The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve amongst the 12 cranial nerves that serve as a link between the brain and the body. It runs from the brain stem all the way through the facial muscles, inner ear, throat, lungs, diaphragm, and to the colon. Unlike some other cranial nerves that have either motor or sensory function, the vagus nerve, also known as cranial nerve x, has both sensory and motor function. The vagus nerve is responsible for the function of some important internal organ functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, cardiovascular functions and other reflexes such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting. It plays a very important role in the control of the autonomic nervous system, which controls actions which are involuntary, such as breathing and digestion. Having a direct connection between the brain and the colon, it is suspected that it also plays a role in the gut-brain axis, which also impacts health conditions such as obesity and depression.
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Sensory-wise, the vagus nerve provides two important functions, somatic and visceral. Somatic components involve sensations attained by skin and muscles, particularly of the ear and throat. Visceral components involve sensations attained by internal organs, particularly of the oesophagus, larynx, lungs, trachea, heart and most of the digestive tract. Because of its wide range of association with our vital systems, damage to the vagus nerve can lead to problems with speech, swallowing, loss of gag reflex, low blood pressure, fast or slow heart rate, digestive problems, nausea, vomiting, abdominal bloating or pain. It can also develop mental health issues such as depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.
From the view of yoga, with movement (asana) and breath (pranayama), it is possible to stimulate the vagus nerve function. Stimulation of the vagus nerve initiates relaxation by the release of the antianxiety chemical acetylcholine (ACh). Within your yoga practice, the vagus nerve becomes stimulated, but we also must be aware of our own responsiveness. Those with already low blood pressure or ear problems may experience dizziness or nausea with prolonged stimulation to the vagus nerve. In such cases, it is recommended to take enough breaks between these practices and perform them with greater care and a slower pace.
Abdominal breathing is a diaphragmatic breathing that lowers stress responses associated with the fight or flight mechanism. It also regulates heart-rate variability, reducing the strain on the cardiovascular system. Effect on vagus nerve stimulation is seen when more emphasis is made on emptying the lungs with exhalation through the engagement of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. It massages digestive organs and stimulates nerve fibres in the lungs that initiate relaxation.
Allow yourself to be in a comfortable sitting position, enabling you to keep the spine erect. Rest the back of your hands on your thighs/knees, soften your shoulders. Close your eyes and allow your face to soften, releasing any tension from the jaw, eyebrows, and forehead. Take your breath in and out through your nose. Following the path of your breath, notice the sensation behind the throat and in the lungs as you breathe. Deepen your breath by ballooning the stomach and expanding the chest, allowing your lungs to expand fully as you inhale. As you exhale, gently release your breath, allowing your stomach to draw back in towards your spine and the chest to relax and expel as much air as you can.
Light tapping of the area behind the ears. The Vagus nerve runs behind the bottom end of the ear lobes. Tapping these areas can activate the vagus nerve and stimulate the peripheral nervous system, which regulates rest and relaxation. Take your fingertips lightly to these areas and gently tap for about 30 seconds. You may like to massage your ears as well, which hold a lot of fine nerve endings of the vagal nerve.
Neck stretch can gently stimulate the vagus nerve. Start with gentle movement alternating between the sides in lateral extension, forward and backward bending of the neck and rotation in the neck from side to side. Follow with a longer hold in each position of about 5 to 10 breaths. Maintain deep breaths through the nose.
Sitting in dandasana, with the legs extended, bend your right knee, place the right foot across over the left leg onto the mat. Place your right hand behind the hips and your left elbow across the right knee. Inhale to extend the spine up and exhale to twist. Keep the chest open, and continue to twist also through the neck, gazing past over the back shoulder. Hold it for 5 deep breaths, then come out of the twist. Repeat the same on your opposite side with the left foot across the right leg, twisting to the left side.
image sourced from yogaanatomy.net
to open the chest and throat. Sitting in a cross-legged position, take your fingertips to your shoulders, and draw the elbows close together in front of you. As you inhale, separate the elbows open the chest, and look up. You should feel a gentle stretch across the chest and throat. As you exhale, draw the elbows back together, tucking in the chin. Continue this movement along with your breath.
Come into a tabletop position on your knees and palms. Allow hip-width space between the knees and keep the position of the hands directly under the shoulders. Starting with a neutral spine and inhale; as you exhale, gradually come into a cat pose. Tuck the hips under, round the back, and push the centre of your shoulder blades up as much as you can. Look towards your belly button and tuck the chin in. As you exhale, gradually come into cow pose, start to turn your hips out, curve the spine down, open the chest and look upwards to stretch the throat. Continue to transit between the cat and cow with the pace of your breath. Keep the awareness with the breath and the sensation in your spine. Continue for 1
From a tabletop position on your knees and hand. Start to push the hips back towards your heels and lower your forehead down towards the floor. Arms extended forward, relax the shoulders and neck. Try to sink your hips down towards your heels. As you breathe in and out through your nose, notice your stomach expanding and deflating against your thighs. Stay here for 2 to 3 minutes. If your forehead does not comfortably touch the mat, you may like to place a rolled towel between the mat and your forehead.
Lying on your back, allow some space between your legs and space between your arms and body. Allow your feet to tilt slightly outwards and your palms to face up. You may like to prop a rolled towel or pillows under your knees, neck, or your back. Once you settle yourself in this position, close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath. Relax your shoulders, arms, hips and legs. Soften your face, releasing any tension that you may be keeping in your jaw, the eyebrows or the forehead. Let your eyes rest down deeper into their sockets. Bring your focus to your breath, feeling the inhalation and exhalation as you breathe through your nose. Notice the sensation of air passing in and out of the nostrils. Notice the air passing the back of your throat and filling the lungs. Notice your chest expand. Similarly, as you exhale, notice your chest relaxing, the air releasing from the lungs and the air passing through the back of your throat and out the nostrils. Stay with the path of your breath until you feel centred and relaxed. If any thoughts pop up, let it pass without much consideration. Let the thoughts pass through without contemplation to the thoughts, then bring yourself back to your breath once again. Maintain this for 5 minutes.
All photos courtesy of Kimi's Klicks