If only we could find an easy go-to remedy to calm the mind, ease anxiety, deepen the breath, slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and balance digestion.
Guess what? We can, it's free and available 24/7.
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that stem from the brain. In Latin, vagus means "wandering" and that's exactly what this nerve does as it makes its way down through the face, into the thorax and ending at the abdomen. Have you ever had a gut feeling or butterflies in your stomach? Well, “gut feeling” is a more literal term than we give it credit for. The vagus nerve serves as a pretty direct line between your brain and stomach, which means that sensory neurons inside the gut can send direct messages to the vagus nerve and brain about how the gut is feeling.
How do we increase our vagal tone? Eye exercises, breathing techniques (pranayama), backbends and inversions are just a sample of movement we can practice to activate this important nerve that makes up a huge component of the parasympathetic nervous system; the opposite action to our flight-and-fight response.
Here are just a few of my favourites:
Eye Gazer: Lie on your back with in Bound Angle Pose (soles of the feet together and knees out wide). Interlace you hands behind your head to encourage the opening of the your chest and shoulders. Keep your face pointing up to the sky as you look left out of the corner of your eyes for 30-60 seconds. Bring your gaze back to centre, and then repeat to the right. Gaze back to centre.
Slow Breath: Now bring your palms flat to your stomach, finger tips touching just over the navel. On average, people take 16-20 breaths each minute. Let's slow down our breath to six or under in one minute. As you inhale, feel the diaphragm expand underneath your hands and the fingertips drift apart slightly. As you exhale, feel your fingertips connect.
Bridge Pose: Bring your feet onto your mat, hip-width apart, knees stacked above ankles and arms alongside you, palms facing down. As you inhale, raise your hips as you press into your heels, rolling up onto your shoulders and pressing the back of your head gently into the mat to support your neck. Backbends like Bridge help relieve sluggishness, dullness, and lethargy (a sign of improved vagal tone).
Tripod Head Stand: Whether your new to yoga or an experienced practitioner, there's a level of Tripod for everyone. Come into a wide stance, toes in, heels out, soft bend in your knees. Inhale, and as you exhale, hinge forward at your hips and bring your hands to the mat, working your fingertips back in line with your toes. Bring the weight forward into your toes, as you tilt your tailbone to the sky. Perhaps the crown of your head will find the floor. Make sure to keep the weight in your feet and hands to ensure there is pressure in your neck. If your head as met the mat and you feel comfortable floating your toes, make your way into a head stand. Otherwise, stay where you are with your feet on the earth. Inversions use gravity (the head is below the heart) to control blood pressure.
When you have high vagal tone, you will be able to balance the inevitable changes life brings with more energy and ease.
In fact I have just filmed and uploaded a tutorial to the Activ Life Online Studio that demonstrates my favourite yoga poses (including those above) to target the vagus nerve. Subscribe here and feel the benefits.
Louise FitzRoy is the Principal of Activ Life, a leading health and wellness company based in the Cayman Islands. If you enjoyed this article you may also like: Stress less with this one mindful step and Yoga to relieve headaches.