The Vagus Nerve

A hype in Yoga therapy circles, adamant I wasn’t joining in, for years, it sat on the shelf. Then Ganesh Mohan mentioned Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory at the Yoga therapy training, thrice. Finally, I dove in… 

Why hadn’t I done so earlier?!

Mindset, fear, limiting beliefs, lack of self confidence, resistance, procrastination, lethargy. Take your pick. If you ask me, a little of each. 

The vagus nerve affects all of these, and so much more, for better or for worse, depending on which pathway our vagus activates easier.

Two paths, two very different outcomes

The Vagus nerve has two pathways one to excite, sympathetic, and the other to relax and rebalance, parasympathetic. Yoga-based practices intrinsically promote vagal tone and decrease the wear and tear of the body. Yoga practiced intentionally, with slow rhythmic breathing during the physical, emotional and mental challenges of practice, allows us to exercise non-reactiveness in stressful situations. It increases parasympathetic vagal tone.

So you might ask, “What does that mean for me?”

Well, the tone of our vagus nerve directly impacts our wellbeing and physiology. If we work more in the activated and excited state,that most of us are in daily, we strengthen the tone and circuitry of sympathetic- fight or flight response. and if we are great at relaxing, allow our bodies to rest and restore when it asks for it, we increase parasympathetic- rest and digest response circuitry.  

This impacts everything from our weight, sleep, immunity, inflammation of organs and tissues, stress response, general wellbeing, to our ability to relax, the shine of our hair, the health of our skin, our energy levels, which affect depression and anxiety are affected by vagal tone!

How it Works its Wonders through Wandering 

Its name comes from the Latin vagus,means wandering. And like a vagabond it’s dedicated to travelling from all the organs to communicate our organic state. Our perception of it’s value is vague because it moves so subtly. 

If we wander with the longest cranial nerve in the body on a journey from brainstem, striated muscles in the face, head, neck, back of the tongue, ears, down the throat to the lungs, heart, and deep down into the gut, we touch all feeling tissues. The vagus nerve connects skin, muscles and our entire visceral body. Viscera means deeply feeling. Its our innate organ sensing and communicates with our brain how we feel. Basically, its our emotional pathway.

Most nerves are either able to sense or enable us to move, the vagal does both. It controls sense and motor communication between feeling and acting. It’s importance as pathway of bodily intelligence, is finally beginning to surface in modern medicine. Physiologically interwoven throughout our entire system, Yoga benefits the vagal nerve. Vagal tone is strongly impacted by slow rhythmic breathing of Yoga, and movement enhances our sensitivity to our inner states.[i]

Pretty influential, when you feel it.

Visceral messages like gut feelings, butterflies, instinct, intuition, are all initiated by this amazingly wondrous nerve. Called Neuroception, this perception of the body’s neurons without awareness of the mind instinctively sense our environment and another’s neural signals. These feelings draw our awareness and attention within the body. These sensations tell us we need to make some changes. Either in the lifestyle or dietary habits, or our environment, the people we hang out with or the work we do. 

When we ignore the body’s intelligence that something’s wrong, again and again, we’ll develop dis-ease. This is just the body’s way to say, “Hello, you’re not listening! Hey, you up there, you need to make some changes!”. Continue to ignore the cues, due to insensitivity, lack of will, or ignorance, and it builds up into deep seated dis-ease. Ayurveda calls this process Samprapti. It becomes chronic. 

What You can do to Tone that Wandering Nerve  

1. Feel Safe and Welcome

One of the most important things for our vagus nerve is feel safe. Feeling safe is the precursor of healing and thriving. That bodily sensation of safety, when we relax, rest and digest. When the nervous system rests, the vagal nerve switches from sympathetic mode, meaning active, ready to run, escape or fight, to parasympathetic, meaning passive, ready to restore, absorb and enjoy. 


Our organs of digestion, reparation and growth, are only nourished when we’re relaxed. Feeling safe is basis for a healthy relationships, social engagement and play. Safety is the foundation for higher brain function and higher states of awareness, which gives way to our creative, intuitive and joyous nature.  

2. Slow Rhythmic Breathing

The wandering nerve will wander less aimlessly if we breathe slowly and with the intention to breathe rhythmically. Especially the out breath will enhance the parasympathetic nervous system. If you find it hard to relax, then breathing out slower then in will bring the ralation mode into play. Breathe out for 8 seconds and in for 4-6, as you feel comfortable. Do this for at least 10 rounds. But the more the merrier 🙂

3. Practice Yoga with Slow Rhythmic Movement

Yoga movement practiced slow and with rhythmic intention deepens the breath, strengthening core muscles and enhances our baroreceptor sensitivity. [i]  It also makes sure our awareness is switched on. This in and of itself assures calming the nervous system, stilling the mind and regulates emotions and energy levels because we’re more attuned. 


We can use the body to engage the relaxation part of the Vagus by doing simple movements such as cat cow, or gentle or modified sun salutations.

4. Use a Positive Affirmation that Creates a Sense of Welcome

Whatever fear comes up, ask what the thought is behind that fear, hear the words and then find the exact opposite words to strengthen your positive intention to feel safe, welcome and accepted. The Vagus works both top down and bottoms up. Meaning we can override it from our bodily sensations, or with thoughts.

So we want to create a smooth slow and rhythmic practice, both of the breath, the movement and mental patterns.

The intention and the intensity will also benefit your Wandering nerve, the wandering mind and our sometimes wandering health, while we wonder where in heavens it went this time…. 

Know you have the power in your hands, body and mind, when You educate yourself and apply that knowledge!! Begin to move with your Wandering Nerve. Start that journey of wondering with life, it’s complexity, it’s completeness and your capabilities.


Namaste, much love, safety and nourishment to Your Soul,

Shira.

 
 
[i]Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Lorenzo Cohen, Timothy McCall, Shirley Telles- The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care