The ancient yogis understood the connection between mind and body, and most of us who practice yoga today can describe in some way how it makes us ‘feel good’! What’s great now is that modern science is beginning to research and provide evidence that supports this connection. In particular Polyvagal theory, which describes the affect of the Vagus nerve on our central nervous system, and highlights the importance of a having a healthy functioning vagus nerve (vagal tone) on our health and wellbeing.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is divided into two branches. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), commonly called our ‘fight or flight’ response that triggers the body to react to environmental stress. And our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), that triggers our relaxation response, promoting rest and repair. Yoga has practices that stimulate both responses in the body (backbends actually stimulate our SNS) however it is generally regarded that yoga practice as a whole has a positive affect on our PNS.
The Vagus nerve is independent from our spinal column and originates from the medulla oblongata in the brain stem via 5 pathways to many of our visceral organs, including heart, lungs and stomach. A key feature of the vagus nerve is that it is bi-directional and carries signals from the brain to our organs, and from our organs to the brain (gut instinct) and in fact 80% of the fibres of the vagus nerve carry signals from the body back to the brain ~ Mind and Body Connection! The vagus nerve also controls muscles of the face and neck and most importantly breathing. It can be described as a ‘brake pedal’ for our nervous system that when applied activates our PNS (relaxation) and when released activates our SNS (stress response). High vagal tone is associated with increased health and well-being, lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart / cardiovascular disease and diabetes, better digestion and better sleep. It is also associated with better mood regulation and makes us less prone to anxiety, as well as improves our ability to communicate well in social situations.
There are many practices in Hatha Yoga (asana / pranayama / meditation) that can contribute to increasing vagal tone, most notably through it’s connection to the breath. Consciously controlling our breathing during our asana practice and including specific pranayama practices that help to regulate and lengthen our breath, in particular our exhalation, can result in an increase in vagus nerve activation. These effects can be felt almost immediately when the vagus nerve stimulates our PNS. Including the use of bandhas (energy locks) in our practice can also have a positive affect on the vagus nerve. Other ways to improve vagal tone include, but are not limited to – probiotics to improve gut health, massages, low intensity exercise, laughter and sunshine! 😎🙏🏼🕉