The vagus nerve helps us build emotional resilience and manage our fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest processes. Explore five yogic practices to help strengthen the vagus nerve.
The word vagus in Latin means “wandering.” The vagus nerve is the 10th and longest cranial nerve in the body. It is also known as pneumogastric nerve. It stretches from the brainstem to the colon and is involved in an extensive list of functions. According to Medical News Today, “The vagus nerve sends information from the gut to the brain, which is linked to dealing with stress, anxiety, and fear—hence the saying, ‘gut feeling.’ These signals help a person to recover from stressful and scary situations.”
What Does the Vagus Nerve Do?
Your nervous system is built around the balance of two opposing actions. The vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is called the “rest and digest” nervous system, and it is an antidote to “fight-or-flight” (sympathetic nervous system).
The parasympathetic nervous system controls specific body functions, such as digestion, heart rate, and the immune system. These functions are involuntary. Dr. Keven Tracey, a neurosurgeon based in New York, discovered that one of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off the production of proteins that fuel inflammation. If vagal tone is low, this regulation is less effective, and inflammation can become excessive.
How Stress and the Vagus Nerve Are Connected
The vagus nerve supports communication between the gut and the brain. Did you know researchers are discovering a relationship between excess stress and a host of chronic health conditions? When we experience sudden high stress, our fight-or-flight response activates, preparing us to either flee the scene or fight.
Sure, in moments of crisis or survival, the fight-or-flight response (a result of the release of cortisol throughout the bloodstream) helps us stay safe. But this level of stress is supposed to be occasional and more of an exception, not the rule. But modern living is stressful. Unfortunately, chronic stress interferes with the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of our nervous system.
The Vagus Nerve and Emotional Regulation: An Example
My husband and I were visiting his family one year for Thanksgiving. Their holiday ritual has half the family members playing Scrabble and watching football before the big meal; the rest go into the woods for a hike. This particular year, it was extra cold, and everyone wanted to stay indoors. I decided to get fresh air therapy alone.
While outside, a dog, off-leash and without his owner around, started to run after me. To this day, I still can’t believe that I outran him! I work out daily and would like to think of myself as fit, but I certainly don’t run marathons. So, what saved me that day? Why did I flee and not freeze?
Any time the brain perceives a threat—like a dog chasing you in the middle of nowhere—it triggers the fight-or-flight response through the sympathetic nervous system. I ran to protect myself. But once I reached the house, and after telling my family what had happened, I calmed down. That was the parasympathetic system doing its job—its purpose is to calm you and help you rest and digest.
The vagus nerve helps us develop a healthy response to any situation and become resilient. What if I had frozen and not moved when the dog chased after me? Or, what if I couldn’t snap out of the experience throughout the holiday weekend? Typically, if you aren’t healthy emotionally, you are stuck either in the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) or parasympathetic (freeze) response.
5 Yogic Practices to Nourish the Vagus Nerve
Since the vagus nerve is a major control center for the body, the health of this nerve is of utmost importance. Practices that stimulate the vagus nerve have a calming effect on the body and mind.
This is great for someone new to pranayama, as many adults breath shallowly and high in the chest. Sit in a cross-legged position. Place one hand on your belly, and let the other hand rest on your knees. Start to breathe from your belly, not your chest—if you watch a baby breathe, they have it figured out.
When you inhale, fill your belly with air; when you exhale, let the belly button touch the spine. Slow, deep breathing into the belly improves vagal tone. To stimulate the vagus nerve, you must exhale longer than you inhale. Try to reach the ratio of 1:2 with your inhalation and exhalation. For example, if you inhale to a count of 1-2-3-4, you should exhale to a count of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Practice this breathing technique for five minutes to activate your vagus nerve.
If you have a pranayama practice, skip belly breathing and start with diaphragmatic breathing. Research tells us that slow, rhythmic, and diaphragmatic breathing increases healthy vagal tone. Ujjayi Pranayama (which adds a slight constriction to the throat) is one example of a diaphragmatic breathing technique, which helps strengthen the diaphragm and improves the capacity of your lungs. This is because deep breathing relaxes us. It has a calming effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. Remember: Always make your exhalations longer than your inhalations. Practice this 11 times or for three minutes.
Yoga asanas that stretch your chest and throat can gently stimulate the vagus nerve. Examples include Cat-Cow Pose, Sphinx Pose, and Fish Pose. Another simple one would be Reclined Butterfly Pose, where you place a bolster vertically in the center of your mat. The short edge of the bolster is at your tailbone, and you lie down on your back with the soles of your feet together. This helps open the heart space. Stay here for five minutes and breathe deeply.
Surrender and release your body onto the yoga mat. It’s a signal to the vagus nerve that the body is in a relaxed and safe state. Savasana activates the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing the heart rate, brainwave activity, and breathing while relaxing the muscles of the abdomen.
The vagus nerve controls our vocal cords, which is why mantra chanting, singing, humming, and satsang can feel calming and relaxing.
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