It’s 10pm. Do you know where your vagus nerve is?

The vagus nerve…sounds vaguely familiar, right? What is it and why should you care? The vagus nerve is the primary communicator of the brain to the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the relaxation response, and to the sympathetic nervous system, the fight, flight, or freeze response. And the vagus nerve is emerging as one of the key components in the science of how yoga works.

A team at Boston University School of Medicine recently published a report hypothesizing that yoga works by regulating the nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve. The tonality of the vagus nerve affects how we take in, process, and make sense of our experiences. By increasing vagal tone, we change how the body responds to stress.

The vagus nerve is the largest cranial nerve in the body, beginning at the base of the skull and extending throughout the body, regulating all major bodily functions.

The vagus nerve and its associated systems

The vagus nerve and its associated systems

We take the vagus nerve for granted when we’re feeling balanced; it’s when it’s not functioning that we notice the effects: feelings of depletion, sluggish digestion, increased heart rate, erratic moods. A poorly functioning vagus nerve can be part of depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and epilepsy.

New studies are suggesting that the vagus might work with oxytocin receptors, the neutotransmitter of bonding feelings. People with higher levels of oxytocin are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism – compassion, gratitude, love, and happiness. A happy vagus is a happy human; a happy human is a happy world.

The great news is that its easy to stimulate the vagus nerve. Just breathe! When you take a deep, conscious breath and expand your diaphragm, it stimulates your vagus system. You instantly turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, cortisol (the stress hormone) levels drop, and your body relaxes. Various yoga asana will also help stimulate the vagus, as you can see all the related organs that would be worked through postures.

Tone Up Your Vagus Nerve!

  • Breathe slowly in and out through the nose. Gradually slow the pace down, then begin make the exhale longer than the inhale.
  • Practice asana! Many yoga postures stimulate the VN.
  • Practice resistance breathing such as ujjayi. Breathing this way increases the relaxation response but also helps with heart rate variability (resiliance).
  • Chanting OM out loud increased vagal tone, according to one study.
  • Placing an eye pillow on the forehead can help to stimulate the vagus nerve in restorative yoga.

Receiving Support Through Props

Props such as blankets, blocks, straps, and mats that are commonplace in yoga studios today are relatively new tools for me. When I first started practicing (in the 1970s, egad!), there were no yoga studios, let alone props. For many years I just moved the coffee table aside and practiced on the living room floor. There were no yoga mats, as such, so I’d sometimes use a beach towel.

Props to props!

Props to props!

And so when I entered yoga teacher training in 2011 I found myself resistant to the idea of using props. They weren’t familiar to me, and I resisted change. In fact I had to let go of a lot of old ideas about my practice and be open to new ways of doing things.

One day we were practicing balasana, child’s pose, supported by folded blankets. I folded one blanket into the teeniest, tiniest rectangle and draped my torso over it. My teacher came over and said to the other students, “Look, see how her spine is collapsing. It’s like this one blanket is the only support she’s giving herself.” That struck a chord. Where else in my life was I not giving myself enough support?

We refolded the blanket into a larger rectangle, and stacked another one on top of that. I folded over into the pose. Immediately I felt broader across the back. My heart felt truly supported. I felt a noticeable shift in my ability to relax deeper. Ahhh…

This lady has the right idea!

This lady has the right idea!

During my teacher training I was also separated from my husband (now divorced) and struggling with a lot of emotional upheaval, depression, and anxiety. Many days I just didn’t feel up to movement, yet I craved the benefits of my yoga practice. I began to explore restorative yoga more deeply as a way to keep my practice going but honoring my current needs.

I started using props more often. A lot of props. Stacks of blankets under and over me. Blocks under my forehead in down dog, under my knees in supta baddha konasana. Eye pillows over my forehead and also under my wrists and hands in savasana. Like the Princess and the Pea, I even stacked mats on top of each other for extra cushioning. Sandbags, chairs, bolsters, and lots of pillows filled my yoga room.

At first, restorative work seemed like a “break” from what I considered my regular practice, which was more active. It didn’t seem like “real” yoga. But as I progressed I came to see just how powerful restorative yoga can be. I was learning to meet myself where I was, rather than trying to be someplace else. I was able to stay present with my breath and my feelings more easily in stillness. I came out of my restorative sessions feeling noticeably different, my anxiety and depression lifted, my mind clear. Restorative yoga became an essential part of my self-care.

And I came to love props! I’ve begun to incorporate them more into my total practice, giving myself permission to receive their support. This has translated into my daily life, too. Giving and receiving are flowing more naturally. Using props can help you learn more self-compassion. Life is hard enough–give yourself a loving hand.

Love yourself and others will see the way in you.

Find Your Footing in Tadasana

I was at my chiropractor’s office a few weeks ago for my “tune-up”. I’ve been busier with massage lately and wanted to keep myself primed and ready for work. Dr. Dave suggested maybe it was time to consider orthotics, as most of his massage therapist patients and people who are on their feet all day seem to benefit from them at one point or another.

He asked me to step up on a scanner barefoot and to stand “normally”. For me that meant assuming the stance of Tadasana, Mountain Pose. I quickly sensed different points of contact between my feet and the scale, and energetically lifted the arches. My thighs rolled in and my whole posture lifted and straightened. Then we scanned my feet.

My Tadasana Feet

My Tadasana Feet

Brightly colored images of my feet appeared on the screen, like they’d been tie-dyed. Dr. Dave then turned to me with a very serious look on his face. He said, “In 15 years of practicing, I’ve never seen feet like this.” OMG! My hypochondriac mind was steeling itself for the worst and started over thinking: I’ve massaged barefoot for too long. I’m falling apart. That’s it, it’s all over.

“These are the best feet I’ve ever seen!” was the next sentence out of the doctor’s mouth. “There’s hardly any collapsing in the arches. They look great.”


Tadasana, Mountain Pose

Ah, thank you, Tadasana! It’s one of those humble poses that we tend to zip through as a transition, rather than really spending time engaged in the pose. But the principles of alignment we learn in Tadasana form the foundation of every pose to follow, and the foundation of Tadasana is the feet.

Find Your Tadasana Feet:

  • Stand with your feet under the hips. Bring your awareness to your feet and take a breath into them, feeling them contact the floor.

  • Pick up the toes, wiggle them, spread them out, then set them back down.

  • Now ground down through four points around the foot: base of the big toe, base of the pinkie toe, inner heel, and outer heel, and feel the arches lift in response.

  • The toes find more length and freedom.

All this lifting transfers up the legs into the pelvis, allowing the sacrum to lengthen down and the belly to lift. The sides lengthen and you get more space to breathe and for your organs to function. And who doesn’t want that?

Tadasana is the first posture I ever learned, although I think the instructions were pretty basic: Stand tall like a mountain. I later learned the subtleties of the feet and how profoundly they can affect your posture.

You can practice Tadasana virtually anywhere you find yourself standing: in line at the post office, at a concert, at the grocery store…notice how changing your posture can change your mood and energy levels. Over time you’ll get used to standing in Tadasana and it will become your default posture. And it all starts with the feet.

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