On retreats, I find myself answering a lot of questions about the vagus nerve, our parasympathetic nervous system.
There are interesting newer developments on how the vagus nerve works and how it can be used, and healed, in different ways. It is called Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr Stephen Porges. Here is a video I found very helpful in understand the nature of that nerve:
He states that certain activities, such as singing, chanting and deep diaphragmatic breathing all have the power to tone the vagus nerve.
As part of the dynamic mindfulness practice I share, I teach people how to breathe in a certain way. My yoga teacher healed his paralysed arm with it, I feel my health has improved because of it (heart, digestion, mental) and it is a type of breathing used in treating people with MS, often successfully for early onset MS.
It is a way to breathe deeply from within the body, using the diaphragm and restricting the glottis (to prevent hyperventilation). This type of breathing is called Ujjayi, 3 stage yogi breath. It has been shown to deliver 700% more oxygen to the body. Equally, it assists in massively improved detoxification.
This study by the PSG Institute of Medical Sciences and Research showed that even just a 6 week practice of Ujjayi pranayama and shavasana (ie meditation) significantly improved the vagal functions in the individuals.
Polyvagal theory - more detailed jnitial research with links
Science now agrees with what yogis and meditators have proclaimed for millennia: breath is the key to physical, emotional and spiritual health.
From my own journey, I know that a diligent practice of breath, movement and awareness shows amazing results, sometimes within days. I lost 20kg in weight without changing my diet, I kicked an unhealthy alcohol habit, my heart palpitations and hot flushes stopped and my inner voice and intuition is has regained its clarity. I have a glow which was last seen in my twenties, 30 years ago!
At the core is our parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve, with a new area of science growing around this. Dr Sircus explains the functions of this nerve: “It is our vagus nerve that provides the gateway between the two parts of the autonomic systems. The vagus acts as a bio-informational data bus that routes impulses going in two directions. Since the vagus nerve acts as the central switchboard it should come as no surprise that impaired functioning of this one nerve can lead to so many different conditions and problems. Some neurological diseases actually come up from the gut spreading to the brain via the vagus nerve. “
In the video above, Stephen Porges PhD, who has developed the Polyvagal Theory, (PVT) explains and describes that the vagus nerve is the largest and oldest nerve in our body. Its functions are generally outside our conscious or voluntary control. Some of the things it regulates are our heart, digestion, body temperature, breathing, ie all our visceral functions. It also controls our facial expressions, toungue throat and it is the nerve the underpins our social engagement.
The vagus nerve has two branches. The oldest one is pre-reptilian. When the body feels unsafe, this old (un-myelinated and lower) branch of this nerve prepares us for fight or flight. Reptilian response to sever danger is to immobilise, shut down, play dead. This reflex is not optimal for mammals, who need more oxygen to survive. Therefore, the relatively more modern part of the vagal nerve (the upper, myelinated, branch) has developed to keep this shutting down reflex under control.
An ineffective vagus nerve causes everything from irritable bowels to heart palpitations, sweats and anxiety attacks all the way to total body shut down (ie passing out episodes). A well toned vagal nerve improves memory, lowers chronic inflammation, supports creativity and expands an individual’s spiritual experience.
In other words, the vagus nerve is the body’s way of assessing if a situation is safe or if it is dangerous, all of it happening fairly much outside of our conscious control, and getting the body ready for fight or flight. This is often independent of how the person consciously assesses his or her situation, and can be in direct conflict.
By monitoring certain expressions of the vagal activity in a person (eg heart rate, breathing, body temperature, facial movement) PVT accurately describes an individual’s emotional state.
For example, this study examined the non-voluntary vagal expressions of individuals suffering from Boderline Personality Disorder. Interestingly, the responses of the BPD individuals and those of the control group of more typical individuals’ to emotional stimuli (films, photos, music) were very similar. But what they noticed was that as the BPD individuals spent more time with the experimenters in a room, their bodies started to express stress signals, preparing for fight or flight. In contrast, the more typical individuals became calmer, more open and relaxed.
When a person’s physiology is in stress mode, expecting pain or hurt, their responses will be very different to when they feel safe. A stressed person might become aggressive, behave erratically or in unexpected ways, whereas a calm person may recognise the situation as social play.
Childhood experiences, emotionally and physically traumatic events, stress and tiredness affect the health and response of our vagus nerve.
Today, Professor Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory is used very successfully to explain and develop new ways to treat a range of conditions, including post traumatic stress, autism and borderline personality disorder.
Jill Blakeway, MSc, Lac, a practictioner of Chinese medicine and acupuncture, describes how an inflamed vagal nerve caused “gastrointestinal bloating, indigestion, loose stools, shortness of breath, and hiccups can also be caused by an overstimulation of the vagus nerve, because branches of the nerve innervate the GI tract, diaphragm, and lungs” in a client and her successful treatment of it.
Vagus nerve stimulation has created a new area of medicine. But electronic stimulation of the nerve is not the only way to improve the tone of your vagal nerve. Diaphramatic breathing (deep long breath), in particular the Ujjayi breath and the diaphramatic 3-strage yogi breath significantly improve the tone of the vagal nerve. As previously mentioned, This study by the PSG Institute of Medical Sciences and Research showed that even just a 6 week practice of Ujjayi pranayama and shavasana (ie meditation) significantly improved the vagal functions in the individuals.
Yogic practitioners have said it for millennia: without excessive effort and without any contrived intentions, the practice brings body and mind into synchronicity and allows our authentic selves to flourish. The vagus nerve, sending signals from the viscera (your gut feeling is a reality) to the brain, and from the brain back to the viscera clearly is key not just to our physical, but also our emotional and spiritual health. Having a vagal system that is effective and not out of balance, is key to finding a sense of stability, from where we can explore and express our core selves.
Gertrud’s practice focuses strongly on Ujjayi and 3-stage yogic breath, yoking together movement and awareness. Diligent regular practice, with little effort, brings amazing results.