a stress response —or calming it as we do in aromatherapy. The nose does not have to send its signal through the long vagus nerve to get it’s message across.
The vagus nerve is monitoring your body, reading your facial expressions, tone of your voice, heart rate, breath rate, and monitoring what is going on in pretty much everything down to and including your gut sending what it senses upward to the brain.
Most of the information the vagus nerve sends goes upward from the body to the brain. The vagus nerve is subconsciously monitoring everything all day long in our body looking for signs of safety or danger 24/7 and sending this information to the brain.
In reality we perceive everything the best we can through all our senses, this information is collected, deciphered, and sent to the brain where it is reconstructed into some kind of meaning. What we perceive through our senses is not really reality, but a very small sliver of reality that our senses and brain can make the most sense of.
If the vagus nerve does sense a reason to activate a stress response, the vagus nerve does that as well. It activates the SNS which then takes the drivers seat and releases a cascade of the stress hormones into into the body.
If it is not a life threatening situation; our vagus nerve is also the brake to regulate our response — to stay calm and respond. It can slow down the SNS and help us have a little calm under pressure.
If the stress response was necessary, after the stressful event we need our vagus nerve to allow us to return to homeostasis so we can heal and repair — the quicker we do this the healthier we will be.
If you feel stress but realize it is unnecessary — ask yourself, is this life threatening? If not, stress hormones are not necessary. This mindfulness of feeling the stress in your body and realizing it is not necessary is what will trigger your vagus nerve to turn off your stress response and allow you to relax and get back to regenerating. This is mindfulness.
Basically it is our vagus nerve and our body that is deciding how we feel, then sends that info to the brain. Remember stress is a physiological response that happens in the body first. It is the body that feels, the brain then thinks and objectifies the thought; you have a feeling first, then comes the thought.
Because the vagus nerve is at the helm of many of our bodily processes it is important to have a balanced, toned vagus nerve.
So it turns out, ALL of yoga is about toning our Vagus Nerve!
We want our vagus nerve to be toned — strong. Your vagus nerve has a lot of communicating to handle, if it is weak it simply cannot handle it’s work load.
- This is where it has to call into action cytokines to deliver its messages. Cytokines are the messengers of the immune system, and they communicate through pro inflammatory cytokine and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are made from omega 3 (anti-inflammatory) and omega 6 (pro inflammatory) foods. In today’s food system most people are eating away too many pro inflammatory foods, omega 6s and not enough omega 3 rich foods. If you don’t eat enough omega 3 rich foods you don’t have many anti-inflammatory cytokines, instead you will have more of the omega 6 pro-inflammatory cytokines sending the message of inflammation to communicate.
So we use yoga practices to tone our vagal nerve and strengthen it.
When we practice yoga postures, we are putting our body through a mild stressor, but between breathing deep and stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system with all the tools of yoga we are not setting off the stress response, keeping our composure — literally raising the barre on what we can handle without getting stressed out.
Yoga practices that improve vagal tone:
- Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve through several of its different attachments from the lungs to the throat.
- Ujjayi stimulates the vagus nerve by massaging the larynx which down regulates SNS and up regulates PNS, when we sleep we naturally fall into this style of breathing; massaging our vagus nerve all night long.
- Deep breathing is one of the best ways to short circuit a stress response. Breathing consciously bypasses the limbic system (your amygdala) and shifts to your brain to your prefrontal cortex. Conscious breathing shifts our brain power re-engaging the prefrontal cortex so you can make a better choice. When survival function kicks in – respiration takes it own pace, HR takes its own beat and off you go running.
- Resonance Breathing brings us into coherence — using a slow breath to slow your heart rate which in turn regulates brain waves, and calms your mind. When our breath rate is 5-7 breaths per minute both sides of our nervous system— the PNS and SNS come into balance. Breathing slow and conscious synchronizes your heart and brain. In this state you can get a grip of what’s happening and make your response appropriate.
- This is what we are doing in padmasana in our finishing lotus flowers — I slow our breath rate down to be resonance breathing which is about a 5 second inhale and a 5 second exhale.
- Bandhas are first and foremost about your PNS. When you read about bandhas in the yogic texts they are spoken of in an esoteric language. This is due to their effect on our nervous system; both mula and uddiyana bandha put pressure on nerves to our parasympathetic nervous system which stimulates it.
- Mula bandha puts pressure on the pelvic splanchic nerve —which is the PNS nerve connected to our external anal sphincter, it’s job is to relax us for going to the bathroom or having an orgasm; none of these happen when you are stressed. The vagus nerve is 80% of our PNS — the pelvic splanchnic nerve is part of the other 20% of our PNS.
- Uddiyana bandha puts pressure on our vagus nerve, kind of waking it up, literally “pinging” your vagus nerve.
- Jiva Bandha (tongue on the roof of your mouth) relaxes your jaw. When we practice our asana with Jiva Bandha it causes an upward pull on the back of the tongue releasing tension in our face and jaw — common tension areas — and yet another way to help stimulate the vagus nerve, the vagus nerve also connects to your facial expressions, by relaxing your face and eyes you send the message to your vagus nerve to stay calm and strengthen your PNS.
- Chanting stimulates the vagal attachment in our voice box and larynx
- Drishti (relaxed gazing) makes us soften our eyes sending the message from our eyes to our vagus nerve that all we see is OK right now
- Asanas stretch and release tension and tightness from our visceral tissues where the vagus also senses (note, you don’t need to put your leg behind your head to get this effect, even if you will never touch your toes, you are getting the benefit).
- Holding your breath stimulates your vagus nerve, hence the practices of pranayama.
- The act of being present strengthens your vagal tone — perhaps because you are spinning less stories in your mind.
- Practicing some kind of gratitude or appreciation strengthens your vagal tone. Think of the opening chant in Ashtanga, its about gratitude.
- Loving Kindness Meditation is a tool for your vagus nerve too!
Tools like the loving kindness meditation help to interrupt feelings of anxiety and anger making it easier for us to calm ourselves down —and these practices lead us toward the latter 4 limbs (of the 8 limbed yogic path), pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi — which is all about calm mind.
Practicing the loving kindness meditation has the same effect on the vagus nerve as vagal nerve stimulation. This is big. Vagal nerve stimulation is where you are hooked up to a device that stimulates your vagus nerve — or where a pace maker like device is implanted in your body to stimulate your vagus nerve. Think I’d rather meditate.
Pattabhi Jois equated the vagus nerve to sushumna nadi, which is the nadi in our spine that houses our “kundalini” according to yogic lore. Pattabhi Jois said (to Eddie Stern) the sushumna nadi is contained within the vagus nerve – specifically from the heart to the brain stem.
In fact the yogic term “kundalini rising” is all about the vagus nerve. The upper fibers of the vagus nerve is the area that is connected to our senses and brain, we want that area to be active. When the upper fibers are active we are vibrant, social, happy beings. This is what all the yogic lore around raising your kundalini is about, having the upper fibers of your vagus nerve more active than the middle or lower fibers.
According to Stephen Porges, MD and his polyvagal theory, the lower fibers of the vagus nerve that are in our gut is responsible for the “freeze” reaction of fight, flight, or freeze when we are faced with a severe life threatening situation. This is also the action that makes it hard for us to get out of bed if we are facing a non-life threatening but still stressful event.
The middle fibers of the vagus nerve are what activate the SNS, and the upper fibers are the area of the vagus nerve we want most active, when they are we engage with family and friends around us creating harmony and community. More on polyvagal theory below.
Exciting new research has also linked the vagus nerve to improved brain function and repair of brain tissue, and to actual regeneration throughout the body. For example, Theise et al. (Theise, N.D., and R. Harris. 2006. Postmodern biology:(adult) (stem) cells are plastic, stochastic, complex, and uncertain. Handb Exp Pharmacol (174):389-408.) have found that stems cells are directly connected to the vagus nerve. Activating the vagus nerve can stimulate stem cells to produce new cells and repair and rebuild your own organs, improving our healing process.
Yoga practices send the message via vagus to the brain that all is ok — I’m safe and protected, therefore I can heal and digest and regenerate. We come into the world wired to feel safe inside our body, our relationships, and our environment. Our autonomic nervous system is that wiring. Our vagus nerve is monitoring 24/7 asking “is this safe?” The purpose of our autonomic nervous system is to protect us by sensing through our nerves and listening to what is happening inside our bodies, outside and around our bodies, and in the relationships of those nearby.
And all this is happening way below your conscious mind. You are not aware of it. Neuroception is the word Dr. Porges coined to represent the way the subconscious nervous system is always monitoring, scanning for clues of safety, danger, and threats without involving our thinking or conscious mind. We are not aware this is happening.
While we are not aware this is happening ~ it does greatly effect us. Neuroception can improve our attitudes and behaviors by making us feel safe. If neuroception is telling us there is danger around us our behaviors will be affected, it will put us in our stress response. It is important to feel safe in our bodies and in our environments. There are many practices that stimulate your vagus nerve to do just that. Give us a message of safety.
We co-regulate with others through our vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve is sensing and conveying its messages throughout your body and brain — your vagus nerve effects your facial expressions, which in turn effects the vagus nerve of those around you. Your vagus nerve is responding to the signals someone else is giving without your awareness, many times. When you are around people who are happy your vagus nerve senses this and your become happy and more social.
When you are around people who are stressed, your vagus nerve will sense that too. This is why when you are in the company of someone who is in stress, you will feel it too. It’s your body monitoring and being prepared to jump into fight or flight (SNS activation) when necessary. Emotions are contagious too — not just viruses.
Of interest here is that we can reverse this! Our facial expressions can change our brain function and emotions via the vagal attachments at our eyes and corners of our mouth — this is why the age old advice to fake a smile can literally change your emotions — at least for a bit.
A strong Vagal Nerve is the reason some people have a little more grace under pressure.
- Equanimity is a core tenet of many ancient philosophies and religions. Equanimity is defined as “Mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Equanimity has its biological roots in the vagus nerve and is synonymous with grace under pressure.
Other benefits of a toned vagus nerve which is able to help the body communicate clearly and efficiently:
- reduced inflammation
- improved HRV
- balance blood pressure
- decreased risk for all inflammatory diseases such as: CVD, diabetes, IBS and other digestive issues, cancer and auto-immune diseases
- Reduction of anxiety and depression
There are other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve, Activating your vagus nerve may also be done by one of the vagal maneuvers:
- Being in Nature
- Holding your breath for a few seconds
- dipping your face in cold water
- tensing your stomach muscles as in “bearing down” aka the Valsalva maneuver
Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks. Deep diaphragmatic breathing—with a long, slow exhale pulling in your bandhas/abdominals to put pressure on the vagus nerve — is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of stress.
Nourishing our parasympathetic nervous system is basically the same as dismantling a way of life for which humans are ill-suited — spending days in fake air, fluorescent lights and stressed out.
More on the Vagus Nerve and Polyvagal theory
There are three parts to the vagus nerve – hence where the polyvagal theory originated from that researcher Dr. Steven Porges coined. He matched these three parts of the vagus nerve to Yoga’s gunas — or qualities of Sattvic, Rajas, and Tamas.
- Immobilization such as in times of extreme fright, or a life threatening situation where you can only play dead. These vagal fibers are below the diaphragm and are unmylenated — so they send their information much slower. This is the lowest part of the vagus nerve — it is activated when we feel trapped and can’t escape the danger. We shut down to survive.
But this state can be activated even when we are not in danger, this is why some people shut down when faced with stress, literally their vagus nerve slows heart rate enough to reduce blood flow so you can barely move. If you do not learn how to recover from this low point, this is when it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. This part of our vagus nerve is known as our Dorsal Vagal Complex.
It shuts us down, which can be useful to play dead in a life threatening situation, but in non-life threatening situations, to remain in this state will increase depression, anxiety, and down regulate your health in general leaving you feeling blah and disengaged with life. Depressed.
- In yoga terms this guna is the guna of Tamas. Tamas is the quality of inertia, delusion, indifference. At times tamas can provide stability or grounded-ness but it can also foster inertia, delusions, heaviness and even ignorance if not balanced by the other gunas.
- Mobilization such as fight or flight — these fibers are above the diaphragm and myelinated, they can communicate faster than the fibers below the diaphragm to send the message quickly — this is why we can slam on our brakes in a split second. Mobilization will stimulate the Sympathetic response from the SNS — Our vagus nerve turns on the stress response when stress is necessary. This part of the vagus nerve is called Sympathetic, since it turns on the SNS.
- In yoga this is the guna of Rajas. Rajas is the quality of energy — mobilize and activate, but also turbulence, and pain — it is very activating. It can positively activate us when balanced with the other gunas, supporting movement, creativity and motivation. When not in balance this quality can activate pain, anger, greed, and agitation.
- The last part of vagus nerve is about our social interaction and engagement – these fibers are the top most fibers of our Vagus nerve. This is why our vagus nerve touches our voice box sensing the tone in our voice, senses the tone of our eyes, touches our ears (sensing the tone in others’ voices), and the corners of your mouth — our vagus nerve is what gives us facial expressions. This part of the vagus nerve is known as our Ventral Vagal Complex – activating Ventral Vagal Complex is the part of the vagus nerve we want to stimulate. When we are Ventral Vagal dominant we are happy, social, and engage with family and friends around us creating community and harmony.
- This is the yoga quality or guna of Sattvic or Sattva, pleasure. Sattvic is calm, tranquil, illuminating. It is described as lightness, clarity, harmony, lucidity, joy, and understanding. Yoga texts such as the Gita talk of the importance of cultivating sattva as a foundation for wisdom. clear-seeing, and discrimination. Of course too can become imbalanced if one becomes dependent on feeling joy or happiness all the time — meaning you wear rose colored glasses and are not seeing what needs to be done in your life, or where you need to step up to a challenge. Again it needs balanced with rajas and tamas.
We need a balance of all three gunas and functions of the vagus nerve. Think of a twinkling star ~ to twinkle it pulls energy in then pushes energy out. We need some downtime to build our reserves and energy and creativity, we need times we are putting out, teaching, speaking, engaging with people, and being social. That’s how we twinkle, but having times we are low and rebuilding mixed with times we are active and social.
This polyvagal theory is explained nicely in this pdf I found on the internet.
There are many different ways we strengthen our vagus nerve. In the research done by Steven Porges he identified 4 common neural exercises (exercises for your nervous system) that are done in all different religions which are tonifying for vagus nerve.
It would seem to me, one of the reasons yoga gets confused with religion is because it pulled the tenets from all the different religions, tried to make them non-denominational and teach them as exercises for mental and physical health and well being. This is why yoga can strengthen your connection with your religion and not interfere with it as many worry.
Most all religions have practices of some type that include:
1. Posture and movements such as prostrating would be akin to asana in yoga. Also sitting up straight exercises the baro-receptors around the carotid arteries – which monitor blood pressure and send the info back to the brain to regulate your blood pressure — which also leads to mood change. Sit up straight and you do feel better instantly!
Movements such as prostrating also exercise our baroreceptors — Sun Salutes can be a type of prostration, rocking, swaying, walking, all these movements are good for our baroreceptors and are done in many of the worlds religious and mystical traditions — some forms of religion rock back and forth as they pray, Hinduism and other religions use prostrations, sufis dance and whirl.
This is also one of the reasons we instinctually rock or sway our babies, rocking and swaying also stimulate the vagus nerve through various pathways. So does lightly touching our fingers to our lips and saying SHHHHHH. Try it next time your stressed, rock yourself side to side and say shhhh.
2. Breathing, steady, rhythmic movements of the diaphragm sends messages through the vagus nerve to relax -especially below the diaphragm where we need to digest. Deep diaphragmatic breathing – with a long, slow exhale as you pull in your abdomen connecting with the uddiyana lift – is also key to stimulating the vagus nerve.
Prayer and meditation slow our breath rate down to that resonance breath rate — about 6 breaths per minute or 5 second inhales and exhales.
3. Vocalization – which would be the singing and chanting in religions and chanting and mantras done in yoga, this stimulates the vagus nerve in the trachea and larynx. The vibrations from chanting or singing stimulate our whole brain function. Chanting and singing have a massaging effect on our vagus nerve. Singing a song is a nice tool make give yourself some calm and improve your mood.
4. Behavior – In religion you have the 10 commandments, in yoga we have the yamas and niyamas to help set behaviors that reduce stress and keep your vagus nerve calm. The heart-brain axis is affected by our behavior, and actions such as kindness and appreciation and compassion tone our vagus nerve.
And this is where your mindstuff come in — you can do all the yoga practices you want and vagal nerve stimulation exercises you want, but if you keep ruminating on an issue in your mind you will override all you are trying to do.
The yoga word darshana means ‘viewpoint on reality’ (Darshan is the word the yogis use when you see your diety), your viewpoint can make or break your vagal tone.
More on Prana, Kundalini and Chakras explained. I feel like I found the science to what the yogis have been saying in a different language.
Pattabhi Jois has stated yoga practices are based in science, and I agree, I have found the science to yoga. All the main practices of yoga are to increase our prana and raise our kundalini to pierce our higher chakras — or stated in a different language we do yoga to increase the efficiency of communication in our body and tone our vagus nerve so we can operate on a higher level of consciousness.
Let’s put the science and the physiology to prana, kundalini, and higher chakras.
In the chapter “Minding your MIndstuff” and again when I talk about pranayama, I equate prana to biophotons — while prana can be many things; breath, nerve function, negative ions — prana is biophotons — biophotons can be in our breath, and in our nerve function, etc so essentially prana is biophotons. Briefly because I talk of it in more detail in those chapters biophotons are light emitting photons in quantum physics. They are in our body and can be measured. Biophotons help our body communicate instantly and wirelessly kinda like wifi with lots of bandwidth. This is what gives us vitality and the best health. The health of your body and mind is reliant on the speed of communications your body can send and receive. For example, a hormone communicates slowly ~ it has to be released from a gland, float through your blood stream and find its own receptor somewhere to attach to — not just any receptor will do. Biophotons bypass that and instantly and effortlessly send their messages be they hormonal, neural, or otherwise.
In yoga we are trying to get our biophotons into our spine: If prana is biophotons and we get biophotons in our sushumna nadi (spine) – our spine houses all the nerve that communicate messages between the body and brain ~ this would equate to instant communications and functions in the body which would create supreme health and vitality. The spine houses all the nerves that handle communications in the body; Yoga is said to move prana from the Ida and Pingala nadis (the nadis connected to our nasal passages that criss cross around our spine) to our sushumna nadi – our spine.
As I mentioned earlier Pattabhi Jois said the sushumna nadi is in the vagus nerve, and the sushumna nadi houses our kundalini, which is ignorance. Kundalini as ignorance would be in the lower fibers of the vagus nerve — the dorsal vagal complex. So our kundalini is our coiled dorsal vagal complex blocking the functioning of our ventral vagal complex.
In the Yoga Yajnavalkya (and in Desikachar’s book “The heart of yoga”) kundalini is explained as a snake we want to burn up or kill. A dead snake can not make itself coil. This unrolling of the kundalini is what opens the sushumna nadi for our prana to flow upward helping us to reach higher states of consciousness or the higher chakras aka the vagus nerve to it’s higher functioning fibers; the ventral vagal complex.
Prana/biophotons in our spine sending the message “we are safe” puts us in our ventral vagal complex. Weak vagal tone means Kundalini is blocking the flow of our vagus tone upward and activating our dorsal vagal complex.
It is of interest; from the solar plexus to the brain stem the vagus nerve contains both afferent and efferent neurons which send information back and forth between the gut and brain. When you can control both afferent and efferent neurons of the vagus nerve you can access control to your autonomic nervous system.
So there you have it. All the lore and esoteric language around what we are doing in yoga explained through our vagus nerve.
Yoga is a self soothing tool. Self Soothing is important, if we can’t do this, people will seek it through drugs and other means.
Yoga helps you find safety in your body, and safety in your nervous system which allows you to heal.
Self regulate and self soothe with basic breathing and a few yoga postures, that is yoga for your life.
Here are some tips on nourishing your parasympathetic nervous system by vagal nerve stimulation all day long 🙂
And here is more information and tips on strengthening vagal tone by “raising your barre” in my blog Polyvagal Theory and a New Evolutionary Response to Stress.