Before I became a yoga teacher, I used to suffer through a long rush-hour commute and arrive home feeling my heart thumping, my shoulders tensed, and a migraine coming on. Instinctively, I’d roll out my mat, kick my feet up the wall, and take deep belly breaths for several minutes.
These simple practices relieved me significantly because they stimulated my vagus nerve and activated my parasympathetic nervous system. Of course, I wasn’t aware of this technical terminology then; I just knew I felt better.
As you’ll discover in this post, science explains the reason behind many of these experienced benefits of yoga. It comes down to the vagus nerve, a crucial component of the body’s nervous system actions.
When discussing vagus nerve yoga, we refer to specific postures and practices that influence this part of the nervous system — like the Legs-Up-the-Wall position and belly breaths I used to do after stumbling through my front door stressed and catatonic.
So, are you ready to dig into some somatic psychology? Take a deep breath, pull up a chair, and get ready to increase your brain power by learning all about the vagus nerve in this ultimate guide. You’ll come away with a basic understanding of your nervous system actions and some specific poses and practices to try on your own!
- 1 Understanding the Vagus Nerve
- 2 Science-Backed Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
- 3 Asanas to Increase Vagal Tone
- 3.1 Child’s Pose (Balasana)
- 3.2 Manduka Yoga Rectangle Bolster Pillow - Lightweight, Removable eQua Microfiber Cover, Easy Carry...
- 3.3 Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
- 3.4 Savasana (Corpse Pose)
- 3.5 Manduka Yoga Cotton Blanket - Yoga Prop and Accessory, Roll, Fold, Stack to Support, Made of Cotton,...
- 4 Mind-Body Healing with Yoga Practices
- 5 Vagus Stimulation through Deep Breathing
- 6 Improved Well-being with Yoga
Understanding the Vagus Nerve
Once you understand how your nervous system functions, you’ll see the connection between meditation, diaphragmatic breath, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the therapeutic effects of a yoga practice.
What and Where Is It?
The vagus nerve, a crucial component of our parasympathetic nervous system, is vital in maintaining several essential bodily functions.
This critical cranial nerve runs from the brain through the neck and spine to the large intestine, connecting the brain to the major vital organs.
Let’s dive deeper into the function of the nervous system, its impact on health, its connection to stress, anxiety, and trauma recovery, and the role of the brain and exhale in this process.
Nervous System Overview
The nervous system connects the brain to many vital organs, such as the heart, lungs, and eyes. Nervous system actions are responsible for all the unconscious processes that keep us alive — our heartbeat, breath, digestion, metabolism, and stress response.
- Sympathetic nervous system: activates your “fight or flight” mode by releasing adrenaline when faced with perceived danger.
- Parasympathetic nervous system: activates your state of “rest and digest,” producing a calming effect after a threatening situation.
The vagus nerve is a significant component of the parasympathetic nervous system. You might compare it to an internal superhighway, carrying relaxation response signals from the brain to the major organ systems that it’s time to calm down.
The Vagus Nerve’s Role
Let’s look at all the different systems this cranial nerve communicates with. It turns out that the vagus nerve has a rather long list of responsibilities!
- Regulates heart rate
- Aids in digestive function
- It helps control the rate and depth of breath.
- Monitors blood pressure
- Influences immune response
- Communicates information from the gut to the brain
Impact on Physical and Mental Well-being
But it doesn’t stop there. It also affects our physical and mental well-being in significant ways.
The term “vagal tone” refers to the nerve’s level of vagus nerve activity. A high vagal tone generally means a person is physically healthy. Certain lifestyle habits like regular physical activity, specific meditation and yoga practices, and a healthy diet can all help increase this factor.
When it’s working correctly, we feel great. However, when the tone is low:
- We might feel stressed out or anxious, even depressed.
- Physical inflammation, heart rate irregularities, and gut issues may arise.
- It may become difficult to regulate our emotions.
- Chronic fatigue or sleep disturbances can keep you from getting enough rest.
So, taking care of this crucial part of your nervous system and brain is vital to good health, especially after trauma!
Stress, Anxiety, and the Vagus Nerve
Now, let’s talk about stress and anxiety. They’re not just “in your head” — your body produces a real, physical response to these emotions!
Trauma can mess with your nervous system. After experiencing a trauma or Complex PTSD, your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, preventing the parasympathetic nervous system from doing its job.
When we’re stressed or anxious:
- Our heart rate speeds up
- The breath becomes rapid and shallow
- Digestion slows down
These changes in the nervous system are all due to reduced vagus nerve activity or low vagal tone. When we’re super stressed or navigating trauma recovery, it might seem like we have no control over how we’re feeling.
While it might not be a cure-all, you might be able to soothe your nervous system by giving your vagus nerve a little TLC. Not only can it improve your physical symptoms, but taking action to help your situation can help you feel empowered and more positive.
Science-Backed Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
So, you can see the importance of keeping your vagal tone high. When you increase your vagus nerve activity with activities like meditation or vagus nerve yoga, your overall well-being improves in numerous ways.
Mental Wellness Boost
As a component of the nervous system that helps regulate mood, stimulating the vagus nerve can improve psychological well-being.
- For example, a study found that patients with depression who received stimulation therapy in addition to regular treatment experienced more positive outcomes than those in the control group.
- Another study used heart rate to demonstrate the effectiveness of yoga practices to increase vagal tone.
Managing Chronic Diseases
A stimulated vagus nerve may also help manage chronic diseases. It controls inflammatory responses and helps regulate heart rate and digestion, helping to keep symptoms at bay.
- Recent research shows this treatment significantly improved conditions of children with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) that affect the gut and large intestine.
- A study on heart disease patients revealed reduced symptoms after 12 months of regular stimulation therapy.
Enhances Overall Well-Being
Regular activation of the vagus nerve promotes overall well-being. It boosts your relaxation response, leading to better sleep and feeling less stressed.
- Research shows that a 1-month treatment of vagus nerve stimulation effectively reduced instances of insomnia in participants, in addition to lowering levels of anxiety and depression.
- Another study demonstrated that just one session of deep breathing exercises successfully decreased anxiety levels while increasing vagal tone.
Science certainly makes a convincing case for taking up activities that support your nervous system! Let’s find out how yoga fits into the mix!
Asanas to Increase Vagal Tone
Yoga can be more than just stretching your muscles or improving your balance. Vagus nerve yoga focuses on postures intended to activate this all-important cranial nerve, producing therapeutic effects.
You can use the following asanas to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, bringing yourself deep in calm.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Child’s Pose encourages relaxation and deep breathing. It gives your hips and back muscles a nice stretch to help you release tension.
- Kneel on your mat, sitting back on your heels with your knees separated and big toes touching.
- Walk your hands forward and bring your forehead to the floor before you.
- Reach the crown of your head forward as your tailbone reaches back toward your heels, creating length in your spine.
- Stretch your arms overhead and separate your hands to the outer edges of your mat to help keep your shoulders relaxed. Alternatively, you may keep your arms relaxed by the sides of your body.
- Stay in Balasana for several slow breaths. Inhale through your nose, and release tension from your hips, back, and shoulders with your exhalation.
- Separating your knees will give your belly more space to expand as you take deep breaths.
- Make this posture a more refreshing experience: place a bolster (like the one from Manduka below) lengthwise underneath your torso to maximize comfort.
- If you experience discomfort in your knees, place a folded blanket or rolled towel between your hamstrings and calves.
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Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
As an inverted posture, Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose helps alleviate stress and has a calming effect on the mind.
- Place your mat against a wall and sit sideways, with your right hip touching the wall.
- Simultaneously lift your legs as you lie back onto your mat.
- With your feet elevated, adjust your body so your tailbone is as close to the wall as possible.
- Close your eyes and settle into this position for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Place a hand on your upper abdomen. Notice your belly rise and fall as you breathe deeply, using your diaphragm.
- Ensure you have no tension in your shoulders or neck, and avoid turning your head to the side.
- Place a cushion or a folded blanket under your hips if you need extra padding.
- To increase the effects of the inversion, elevate your hips by stacking a couple of foam blocks or using a bolster underneath your tailbone.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Savasana keeps your mind and body calm, allowing your parasympathetic nervous system to do its thing.
- Lie down on your mat with your legs separated as wide as your hips. Allow your feet to fall open to the sides, completely relaxed.
- Bring your arms by your sides with your palms facing up.
- Release any tension in your shoulders, neck, and jaw.
- Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.
- Inhale through your nose, and imagine your muscles relaxing even more with each exhale.
- Again, you may lay one hand on your upper abdomen to encourage your diaphragmatic breath.
- Try placing a bolster or rolled towel under your knees, especially if you feel discomfort in your lower back.
- Use as many props as you need to ensure maximum comfort in Savasana! A cushion under your head, a blanket covering your entire body — it’s all about promoting relaxation, so make yourself as comfortable as possible.
These postures, in particular, are intended to help you take deep belly breaths to get that parasympathetic nervous system boost. Always listen to your body and modify poses to ensure a safe and beneficial practice.
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Mind-Body Healing with Yoga Practices
How Yoga Stimulates the Vagus Nerve
Yoga practices are magical. They boost your mind–body wellness by activating the vagus nerve.
When you do yoga, this nerve gets a workout. It sends signals between your brain and the organs of your body more efficiently.
For example, Yoga Nidra is one practice that targets this nerve. This form of meditation helps you chill out and rest deeply.
Evidence-Based Benefits of Yoga
Science backs up these claims about yoga’s benefits. Studies show that regular yoga practice can improve mental health and trauma recovery.
How so? When you’re stressed or traumatized, your immune system takes a hit. But yoga can help counteract this. Increasing vagal tone helps boost your immune system, facilitating healing.
Trauma recovery patients who practice yoga in this study also showed greater self-compassion and better coping skills.
So yeah, you can consider yoga a holistic treatment for both body and mind!
Long-Term Effects of Consistent Yoga Practice
Now, don’t expect instant results from doing a couple of sun salutations! It’s all about consistency in practice.
Regularly practicing yoga can lead to long-term positive effects on mind-body wellness. You’ll start to notice improvements in how you handle stress. Over time, you’ll also see yourself feeling more centered and calm.
Remember, it’s not just about striking poses but also about incorporating somatic psychology into movement. That means being fully present in each posture and noticing how it feels in your muscles.
Vagus Stimulation through Deep Breathing
Deep Breathing Activates the Vagus Nerve
Taking deep breaths can wake up your vagus nerve. When you breathe in, your diaphragm goes down, and your lungs fill with air. This movement stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Inhalation: Your heart rate speeds up a bit.
- Exhalation: Your heart rate slows down. The longer you exhale, the more your heart rate slows down, thanks to the vagus nerve.
Benefits of Deep Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing exercises can boost your “vagal tone.” As you know, a higher vagal tone means your body can relax faster after stressful situations.
- Relaxation Response: By stimulating the parasympathetic system, deep breathing triggers a relaxation response.
- Calming Effect: It helps reduce anxiety and stress levels as your heart slows down and your body relaxes.
Proper Way to Perform Deep Breathing Exercises
To get maximum benefit from these exercises, doing them correctly is essential.
- Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
- Put one hand on your belly below your ribs and the other on your chest.
- Take a slow, deep breath through your nose for a count of 4.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of 7 while pressing lightly on the stomach area where you feel most movement.
- Repeat this process for 5-10 minutes daily.
Remember: During inhalation, you shouldn’t feel your chest move much. Focus on drawing your inhale down into your belly. Keep your exhale smooth and long.
Practice makes perfect! With time, these techniques will become second nature, and you’ll start feeling their calming effects more profoundly.
Improved Well-being with Yoga
It’s no secret that yoga is a fabulous way to keep yourself healthy and feeling good. It can lower blood pressure, increase circulation, improve respiratory function through breath awareness and pranayama practices, and bolster the brain-body connection.
Incorporating specific poses into your daily routine can activate the vagus nerve, enhancing mind-body healing. These science-backed benefits demonstrate how yoga can improve brain function and give us more control of our emotions, offering practitioners deeper insights for more effective trauma recovery and treatment for conditions such as Complex PTSD.
Various yoga practices and deep breathing exercises can significantly contribute to overall wellness by increasing vagal tone and, in this way, support your wellness journey, whether you’re in trauma recovery or just want to bring a sense of balance to your life down to a neurological level.
So what are you waiting for? Start your journey towards improved health today by incorporating these simple yet effective postures into your daily routine.
FAQ 1: Can yoga help increase vagal tone?
Yes, certain poses are known to stimulate the vagus nerve effectively. This activation contributes to improved physical and mental wellness.
FAQ 2: What specific benefits does a high vagal tone offer?
Increasing vagal tone is associated with various benefits, such as reduced stress levels, enhanced mood, better sleep quality, and improved gut health.
FAQ 3: How often should I practice these poses for optimal results?
For best results, it is recommended that you incorporate these specific asanas into your daily routine. It doesn’t take much — just a few minutes on your mat each day!
FAQ 4: Are there any risks associated with practicing vagus nerve yoga?
Generally, these poses detailed in this post are safe for most people. However, consult a healthcare professional before starting any new exercise regimen if you have any pre-existing medical conditions or injuries.
FAQ 5: Do I need special equipment to practice vagus nerve yoga at home?
No special equipment is needed for most of these poses. However, having a good quality mat from lululemon can enhance your comfort and stability during practice.