Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Have you ever had a “gut feeling” and followed it, but you weren’t sure why? This term could be considered on a more literal level when we talk about the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve is sometimes referred to as your bodies’ superhighway.
It’s the longest cranial nerve in your body, and it’s responsible for the regulation of your internal organ functions, such as digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate, and vasomotor function, and certain reflex actions such as coughing, swallowing, sneezing and vomiting. Its branches link your brain to your heart, reproductive system, and lungs and yes you guessed it, your digestive system, or your gut.
This nerve enables your brain to talk to these systems in your body by keeping track of how your body responds to certain stresses or lack there of. But before I dive deep into the Vagus nerve and all its wander, excuse the pun, you’ll understand later, let me backtrack for a moment.
Your nervous system explained
In last months blog I wrote about sleep, and how important it is for you to get enough of it so that you’re able to take care of your wellbeing, whatever that looks like for you.
I spoke about how sleep allows you to activate your bodies rest and digest response. However, sleep isn’t the only way to activate this response, which stems from accessing your nervous system.
Your nervous system includes your brain, spinal cord, autonomic and somatic nerves (i.e. involuntary and voluntary nerves) and all your organs responsible for your 5 senses, sight, smell, taste, sound and touch.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a control system that functions on an unconscious, think automatic, level as it regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, breathing, etc.
If we come back to the highway analogy, you could consider the ANS as the traffic lights on the road that keep the traffic moving automatically. The ANS has 2 branches; the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)...stay with me here.
The sympathetic nervous system is the system of your fight-or-flight response, an all or nothing response. When your SNS is activated it switches on all the systems needed to reduce or escape perceived danger and draws blood away from your non-essential systems for the flight from perceived stressors, such as your reproductive and digestive systems. A simple example is a racing heart when you are scared.
Coming back to the traffic light analogy, perhaps this could be seen as the green light, it keeps you moving forward as an automatic response to the visual stimulus of the colour (i.e. danger) that you are presented with.
The SNS has developed a bad reputation over the years, but it’s a system of your body that is necessary. However, modern lifestyle seem to have us running on stress and this in turn keeps us in the fight flight mode for longer than the system was originally designed for.
This system was only designed to be used for short intervals. Continuous boosts of adrenaline can negatively affect your blood vessels; raise blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Further strain on your SNS can be caused by increased worry and fear and this makes it harder for your body to recover during rest and sleep.
Imagine if the traffic lights were always green, there would be constant chaos on the roads. Almost at my point…
"...yoga works by regulating the nervous system."
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your bodies rest and digest response, and works in opposition to your SNS to balance, calm and restore. It decreases your respiration and heart rate and increases digestion and immune response. Unlike your SNS your PNS is more easily controlled. So for the sake of the traffic light analogy, you could say that the PNS could be compared the red and amber traffic light, reminding you to slow down and eventually stop.
The Vagus nerve is parasympathetic and has branches that wander through your heart, digestive system, reproductive system and lungs.
In an article published in the May 2012 issue of Medical Hypotheses journal; “The Effects of yoga on the Autonomic Nervous System, Gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and Allostatis in Epilepsy, Depression, ad Post-traumatic Stress Dissorder”, Chris Streeter, PhD and her team hypothesized that yoga works by regulating the nervous system.
Read more here.
Yoga regulates your nervous system by increasing vagal tone; your body’s ability to successfully respond to stress.
What is Vagal Tone?
As I mentioned earlier, the Vagus nerve is the largest cranial nerve in your body it starts from the base of your skull and wanders through your whole body, linking your internal organs to your brain. The Vagus nerve helps to regulate your bodies’ functions and your ability to process and make sense of your experiences.
It’s said that when your Vagus nerve is toned and functioning properly your digestion improves, your heart functions optimally and your moods stabilise. You also find it easier to move from active or stressful states towards more relaxed ones. This enables you to manage life challenges with a balanced energy, and engagement. You are considered to have a high Vagal tone when you are able to consistently maintain this flexible state.
"Yoga influences your Vagus nerve through the cultivation of practices such as chanting, meditation and pranayama."
This is where the yoga magic happens, specifically where the practice has the greatest effect on your health and nervous system. It helps you to continue want to do the things that make you feel better.
Yoga influences your Vagus nerve through the cultivation of practices such as chanting, meditation and pranayama. This boost has a cumulative effect and therefore these effects can stay with you long after your yoga practice ends, and can slowly become long-lived or even permanent.
By continuously stimulating your rest and digest system you start to re-wire your brain to build new pathways of communication, and find new ways to respond to certain stimulation. You have the ability to alter long-standing behavioural or reactive patterns and can therefore break habits of thought that don’t serve you and destabilize your health.
Do you struggle to be still?
I see this all the time in class, some students find it challenging to be still, especially during final relaxation (Shavasana) and there could be a number of reasons for their “Shavasana shuffle”. I do however find that the more these students attend class the easier it becomes for them to fully absorb the final relaxation at the end of class.
You see, your Vagal tone slowly develops with increased practices, so every time you lie down and prepare for Shavasana you send a signal to your body that now is the time to relax, and with repetition this response becomes almost automatic.
The burnout pandemic
Even if you do know how to take time out for yourself, sometimes you may end up feeling guilty for it. Perhaps over the past 18 months you’ve spent time lazing on the couch, binge-watching your favorite shows, or being faced with yourself and finding new ways to distract yourself from the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts that may have come to the surface.
"The study into Google's search data revealed a 24% spike in 2020 in searches online for terms such as 'signs of burnout', compared to last year”
Perhaps now you’re back at work and finding that you are having to work extra hard, doing more than what was expected of you pre-pandemic, and perhaps this is making you feel more drained and exhausted than before? Perhaps?
According to ONS:
“In April 2020, nearly half (46.6%) of people in employment did some of their work from home, with the vast majority (86.0%) of these homeworkers stating that this was because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”
Many of us experienced burnouts and high levels of stress. According to diversity.com:
“Workplace burnout symptoms increased for 24% of the UK's employees in 2020, and health experts are predicting a 'burnout spike' in January 2021, according to new research. The study into Google's search data revealed a 24% spike in 2020 in searches online for terms such as 'signs of burnout', compared to last year”
“In addition, almost nine in 10 UK based workers (86%) reported working later each day by an average of one hour and 46 minutes, totalling almost 10 hours of overtime during the working week.”
I have heard so many people saying that they have to do so much more work now compared to life before COVID-19, and as we’ve heard time and time again, we now need to learn to live with the virus, moving towards the idea of acceptance rather than “getting back to normal”. It seems like this is the new normal. I’m a strong believer of accepting situations for what they are, even though this is really tough to do, I believe that the art of acceptance switches something in our thought processing and allows us to find a bit of peace and ease.
When you’re stressed out, not only does it show up in your general health and wellbeing but it translates into how you react to every day circumstances and situations, and how you communicate with those around you. It’s important for you to take the time to find little intervals throughout your day to allow yourself to rest. Your body and mind will thank you and you might even end up being more productive and less stressed out.
The pandemic was a time for you to slow down and be shown how to rest, how to face yourself, how to deal with things that you would ordinarily bury under piles of work, or socialising or excessive exercise.
Did you experience discomfort during this time? I think most of us did. But why was it so difficult for you to be still? This is something that has been on my mind, and I think that it’s because in this stillness we are forced to look at things within ourselves that we, perhaps, don’t want to see or deal with. And maybe this is why we struggle to take time to rest, or maybe you just get bored? I’m just writing out loud right now.
How to reduce the risk of fatigue at work?
Set an alarm to get up from your desk every few hours, or stretch or meditate or move in some way…just get away from your screen for 5 to 10 minutes. You could do some eagle arm stretches or chair twists or pigeon pose on the chair. You could listen to your favorite song and dance it out, this is one of my favorite things to do when working from home…I wouldn’t recommend this in the office, haha!
" I found that when I started to do this I felt a surge of productivity in the second half of my day,"
I used to work as an operations manager, and as you can imagine, in a role like that you are constantly needed by someone and being pulled in many directions so I had to find ways to reset myself throughout the day. One of things that worked really well for me was to use 15 – 20 minutes of my lunch break to listen to a guided meditation. I found that when I started to do this I felt a surge of productivity in the second half of my day, a point in the day when you usually tend to slow down, or perhaps feel a bit lazy after lunch.
Here is one for you to try out on Insight Timer. I would recommend trying this for a week and notice if it makes a difference to your overall wellbeing and perhaps your productivity too.
How can Yoga help me to increase my Vagal tone and rest?
Yoga teaches us resilience, self-regulation and interoception. Resilience allows you to bounce back after a challenge, self-regulation activities such as watching your mind, helps you to stop behaviours that don’t serve you, and interoception gives you the ability to recognise, identify and respond to internal stimuli. If you want to learn more about this specific topic, I recommend checking out Maria Kirsten’s work here. She did an amazing lecture for us in the Accessible Yoga teacher training, on Considerations for Mental Health, which is where I sourced some of this information.
It’s important to note that yoga is not only Asana (postures), but there are in fact, 8 limbs of the yogic path, according to Patanjali.
Pranayama (regulation of the breath) and Dhyana (meditation) are 2 of the 8 limbs, perhaps I will write another blog on the 8 limbs of yoga in the near future, let me know if that’s something you’d like to read more about.
One of the ways to control and access your PNS is through practices such as breath control (Pranayama), meditation (Dhyana) and chanting (Mantra), all aspects of yoga.
I will break these down for you in 3 digestible sections:
Prana translates directly to “life force" or energy, and Pranayama put simply is breath regulation or mindful breathing. So you could say through the regulation of your breath you start to control or shift your life force or energy. I find this to be one of the most accessible and effective tools to calm your nervous system, because you can do this anywhere.
For example, if you’re on the train or in your car, on your way to work and feeling stressed out, take a moment to take 3 deep inhales and exhales, nothing fancy. No one will notice what you’re doing and you might realize that you feel slightly calmer thereafter.
"This is one of the reasons why I start my yoga classes with a simple deep inhale and exhale, to allow you to send the signal to your body, that now is the time for connection to self."
When you’re calmer, you’re more focused, and when you’re more focused you think clearer and are able to work better in the face of challenges, as you don’t allow your emotions to get the better of you.
This is one of the reasons why I start my yoga classes with a simple deep inhale and exhale, to allow you to send the signal to your body, that now is the time for connection to self. If you’ve been in my class before you may have noticed that I give space for repeating this a few times throughout the class, as a way to bring you back to the present moment and remember why you came to your mat today. We are easily distracted beings, well at least I am, and so it’s nice have that little reminder.
Chanting has been shown to help to alleviate tension in your physical body. Even if you have never done chanting in a yoga class, consider for a moment how singing makes you feel. Perhaps there’s a reason why singing is related to happiness?
Scientific studies have shown that chanting can decrease stress, improve mood and help you to feel more relaxed and focused.
Take a moment to try this exercise and notice how you feel after. Lie down anywhere that you’re comfortable; close your eyes or soften your gaze; and take 3 deep inhales and exhales don’t strain your breath. Take another 3 breaths just like this, but this time on your exhales, find a gentle hum, and keep your awareness on the center of your chest. After your final exhale stay here for another minute or so and notice how you feel.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, meditation does not have to be you seated in lotus pose with your hands in a mudra and your eyes closed.
"Meditation is anything that allows you to focus your mind on one single thing."
Meditation could be taking a walk in the park and bringing awareness to your feet making contact with floor, it could you working in your garden, it could be you lying on your bedroom floor and listening to some soothing music.
Mediation is anything that allows you to focus your mind on one single thing. It’s not stopping your thoughts or emptying your mind of all thoughts, that’s impossible, but rather fixing your mind on a single point and noticing when your mind strays away from this point in order to bring it back.
With this in mind, what would your meditation practice be?
A meditation practice that has helped me to build on all of these techniques is Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra is sometimes referred to as Yogic sleep, and I sometimes use parts of this technique in isolation to help me get a better nights sleep. Simply put, Yoga Nidra is an effortless state of being; it’s a form of awareness and a process for entering certain states of consciousness.
Try out this Yoga Nidra for sleep and let me know how you found the experience.
Here is video from an IG live that I did for anxiety relief. In this video I break down each one of these practices. You can use these in isolation or combined. It’s important to cultivate these techniques as a part of daily life, so that when you are feeling stressed, anxious or panicked that you are able to access these methods without having to think about it.
How doe Yoga affect my Vagus Nerve?
In conclusion, the Vagus nerve is a pretty big deal when it comes to your overall wellbeing. By teaching yourself micro practices to increase your Vagal tone, you may start to notice an improvement in your overall wellbeing.
“Bring yoga to life by accepting suffering as an opportunity for growth, reflection and faith.”
The main focus of Yoga is to find the union of you (the self that you present the world) to you (your true self). According to Patanjali, we start our lives from a positive place and through yoga we undo the things that have got in the way of that positive starting point.
Sutra 2.1 (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) says: “Tapah Svadhyaya Pranidhana Kriya Yoga”, which loosely translates to “Bring yoga to life by accepting suffering as an opportunity for growth, reflection and faith.”
I encourage you to introduce at least one of these practices into you daily wellbeing habits, and as usual I am open any questions or discussions that you may want to have around these topics. Feel free to contact me here.
A one to one yoga class is a great way to personalize your practice and dive deep into listening to your body and learning ways to take care of yourself. Feel free to contact me for a private yoga class (online/in person) and I would be happy to tailor a practice to fit your specific needs.
“There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.” Alan Cohen
Love and Light