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.
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