The benefits of a regular yoga practice are many, but one in which I’m particularly interested in lately is vagus nerve stimulation. The vagus nerve wanders down from our brain through the torso, and has a few important functions, like:
- Fosters communication between the brain and our organs
- Controlling throat muscles and sending food down the right tubes (and not our airways)
- Responsible for speech muscle movements
- Lowers blood pressure in case of illness or emotional stress
- Controls digestion and responsible for the *full* feeling
- Causes fainting when overstimulated
Ok, maybe more than a few. It really keeps us alive by making sure we continue to breathe, that our heart continues to beat, that all the involuntary functions of our body continue to happen without us having to consciously think about doing them.
Purpose of the vagus nerve
I’d heard of the vagus nerve in the A&P part of my yoga teacher training, but hadn’t really considered it since. In the past week, though, it’s come up twice in different contexts.
First, in a hot yoga class, when moving into camel pose. The instructor mentioned that this pose stimulates the nerve, which is why sometimes we get that lightheaded feeling when we stay too long in the pose. This struck a nerve because I spend probably the first year of my yoga practice loathing camel pose. Mostly for that reason. I felt like I was doing it wrong, or my body wasn’t reacting *right* when the wooziness would come. It’s passed since then, but hearing that this was a common thing, and had a physiological explanation, definitely helped.
Second, I was listening to 30 for 30 podcast (specifically the “Enhanced” episode). The vagus nerve made a quick cameo in a discussion about peak athletic performance, and how a *rewiring* of the vagus can help that effort.
Unconventional ways to stimulate the vagus
Here’s what Living Proof recommends:
- Cold exposure: Studies have shown that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases, which is mediated by the vagus.
- Singing: Singing at the top of your lungs (like you mean it) makes you work the muscles at the back of your throat, which helps activate the vagus nerve.
- Laughing: Vagus nerve activity increases as laughter has been shown to increase heart rate variability.
- Chewing slowly: The simple act of chewing your food, activates the stomach to release acid, taste buds to taste the foods well, bile production in the liver and release from the gallbladder, digestive enzyme release from the pancreas and gut motility which are all mediated by the vagus.
Resources abound when it comes to the vagus nerve – these are just the tip of the iceberg! In short, it’s about adopting the practices that work for you to be at your best.