Vagus means wandering, and in this case, the vagus nerve wanders through a significant portion of the body. It travels through the face, neck, lungs, heart, diaphragm, and abdomen.
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve. It is the longest nerve in the body, and it originates in the brain stem. The vagus nerve is connected to mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.
In this article we’ll take a look at:
- The nervous system
- Polyvagal theory
- Vagal hotspots and hacks
- How to practice vagus nerve stimulation yoga
The nervous system
In general, there are two strands of the nervous system that most people know about. Flight or fight verses rest and digest. You can think about this as:
1. The sympathetic nervous system
This is the gas pedal (or fight or flight) and it is super helpful when you need to get out of a situation fast. It often gets vilified, mainly because, as modern humans, we spend so much time overstimulated – but it’s actually a really important attribute of our physiology.
2. The parasympathetic nervous system
Think about this part of your nervous system as being the break. This is the part of our physiology that digests food, helps us get ready for sleep, procreate and get ready to be creative.
This too is a really important part of the nervous system, but we also don’t want to get stuck there.
While this can be a good place to start, it doesn’t really account for all of the other different states that we experience. Enter polyvagal theory…
What is polyvagal theory?
Polyvagal theory was thought up by Stephen Porges in the mid-1990s.
While Porges has little or nothing to do with yoga, the principles, theories, and practices of polyvagal theory have now become an influence in practicing vagus nerve stimulation yoga for many teachers and students.
Polyvagal theory looks at the nervous system differently from the traditional perspective and uses five branches rather than two. These are:
1. Social engagement
This is our rest and digest system – it sounds familiar because it is. This is when we feel content and engaged, and social.
2. Flight or fight
This can be viewed as the mobilization of the body. It’s the part of you that can hit the gas pedal and move fast!
Shutdown is a very animalistic trait. Think about how animals often “play dead” when being attacked. It is the same in humans.
This is an important one and can be considered mobilization with social engagement. This can be related to things like team sports.
Immobilization combined with social engagement might be relaxing at home, where it seems like you are very relaxed (immobilized or still) but possibly in contact with a pet or partner. This is a very comfortable and restful state within the nervous system.
Vagus nerve yoga, just like any work with the vagus nerve, means ensuring there is a sense of safety.
This means that we need to develop our embodied awareness to make sure that the vagus nerve knows (in reality) there is no danger even if it is perceived – sometimes, the body can lie.
Working with the hot spots and hacks can be useful, but it’s also worth acknowledging that cultivating a sense of safety and learning to down-regulate can be a time-consuming process.
There is a great quote from yoga teacher Jill Miller that sums up how the vagus nerve and body communicate – “the body thinks in feels”.
Getting to know these “feels” is part of developing our interoceptive capacity, which can be a useful tool and part of a vagus nerve stimulation practice.
Why is it important to have a good sense of our ‘feels’ (interoception)? Yoga teacher Bo Forbes says:
- Low interoceptive capacity can lead to; inflammation, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, neuropsychiatric disorders, and social exclusion
- Healthy interoceptive capacity can lead to; immune and gut health, connective tissue matrix health, and emotional resilience and turns down the volume on “diseases of disembodiment.”
Vagus nerve stimulation yoga hot spots and hacks
80% of the vagus nerves are sensory which means that there is a lot of information going from your organs and gut up to your brain. There is a way of splitting the vagus nerve into three physical sections that make it a little easier to work with as it is so big.
- The upper Vagus – this includes the neck, face, jaw, and throat
- The middle Vagus – this includes the diaphragm, rib cage, and lungs
- The lower vagus – this is located in the organs of the abdomen
So what does this mean in terms of practical things that you can do? These are some “hacks” that can help us to access certain parts of the body that will help to soothe the nervous system:
1. Oculocardiac reflex
All this means is that putting a little pressure on the eyes in the form of a piece of material or an eye mask (nothing to heavy) will help stimulate the vagus nerve.
This often happens at the end of yoga practice when you cover the eyes in savasana.
2. Baroreceptor reflex
For this one, you’ll want to get your heart a little higher than your head as it helps to regulate your blood pressure. A supported bridge pose with plenty of props is a great way to do this.
3. Cranial nerve stimulation
This one is super easy! Just by massaging your hairline at the back of your neck, you are stimulating the cranial nerves. Feel free to explore – creating a lathering action on your head can be a really soothing way to approach this.
4. Slow breathing
Slowing down the breathing, especially the exhale, is a great hack for the nervous system. Nothing fancy, just attention and ease in the breath.
5. Abdominal massage
This one is often the trickiest and can be uncomfortable. You can start by using your hands to gently massage the belly or lie over a folded blanket (placed between the ribs and the pelvis).
Some people like to place the fists in the belly while in child’s pose, but you might need to work up to this
6. Rocking movements
Another simple one. How often do we associate soothing a child or baby with rocking or swaying movements? It’s no different for adults!
You can try this lying on your back with your knees drawn into your chest and let your legs sway from side to side as gently and lovingly as possible.
The hot spots and hacks can be used at the beginning, throughout, or at the end of your practice. Try it out yourself with the vagus nerve stimulation yoga sequence below.
This practice isn’t time-consuming but the longer you linger over the different parts the more time you will have for interoceptive inquiry and deep rest. As always, check with your doctor before changing or beginning a yoga practice.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Yoga Sequence
Each pose can be practiced on its own or as part of a sequence.
Begin in child’s pose with the arms forward. Make sure that you are comfortable and take a few slow breaths making sure that the head is supported by the ground or a prop.
Use the hands to massage the back of the neck and head. Use a soft and compassionate touch.
- Prone belly massage
Take a folded blanket, making sure that it is no wider than the space between your ribs and your pelvis (about four or five inches wide). It can be as thick or thin as you like, but thicker folds tend to be more intense.
Place the blanket on your mat and lie flat over the blanket – it should be placed horizontally so that it presses into the soft part of your belly.
- Half savasana
Lie on your back with your knees bent and take some slow breaths. Notice how you feel.
Ask yourself what sensations are present.
- Knees to chest
From half savasana, draw the knees into the chest. You can hold onto the knees or let them hang towards your belly. Make sure that your shoulders are relaxed.
When you’re ready, begin to gently sway the knees from right to left. Let this be slow and free of momentum.
Try to make the movement as soothing as possible, as though you are rocking a child.
Lie flat on your back with a rolled blanket or bolster underneath the back of the knees. Ensure that the body is comfortable and warm.
Place a scarf or eye covering over both eyes (nothing too heavy) and rest for as long as you wish.
The vagus nerve can be stimulated through the head, neck, and torso. Vagus nerve stimulation can be a very soothing practice for the nervous system, and many of the hacks and tools to access the vagus nerve and simple and accessible.
Vagus nerve techniques can be woven into a yoga practice and can be a great compliment to some yoga postures.
Want to find out more?
If you’re interested in finding out more about practices that can help soothe the nervous system, then check out Yoga Nidra and this guided script for deep rest.