A happy nervous system is one of the latest buzzwords in the pandemic wellness conversation. You may have heard your favorite yoga teacher talk about how breathing calms the the nervous system.
Wellness industry leaders encourage the idea that a regulated nervous system helps our relationships, calms the body's stress response, and helps us come across as the best versions of ourselves.
And while it's great to do yoga, diet, exercise, and create wellness routines to help support the regulation of the nervous system, it's even more important to know the function behind all these wellness trends.
When you understand the functions of the nervous system, you are able to tailor a personal care prescription that is right for you.
Why? Because, not only is wellness an ever-changing industry, but it's also an ever-changing “goal” in our own bodies. Self-care practices who regulate my the nervous system may not work the same for you.
Plus, what works for you today won't necessarily work tomorrow. But when you understand the functions of the nervous system, you are able to tailor a self-care prescription that works for you.
The answer to the “how” question is: the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the key to calm. The Latin word wave, where the name comes from, means "to wander".
“Wandering nerve” is an apt name because the vagus nerve has several branches that start at the brainstem and descend along the back body, affect many major organs along the way, including the heart, lungs, diaphragm, stomach and intestines.
Due to the depth of this nerve's interaction with so many systems in the body, it is largely responsible for what we call the mind-body connection.
Think about what goes on in your body when you are stressed. Your heart may beat, your palms sweat, your stomach is tied up, breathing is shallow and rapid. . . heart, lungs, diaphragm, stomach, intestines.
It is true! All thanks to the vagus nerve. Essentially, the vagus nerve is responsible for "rest and digestion" parasympathetic response in the nervous system.
Specifically, vagus nerve stimulation can get you into this relaxed state. You can think of this nerve as the queen of calm.
As smart as our nervous system is, it is also faulty. It is still old and cannot adapt as quickly as our threats have changed.
The nervous system cannot tell the difference between the stress of an important meeting and the stress of a potentially fatal attack. This is why it is important to learn to manually tap into the intelligence of the body to down-regulate a hyper-reactive response.
Stimulation of the vagus nerve can help calm anxiety
Vagal stimulation is associated with regulation of emotions. This includes psychological adjustment, emotional responsiveness and expression, empathic responses, and attachment.
The overall message bears repeating: vagal stimulation calms the body's stress response.
Many times when we feel stressed, we are advised to take deep breaths. Since the vagus nerve passes through the diaphragm, one way to stimulate it is through breathing.
Deep belly breaths - specifically exhale - "mass" the vagus nerve, stimulate a calming response.
On the contrary, if you breathe shallowly into your chest, you could make the stress response even worse.
What is the vagal tone?
A healthy and happy response via the vagus nerve is called “vagal tone”. Your healthy vagal is indicated by heart rate variability, which is a slight increase in heart rate when you breathe in and a decrease in heart rate when you breathe out.
This is important, not only for your own stress response, but because low vagal tone is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.
Deep breaths in the stomach - specifically exhale - "massage" the vagus nerve and stimulate a calming response.
Improving vagal tone by diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is extremely healing and calming. Best of all, it's something anyone can do with a little practice and maybe a little modification.
Affects vagal tone with Pranayama for Anxiety: Try These 4 Breathing Exercises The Next Time You Feel Overwhelmed
Stimulate the vagus nerve and affect vagal tone in 4 steps (here's how):
1. Sit comfortably
You don't want tension in your body, and you don't necessarily want to fall asleep. So find that middle.
2. Tune in
If you feel good to close your eyes, you can do so. But if not, you can still let your eyes relax on a stationary object in front of you.
Tune in to your natural breathing. Without judgment ("good", "bad", etc.), notice how he is feeling and where he is moving. On your shoulders? Torso? Throat?
3. Start to lengthen your exhalation
To some people, this will look like a four-beat inhale and a six-beat (or 6: 8) exhale. But it doesn't matter if it's more of a 2: 3. Even a 1: 2 is fine!
Don't worry too much about what's “right” and instead focus on how the body feels when you lengthen your exhale.
If you start to feel more anxiety or like you don't have enough air, relax the practice and repeat when you feel ready.
That's it! When the practice seems finished, you can stop. You can do it once or as many times a day as it feels good!
Take-out meals on vagal tone and vagus nerve stimulation
Finally, lengthening your exhale through abdominal breathing when you are feeling stressed can become natural.
Helping improve vagal tone by stimulating the vagus nerve is a powerful and surprisingly simple way to ensure that your self-care practice is working for you, regardless of the current wellness trend.
Let us know how this practice is going for you!
Need more practices to stimulate the vagus nerve? Find Peace Anytime With This Simple Pranayama Exercise
Affect your vagal tone now!
With Allie Geer6 minute lesson | All levels
Everyone seems to be a yogi these days, from your BFF to your co-worker to your aunt—heck, even dogs and goats are getting their zen on. But if you have yet to attempt Warrior II or Mountain Pose, taking your first yoga chic can be a little intimidating. What if your hands sweat and you fall off the mat ? What if you hate it ? What if you can’t do a single. damn. pose ?
Okay, rewind a second—there’s a reason so many people have hopped on a mat over the past few years. ' Yoga is a non-judgmental practice, ' says Claire Ewing, certified yoga instructor and studio marketing directeur for CorePower Yoga. It’s is a totally accessible way to unwind and break a sweat, so there’s nothing to worry about before checking out a chic.
But to help you feel a little more comfortable before you say your first ' om ' or ' namaste, ' Ewing has some yoga tips to answer all those questions floating around your head.
When in doubt, Ewing says opt for a vinyasa flow class, ' where you have the opportunity to explore the postures and fundamental principles of yoga. ' These are the genres of classes most of your friends probably do, and it’s a great form of yoga for beginners. But oui, it never hurts to check out a couple different genres of classes to see what feels best to you.
' Definitely go for something breathable and easy to move in, ' says Ewing. ' You will work up a sweat, so consider wearing something with moisture-wicking abilities. ' Oh and FYI : Yoga is a no-shoes kind of workout, so don’t worry about sporting your best sneakers addict to class.
Like with any workout, it’s totally a personal preference how much you mazout pre-yoga. But Ewing points out that yoga is a pretty soutenu workout, and fueling your body properly will help you get the most out of your practice. Keep it light, though, ' I usually start with a protein shake or bar knowing that the classes can physically take you in dynamic directions, ' says Ewing. ( A. k. a. don’t down that massive avo toast right before chic. ) If you’re just having a small pre-workout snack, you can probably do that about 30 minutes beforehand; but wait a full one to two hours before sérieux out after a meal.
She adds that hydrating beforehand is also key, especially if you ever do attempt a heated flow. ' Drink a full glass of water about two hours before class—that way you have something to sweat out and you will feel better during class. '
' Absolutely ! ' says Ewing. ' A regular yoga practice increases flexibility and strength in your groupes musculaires. It has you work your full range of motion in every joint of your body and build strong and long groupes musculaires. ' ( In fact, vinyasa yoga even made this list of the top calorie-burning workouts. )
This depends on the type of yoga chic you take—for example, a slow flow or hatha class may require you to hold a pose for an extended period of time. But in vinyasa, ' it comes down to the intention of how the positionnement was designed, ' says Ewing. ' For example, balancing poses are held longer to benefit concentration and focus, while transition postures build strength while teaching fluidity in movement. '
For the most part, though, poses are held for three to five breaths during the first round to help them sink into your memory. Then they’re held for a single breath when you repeat the pose, to help amp up the cardio component of yoga.
Don’t stress ! No one expects you to master every pose your first go-round ( or really, ever—it’s a constant learning process ). Your yoga instructor should offer possibilités for pose modifications, especially for the more challenging ones. ' Your breath is key in yoga, if you are losing sight of this, you may want to consider modifying or completely backing off, ' says Ewing. And don’t be afraid to ask your instructor for aide.
Also, try to avoid comparing yourself to the other yogis in the room—all bodies are unique, and have varied strengths and challenges. Plus, every time you step on the mat, it’s going to feel a little different, ' for both your body and your mind, ' says Ewing. ' If there is one thing you can take away from the classroom, it is learning how to modify and create a practice that is fit for you. '