Yoga For Vagus Nerve Stimulation – 3 Ways To Boost Your Health

Yoga For Vagus Nerve Stimulation – 3 Ways To Boost Your Health

Contents

ANS

vagus nerve

vagus stimulation

nervous system & yoga

exercise 1

exercise 2

exercise 3

Yoga For Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Hot Air Or Cool Science?

 Dubbed superhighway to health and physical manifestation of the soul, and alleged to boost your physical, emotional, social – and spiritual – wellbeing, the vagus nerve is a veritable modern-day holy grail for getting healthy and realizing your dreams

The Vagus nerve is a parasympathetic cranial nerve originating in the brainstem. It supplies your internal organs with instructions for global rest-and-restore responses to counter stress and let your body heal and recover

The Vagus can be electrically stimulated to produce effects including a slowing of the heart-rate and a reduction in pain and inflammation, as well as a lifting of your mood

Though the procedure has potential for managing pain and inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, vagal electrical stimulation is currently licensed exclusively for managing treatment-resistant epilepsy and some cases of depression

Given this is a surgical procedure, how is it possible to achieve Vagus nerve stimulation at home without the use of a current?

There’s certainly no shortage of exercises claiming to stimulate the vagus nerve: tapping, chanting, slow breathing, cold water and specific yoga postures are but a few. But what is the evidence that such practices actually work?

This article will introduce the Vagus and parasympathetic nervous system and their significance for you health, and also explore the theory of commonly prescribed vagal exercises, with special reference to yoga as a natural tool for achieving Vagus nerve stimulation

The Autonomic Nervous System

For convenience, we can divide the nervous system into a voluntary or somatic division dealing with conscious perception and voluntary movement, and an autonomic part dealing with – everything else

Until recently the autonomic nervous system (ANS) was divided into:

  1. Sympathetic – fight & flight which, together with cortisol, a hormone released from deep inside your brain, constituted the stress response to situations deemed to be challenging
  2. Parasympathetic – the gentler, yet powerful sibling mediating rest and digest when your body perceives safety
  3. However, this bipartite classification has been replaced by the inclusion of a third, freeze reaction, considered our most primitive form of self-preservation, and associated with the terror of sensing extreme danger

Note That:  rest-and-digest and freeze reactions are BOTH mediated by the Vagus

yoga for vagus nerve activation

Where Is The Vagus Nerve, And What Does it Do?

The vagus is a paired multifunctional nerve travelling from the lower brain stem through the neck to supply target organs from the throat to the pelvis

Latin for wanderer (vagrant), the Vagus is the largest nerve in the body. The vagus is like a tree with many branches passing to many target organs

The nerve travels downward within a (carotid) sheath in company with the Carotid Artery and Internal Jugular Vein. If you (gently) prod your neck below the angle of your jaw to find the carotid pulse, the vagus nerve traces a path straight down from here into the trunk

The vagus is a mixed nerve, relaying information from multiple brain-nuclei involved with distinct, and in some cases disparate functions

The Vagus is multi-modal: it is

  • both sensory and motor
  • it supplies the voluntary muscles for voice and the involuntary reflexes associated with eating, such as of swallowing
  • it is the principal carrier of rest and digest signals from the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to your internal organs

Some parasympathetic rest and digest actions of the vagus nerve on key organs include

HEART

slows down heart rate, lowers blood pressure

LUNGS

calms the rate and depth of breathing

GUT

stimulates digestion, absorption and intestinal transit

SPLEEN

supports immunity; lowers inflammation
  • The Vagus is also responsible for freeze reactions associated with extreme fear. This is our most ancient and primitive form of self defence. Where running away is not an option animals such as reptiles will feign death to increase the chances of not being eaten. In us humans, freeze is associated with extreme fear and is a factor in trauma and post-traumatic stress

    It should be clear, from this, that the Vagus is essentially a carrier of information connecting distinct brain areas with the internal body, and it is the central nervous system which is responsible for orchestrating the various responses associated with the vagus

    The Listening Vagus

    The vagus is 80% sensory and is the main pathway for interoception: your brain’s ability to listen to the state of your internal organs

    Interoception

    A relatively “newly” recognized sense, interoception is your ability to sense your inner body. Hunger, thirst and satiety are consciously accessible interoceptive sensations. Interoception is strongly linked with emotional regulation, and engaging with your body’s internal state has been shown to help you manage stress & anxiety and enjoy a felt sense of wellbeing

    The Nervous System & Yoga

    So far, we’ve been looking at stimulating the vagus nerve externally. 

    Yoga takes a more holistic inside-out approach, bypassing the vagus altogether. After all, despite it’s structural complexity the vagus nerve is a ultimately a messenger for the central nervous system: speak to the nervous system, and you’re on a direct line via the vagus to every part of your mind and body

    A mind-body intervention (MBI), yoga helps you relax the stress response while boosting the parasympathetic nervous system. Research shows that yoga reduces arousal to improve your blood pressure, blood cholesterol profile and other important predictors for cardiovascular disease and stroke

    A 2017 systematic review of MBIs showed that mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, relaxation and breath regulation all led to a down-regulation of inflammation at the gene level. Inflammation is strongly linked to stress and is a major cause of the blood vessel damage which leads to fat deposition and narrowing

    Laid Back & Alert: Yoga and Autonomic Tone

    You may by now be under the impression that at any given time you’ll find yourself in one autonomic state or another. However, the different parts of the autonomic nervous system work concurrently and synergistically a yin-yang way, to produce an autonomic tone appropriate for every situation

    This explains of yoga’s central tenet that calming your mind, far from reducing awareness, positively enhances your level of alertness

    Let’s now put theory into practice with some yoga exercises to help you stay chilled and on the ball, whatever the weather

    Yoga Exercises To Stimulate The Vagus Nerve

    tadasana yoga for vagus nerve stimulation

    Yoga For Vagus Nerve Stimulation 1:

    Posture & Emotion

    The posture of fear resembles a tortoise hiding its shell: the trunk is tense, the head and extermities pulled in; the breath is held; a small noise can make your knees give way – or turn you into a hare as you make a dash for it

    The posture of safety is a different tortoise: the trunk is relaxed, the limbs strong, the head emerges, the senses look outward and the breath flows

    Here in this most fundamental of yoga postures – Tadasana, the mountain – we’ll use the force of gravity to stimulate postural reflexes which signal safety to the vagus

    The exercise is also a great way to establish the fundamentals for practising all standing postures 

    Stand Firm: Tadasana, The Mountain

    1. Stand with your feet at hips’ width apart. Notice the turn-out (or in) of your feet. The population-average for neutral is your second toe pointing forward. Find your comfortable balance between habit and correct. This is your functional neutral. Do this for each foot. Don’t worry if your feet aren’t totally symmetrical
    2. Distribute your weight evenly over the heels and bases of the little and big toes
    3. Pull your knees back to lock them straight. Do you feel the reaction at the pelvis? The pelvis tends to roll forward, the lower back hollows, and maybe your tummy juts forward
    4. Now, keeping your knees straight let them just relax forward. Feel the base of the spine (sacrum) release down and under? Does your tummy relax back in?
    5. Alternate between relaxing and locking your knees a few times, noticing the effects on your posture
    6. This time try simply pressing your feet into the ground. Straight down. Firmly. Notice the muscles of the legs and trunk activate? Is there less of a tendency for your bottom to stick back and your belly forward? Let yourself relax

    Now we’ve done all that doing, let’s do a bit of undoing

    1. Noticing your body weight over your heels, connect with the feeling of pressure. Let your heels sink into the ground, your knees straight, but unlocked
    2. Maybe you feel the leg muscles begin to activate? If you’re not sure, press your feet down. Firmly. Then relax, and let them once again drop
    3. Can you feel your pelvis rotate backwards as your feet sink, your tail dropping down and tucking under, your pubic bone floating up and back? Maybe you feel the pelvis float up a little, away from the feet?
    4. Do you feel your navel float naturally backwards? You’ve just activated, or rather disinhibited the transversus muscle, the deepest layer of abdominal support
    5. Now, let’s transfer the awareness up to the head: imagine your head as a ball, the top of your neck a bowl of water. Let the head float on the water
    6. With your your gaze forward at eye level, let your head roll on the water so your chin relaxes backwards, towards the top of your throat, and the space between the back of your head and neck opens and softens. You’re still looking forward, not down
    7. Can you feel the crown of the head float up and slightly back?
    8. Now that your head is free, you can let your neck hang from your head; then allow your upper and middle back, rib cage, shoulders and arms to hang from the neck; now let your lower back hang from your middle back; your pelvis and legs drop from the lower back; your feet sink into the ground
    9. Let your head float; allow your feet to drop; linger a while; enjoy

    Yoga For Vagus Nerve Stimulation 2:

    Breathing Calm: Pranayama For The Vagus Nerve

    Experimentally and practically, breathing always comes up trumps as a way to connect with the rest-and-digest functions of the vagus

    Science loves breathing: it’s quantifiable, practicable and reliably parasympathetic, as evidenced in a recent systematic review entitled: “How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life” (A Zaccaro et al, 2018)

    Yoga loves breathing: breath is the primary expression of vital energy in the body. Prana, the vital force of yoga is indistinguishable from the Qi of Chinese medicine. Prana is the living energy we know as health, the spark that animates the body and lights up the mind. When prana moves the mind is active. When prana is still the mind is calm

    The exercises below will help you make full use of the breath by allowing the air to fill every available part

    savasana yoga for vagus nerve stimulation

    The diaphragm is the main muscle of breathing. I’ll be sharing information on the anatomy and functions of the diaphragm in a separate post.

    Just as when lifting your arm you’re following an intention to reach for something, not consciously activating the anterior Deltoid muscle, so when you breathe diaphragmatically you follow a set of intentions. Let me show you what I mean

    Yoga Breathing Exercise For Vagus Nerve Stimulation – Side Breathing

    1. Place your hands over the front of the sides of your lower ribs. Rest you elbows on the ground and keep your hands separate
    2. Mentally place a 2lb weight under the navel. As you inhale your belly will rise, but that little bit of resistance may drive the air sideways into the lower ribs. Can you feel that? Great. Practice your long, slow outbreaths for a minute or two
    balasana yoga for vagus nerve stimulation

    Yoga Breathing Practical For Vagus Nerve Stimulation – Back Breathing

    Now, lie on your front, legs extended or flexed in the child’s pose as per the picture. Support your head if you need to, resting your forehead on your hands or a rolled up blanket

    1. With pressure on your belly, where does the air go when you inhale? Maybe some of it goes into the upper chest. that’s OK. Does some of the air fill the sides of the lower ribs? That’s even better
    2. You can if you want to, place the back of one hand over the lower ribs at the back. Can you allow this area to accept the breath? Try it on the other side
    3. Enjoy exhaling long, soft and for a minute or so

    Yoga For Vagus Nerve Stimulation 3:

    Inhabiting Your Body

    This simple, and powerful body scan is a pure body meditation derived from an ancient Buddhist tradition allegedly taught by the Buddha himself

    The last of our three yoga practices for vagus nerve stimulation, this meditation helps you enjoy calm here and now through a felt sense of you own body. There is nothing to do but relax and observe

    Sit or lie comfortably in a quiet space. Hit the play button. And enjoy

    Related Posts

    Rest And Digest With Yoga Nidra

    A bordeline state between waking and sleep where you can deeply relax while remaining fully conscious. Nidra is thought to be as ancient as yoga itself …

    Psycho-Somatic Medicine

    “Psychosomatic” can be associated with negative beliefs such as: disease resulting from neurotic behaviour … Nothing could be further from the truth

    Author

    Author

    José Manuel Ponce

    UK registered osteopath, yoga teacher & co-founder of the Spanish Yoga Retreat

    Manuel has enjoyed 4 decades developing & sharing yoga’s potential for bringing health & harmony into your life

    Rest And Digest With Yoga Nidra

    Rest And Digest With Yoga Nidra

    Nidra

    A Sanskrit term literally meaning “yoga sleep”, the sleep of the yogi is both a practice and a state of consciousness. Nidra is a bordeline state between waking and sleep where you can deeply relax while remaining fully conscious.

    The practice is thought to be as ancient as yoga itself with references to nidra found in the earliest yoga scriptures. The modern practice of yoga nidra, however, was revived by Swami Satyananda, founder of the Bihar School, with some practices possibly influenced by ideas from Western psychology and psycho-somatics

    There are as many nidras as there are reasons for practising. And different schools of nidra exhibit varying approaches and applications. To experience the psycho-somatic healing discussed in the previous post here is the simplest of nidra practices to help you just rest and digest

    Audio: De-stress with yoga nidra

    Psycho-Somatic Medicine

    Psycho-Somatic Medicine

    Mind-Body Medicine

    The term psychosomatic, though having a precise scientific meaning, is often associated with negative beliefs such as: disease resulting from neurotic behaviour, or maybe an imagined ailment which exists only in your mind. This could not be further from the truth

    The term embraces psycho (mind) and soma (body) and refers to the observation that there is an intimate relationship between mind-body where the condition of one is reflected in the other

    Some “diseases” are considered especially prone to being aggravated by psychological stress: the skin disorder psoriasis, for instance, or irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure. Psychosomatic or “functional” disorders tend to be classified as such when medicine has not yet found a definitive physical cause. In fact all healthy and dysfunctional states co-exist in the psyche and soma in a bidirectional way, and all states of health and disease are in reality psycho-somatic

    Body-Mind Connection

    While it’s not difficult to understand how physical illness and pain can impact you emotionally you might ask “how does a mental state aggravate your gut or increase your blood pressure?” To answer this we need to look at how the body orchestrates the myriad activities that make up our physiology

    The human body is regulated by three great interconnected and intercommunicating systems

    • The nervous system – processes data and regulates bodily functions on a moment to moment basis through electrical impulses travelling along nerves
    • The endocrine system – does this over days, weeks or months through circulating messengers we call hormones
    • Finally the immune system distinguishes between self from other to keep us safe from external and internal invaders, including bacteria, viruses and cells which have undergone malignant change

    Stress and inflammation

    Inflammation is one of the most basic activities carried out by the immune system to protect us from disease. While inflammation is protective it can, when excessive, prolonged (chronic) or inappropriate (eg auto-immunity) cause us harm

    Harmful effects from inflammation include

    • Bronchospasm in asthma
    • Bowel inflammation with pain and impaired absorption
    • Arthritis with joint swelling with pain
    • Blood vessel damage with deposition of fibro-fatty plaques (atheroma) causing obstruction
    • A range of mental health issues including depression

    For example, one recent literature review ( Viktoriya Maydych, 2019) concludes that current research supports a direct link between stress, inflammation and reduced emotional attention, the triad itself being a predictor of depression

    Rest and Digest

    The nervous system can be (artificially) divided into sub-systems. Of interest to psychosomatics is the division into

    • somatic (SNS) – associated with movement and sensation, and
    • autonomic (ANS) – associated with internal functions such as digestion, breathing, blood pressure and, crucially, inflammation

    The ANS itself has two arms: the

    • Sympathetic system (SNS) – responding to danger by preparing the body for fight or flight

    SNS activity is associated with stress and is pro-inflammatory. Though essential for our survival, persistent activation is associated with some of the harmful effects of stress and inflammation

    • Parasympathetic system (PSNS) – associated with two distinct responses:
      • freezing reactions (feigning death) to a situation perieved as a major threat to survival – this is the phylogenetically oldest response to threat, associated with overwhelm and thought to be the basis of post-traumatic stress
      • rest, digest and social interactivity in response to sensing safety – this is the phylogenetically most recent adaptation, unique to mammals.

    Rest and digest responses are associated with feelings of safety and are anti-inflammatory, helping the body heal, repair and replenish its resouces. The vagus nerve is the main carrier of signals organizing visceral rest and digest responses, and I’ll have lots to say about the vagus and polyvagal theory in later posts


    I hope you can now begin to see how, by nurturing a feeling of safety and relaxation, yoga and other mind-body disciplines can improve your overall wellbeing

    Time now to put all this into practice with a particularly effective yoga technique for reducing stress: yoga nidra – the psychic sleep of the yogi. See you in the next article.


    Reference

    The Interplay Between Stress, Inflammation, and Emotional Attention: Relevance for Depression. Viktoriya Maydych. Front Neurosci. 2019; 13: 384.