Imagine if your body had a switch that could help you de-stress, feel more calm and help you to focus and rest? Well it just so happens that it does… introducing the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve that extends from your brain, winding down through your face, heart, lungs, and digestive organs. Its name ‘vagus’ comes from the Latin word for ‘wanderer’, due to the way it wanders throughout your body.
This important nerve is a direct access point to your parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s way of regulating perceived stressful conditions. When it’s stimulated, it literally acts like an off switch for your sympathetic nervous system which kicks in when we have too much going on in life, when we feel we are in danger, or when we experience stress or physical/mental trauma.
It also links into our larynx (voicebox) and the concha of the ear, which is part of the reason mantra (repeated sacred words) and kirtan (music) can be an important part of a well-rounded yoga practice.
Why do we need to pay attention to it?
The vagus nerve has the ability to influence our body’s involuntary muscles – the ones we can’t control with thought as you would the muscles in your arm or your leg.
We’re talking the rate of your heartbeat, your digestive organs and the rate/ability for them to digest, and all of this leads into feedback for hormone production to regulate hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Not only that, but it’s ALSO linked to mood control and our body’s immune response.
All of this can, obviously, have the potential to impact your physical and mental health.
How do we stimulate the vagus nerve?
In modern medicine, vagus nerve stimulation is sometimes done directly with electrical impulses. That’s not for everyone though!, so here are some yoga techniques that are said to help stimulate the vagus nerve:
- Taking deep, even, full breaths down into the belly. As the vagus nerve travels around the lungs, breathing deeply facilitates gentle massage (it’s why it can feel so calming to take even just five breaths when you’re stressed out!).
- Twisting poses
- Forward folds
- Singing, humming, chanting and meditation. If the esoteric/spiritual aspects are a bit too ‘out there’ for you, just crank up your favourite song in the car and get singing!
- Anything that directly puts pressure contact on the centre of your forehead (such as Child’s Pose with your forehead on the floor), or on your belly.
- Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018) Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers In Psychiatry. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859128