Pack your bags, we're going to Vegas for yoga! Imagine it, the dazzling lights, the entertaining shows, and the all-you-can-eat yoga buffets! Oh, wait...not THAT Vegas? Oh...VAGUS! Well, that makes a lot more sense. Don't unpack just yet, we can still take that trip. So get ready to set sail on a journey of learning about how yoga affects the body and this very important nerve.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is not only one of the most important nerves in the body, but it is also the longest. It is central to many regulatory aspects of the human body- blood pressure, heart rate and perspiration to name just a few. Just as the Vegas Strip runs for miles in the desert highlands of Nevada, the vagus nerve runs a long path through the body. It starts in the brain, passes through the face, down through the chest, and ends in the abdomen.
What Does the Vagus Nerve Do?
As mentioned, the vagus nerve plays a very significant role. More specifically, it regulates the autonomic nervous system. Let's break that down into two additional systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is more commonly known as the "fight or flight" response of the body. Using the Las Vegas Strip analogy again, imagine you're in a crowded casino. The slot machine bells are ringing, the lights are flashing, there are many people milling about, it's claustrophobic, it's hot. This, for some, could be quite stressful and anxiety-inducing- and could trigger that fight or flight response. You may push yourself through the dense crowd to get to the blackjack table or you may flee the situation entirely.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the "rest and digest" system. This is when you want to indulge at the hotel's buffet then go lounge in the sun by the pool. (Don't forget your sunscreen.) Your body, in this case, is taking the time to process your delicious meal and allowing you to take an afternoon nap. Both of these systems are quite important, yet, if they are not taken care of they may function improperly, become out of balance, and create health problems.
How Does Yoga Affect the Vagus Nerve?
As you know, yoga brings greater awareness to the entire body. Whether it's through meditation or a dynamic vinyasa flow- the discipline of yoga directs your attention inward. And through this, a consistent yoga practice can lead to an overall sense of wellbeing. But on a more physiological level, yoga positively impacts the autonomic system, and therefore the vagus nerve.
Pranayama, or the practice of intentional breathing, is the foundation for the vagus nerve to continue to function effectively. Pranayama involves a set of breathing exercises that have many healing functions. You can use these exercises to re-energize yourself when you're feeling sleepy, cool yourself when you're feeling overheated, or ease your racing mind when you're feeling overwhelmed. Whatever form of breathing exercise you practice, it stimulates the vagus nerve, too. It sends the proper signals from the brain to the cardiovascular system when you need to regulate your heart rate.
The vagus nerve also influences digestion. Stress and other tensions stored in the body can negatively impact your ability to digest your food. and also your circulation and proper blood flow throughout the body. Twisting yoga poses can help with digestion. Here's an example of a simple twisting posture you can practice to stimulate blood flow and proper digestion:
Seated Twist: Sit comfortably on your yoga mat with your legs crossed. Place your left hand on the floor behind you at the base of your spine. Press your hand into the mat to help lengthen your spine. Place your right hand on your left knee to begin the next movement. Take a full breath in to lengthen your torso more and to fill your lungs with air. As you exhale, draw your navel inward toward your spine and gently rotate your torso to the left to generate the twist. Keep the rotation gradual as you continue to breathe in and out. There is no need to force this movement. The idea is to massage the internal organs and stimulate efficient blood and oxygen flow. Hold this position for five to ten breaths. Return to the center and repeat the twist in the other direction.
Yoga is a holistic practice that offers healing properties for the entire body and mind. When parts of this elaborate system are not working to their fullest potential, movement and breath can be a resourceful tool. Since the vagus nerve is such a critical part of the bodily mechanism, it is important to foster a discipline that aids in its proper functioning. So place your bet on yoga, and you'll be a winner!