You’ve probably heard the cliché “follow your gut” when it comes to trusting our sense of judgement and intuition. But have you ever considered the science behind this wisdom?
Our mind, emotions, and physical body are intricately connected via our nervous system. Whenever we feel an emotion, we often feel a coinciding sensation within our physical body. Think about it—have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you’re excited? Or a sense of heaviness in your abdomen when you experience disappointment? There’s no coincidence to this; rather, we have a series of vital nerves that relay messages from our body to our brain and reciprocally from our brain down to our body. One of these key nerves is called the vagus nerve, and it plays a major role in the mind-body connection.
The word “vagus” is Latin and translates as “wandering.” It’s appropriately named because the vagus nerve is the largest cranial nerve in the body. It originates at both the brain stem (the part of our brain that governs our involuntary functions) and the cerebellum (the part of our brain that helps us feel emotions and regulate voluntary functions). From the brain stem, it splits into two branches that run down both sides of the neck and then forks out into different segments that connect to all of our major organs including the vocal cords, lungs, heart, liver, stomach, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, bladder, female reproductive organs, and small and large intestines. It also has branches that connect into the sinuses and facial muscles around the mouth.
Interestingly, 80 to 90 percent of the vagus nerve fibers relay to the brain how the abdominal organs are feeling. The other 10 to 20 percent of the nerve fibers relay messages from the brain down into the organs. In addition, the branches of the vagus nerve that connect to the muscles in our face can be affected positively simply by smiling and cultivating thoughts of loving kindness towards others due to the fact that they originate from the cerebellum. This means that whatever emotional state we are in can affect the state of our organs via the vagus nerve and the state of our organs can affect how we process emotions.
The vagus nerve is also a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of our nervous system that governs our ability to relax, digest, and rest. When the vagus nerve is functioning optimally, our relaxation response’s function is improved, and we are able to experience heightened feelings of wellbeing and manage stress constructively. However, the vagus nerve can be weakened from chronic stress and stagnation in the organs that it innervates. This can hinder the relaxation response’s ability to kick into gear, which can lead to a habitual fight-or-flight response and increase our tendency towards anxiety, irritability and burnout.
The good news is that we can help strengthen our vagus nerve and harmonize our mind-body connection by stimulating the structures that the vagus nerve flows into. Much like a muscle that can be toned with the right exercises, the vagus nerve can be toned through various yoga techniques.
So, by now you may be wondering, “What type of yoga helps tone the vagus nerve and bring on the bliss?” Here are some effective techniques to help you attain optimal Vagal tone.
Ujjayi Pranayama With a 4:8 Ratio (Victorious Breath)
The easiest way to tone and strengthen the vagus nerve is through slow deep breathing with an emphasis on long exhalations. By deliberately slowing down our exhalations, we stimulate the vagus nerve to activate our relaxation response. This type of breathing also harmonizes the heart rate by stretching the exhalation to be twice as long as the inhalation.
- Start by engaging ujjayi breath. To find the ujjayi sound, first inhale through the nose; then exhale through the mouth as if you are fogging a mirror. Notice the feeling of constriction at the back of the throat. Keep the back of the throat constricted as you close the mouth to breathe in and out of the nose. The breath will take on a slight aspirated sound, similar to the sound of ocean waves.
- Once you’re comfortable with the basic ujjayi breath, inhale with the ujjayi sound for a slow count of four, pause briefly at the top of the breath, then exhale with ujjayi for a slow count of eight. Repeat for two to ten minutes.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee Breath)
This works on the vagus nerve by stimulating the nerve branch that runs through the vocal cords.
- Inhale slowly through the nose, pause at the top of the inhalation, and seal the earlobes shut with the index fingers.
- Keeping your ear lobes sealed shut, exhale slowly and emit a high-pitched humming noise from the back of the throat for the entire exhalation. Work on stretching the exhalation out to the very bottom of the breath so that the humming noise intensifies and sounds like a bee. Repeat five times.
Backbends stimulate the abdominal organs by flooding them with oxygenated blood. In turn, this helps release stagnation in the organs, which can help tone the vagus nerve.
Yin Yoga Postures
Yin Yoga helps us relax deeply by putting the body into a variety of passive positions that allow us to decompress physically and mentally. Yin postures also stimulate various meridian lines that correspond to different organs. By stimulating the meridians, we increase the function of the organs they target to tone the vagus nerve.
Chanting mantras stimulates the vocal cords and can also prolongs our exhalation. Both of these actions bring increased tonicity to the vagus nerve.
- Chant “om” repetitively for several minutes. Between each “om,” take a slow calm inhalation, and chant “om” on the slow exhale so that “om” is prolonged. Notice how relaxed you feel after you complete the chanting.