Our sympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that mobilizes us into action. If our nervous system detects a threat, real or perceived, it will trigger our fight/flight/freeze response. If there isn’t a real threat, and we do not need the mobilization of our protective mechanisms, then we need to recruit our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part that calms us down.
The vagus nerve is the most influential nerve in our parasympathetic nervous system. It functions like your body’s natural reset button. Learning how to stimulate your vagus nerve allows you improve your physical and mental health.
The vagus nerve can be damaged by diabetes, alcoholism, upper respiratory viral infections, or having part of the nerve severed accidentally during an operation. Stress, fatigue, and anxiety can inflame the nerve. Even something as simple as bad posture can negatively impact the vagus nerve.
The enteric nervous system (ENS), which governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract, communicates with the central nervous system (the brain) via the vagus nerve. This is known as the gut-brain axis. The enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as the second brain or backup brain centered in our solar plexus. So, a gut feeling is a very real experience.
The vagus nerve and amygdala are key elements in my work associated with chronic stress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and trauma. These aspects of our nervous system connect how we think, feel, and relate to experiences within and around us.
The “tone” of our vagus nerve is fundamental when it comes to our overall health and well-being. Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the vagus nerve activity. Increasing the vagus nerve activity or vagal tone helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system and allows us to return to a relaxed state after stressful experiences. The activity of our vagal tone is directly related to experiencing positive emotions, thus the higher our vagal tone, the healthier our mind and body can be.
There are many practical things we can do to increase our vagal tone, such as cold exposure, meditation, deep belly breathing, exercise, and yoga. Follow along with this calming and breath-focused yoga practice to increase vagal tone and activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Meditation with Deep Diaphragmatic Breath
Begin in a comfortable seated position somewhere where you will not be disturbed. Relax your shoulders away from your ears and begin to settle into the body. Place one hand on your belly and relax the other hand in your lap. Begin to cultivate a deep diaphragmatic breath, feeling the belly press into your hand as you inhale. Continue to breathe from the belly as you fixate your awareness on the sensation of the breath. Stay here in meditation for five to ten minutes. Notice when your mind wanders and gently and non judgmentally return your awareness to the breath as many times as necessary. When you are finished, blink your eyes open and return your awareness to the space around you.
Spread your knees out wide and sit back onto your heels. Extend your arms out long in front of you and let your chest melt toward the mat. Take a few deep breaths to settle into the body, relaxing deeper with every exhale. Stay in child’s pose for ten counts, maintaining a deep diaphragmatic breath in this shape.
Separate your feet hips-width distance and fold your upper body over your thighs. Let gravity do is job here and let your arms hang heavy and invite a slight bend into the knees, resting your belly on your thighs as you relax into the posture. Allow your neck to release and the crown of the head to fall toward the earth. Hold here for ten breaths.
Supported Fish Pose
Grab a bolster or rolled blanket if you don’t have one, and place it vertically in the center of your mat. Place the short edge of the bolster at your tailbone, lying down on your back, allowing the support to open up your heart space. You may spread your legs out wide or bring the souls of the feet together for a reclined butterfly pose. Hold and breathe deeply here for ten counts.
Legs up the Wall
Remove the bolster and lie down on your mat, placing a block beneath your tailbone. Extend your legs up toward the ceiling, keeping them against a wall. Keep a slight bend in the knees and coming into waterfall pose. Let your legs be soft and relaxed as you allow the rest of your body to heavy into the earth. You may rotate your feet in circles in one direction and then the other for an added stretch in the ankles. Hold for ten breaths.
Lie down on your mat or bed. Extend your legs toward the ceiling and grab the outer edges of your feet, encouraging your knees in toward your armpits. Root down firmly through your spine and breathe into the inner hips. Stay here, or invite gentle movement into the posture, swaying back and forth on your spine or extending one leg and then the other to stretch the hamstrings. Hold for ten breaths.
Come to lie down on your back, extending your arms and legs out long and wide. Take a few deep breaths through the nose and out of the mouth. Let go of any breath control or attempts to control your mind and allow your body to release any tension it is holding. Stay here, absorbing the effects of your practice for up to ten minutes, gently coming out and returning to your day when you are finished.
The application of ancient yogic practices measured by science through modern developing theories is some of the most exciting research for mind-body healthcare professionals like myself and so many others. Creating more evidence allows for yoga based therapies to become a more widely accepted and used evidence-based tool for healing and treatment of some of the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders.