Before I left home for University I was reading some books to prepare for my course in Physiology. One book that stands out in my mind was one, I forget the title, by Richard Dawkins, a well-known secular scientist, I never did quite finish it but one statement I have always remembered from the book was: ‘Yesterday’s science is tomorrow's folklore’. At the time I wasn’t sure why it stuck in my mind so strongly, but I recall feeling that the statement was rather arrogant, as if the author disregarded earlier populations and their ancient wisdom. I remember feeling that the opposite was also true…. ‘Yesterday’s folklore is tomorrow's science’ and that there was a whole lot of lost knowledge that we just didn’t have sophisticated enough ways to measure and credit based on Western ‘science’ methodology as yet. Moving from science into yoga and spirituality in the last few years, I love it when I stumble across cases of ancient healing wisdom and philosophy finally being proved right by science (because some people need that statistical certainty to believe it… fair enough). Sadly, that arrogance and complete disregard for alternative medicine can be all too common a recurring theme. The final straw for me working in pharma was when a client, disregarded an individual from joining our team because his scientific degree gained at a University in India was in Yoga and not a Western medical/scientific subject. He had since gained an MBA in the UK and credible experience in the industry but he was written off… I had to get out! Sure, we can’t judge or blame people for their ignorance, but there is such a wealth of knowledge in studying teachings from the East to combine with our Western approach to science and medicine.
One example is discovering the importance of vagus nerve stimulation in the promotion of healing and good health. I don’t think I read much about the vagus nerve in all my years in the pharmaceutical industry since perhaps studying anatomy at Uni… surprising and little disturbing in my mind. Do a quick google search and there is a lot of information out there on the importance of the vagus nerve. Including vagal functioning as a measurable endpoint in any commercially funded clinical studies that target the functioning of our internal organs… now that would be interesting! Vagus means ‘wandering’ and this cranial nerve number 10 wanders down from our brain stem, and innervates all of our internal organs. From that fact alone, it’s clear that understanding the vagus nerve must be key in understanding the mind/body connection (one of my first loves). It’s also key in the so-called ‘gut-brain’ connection, facilitating bi-directional communication between our ‘intelligent’ organs and our brain. The vagus nerve is part of our Parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes rest and recovery, it only kicks into action when the opposite, our sympathetic nervous system which governs our fight or flight stress response system in charge of keeping us safe from danger is not operating. So essentially when we are not under stress, our vagus nerve is operating. Hmmm, stress, another all to common theme don’t you think? We turn on the news, radio and we hear about the most recent global disaster or perhaps another anticipated global economic meltdown, or how terrible our world leaders are. We have an increasing number of deadlines, metrics, KPIs to meet in our daily work life and I really just can’t bring myself to mention GDPR :-O … all adding to this build up of stress, almost like we’re being programmed to live under continual stressful conditions that make us feel fearful. Fearful of not having enough money, fearful for the safety of our family and our future, fearful of going to jail for noncompliance to GDPR… anyway I digress. What we have to make every effort to do is to unplug from this matrix of conditioning and tone our vagal nerve in my humble opinion. Studies show that a healthy functioning vagus nerve brings about improved digestion relieving symptoms of IBS and GI-reflux, lowering heart rate, reducing inflammatory biomarkers AND wait for it, improving the supply of the love hormone, oxytocin. Cool, hey. Well I think so. The vagus nerve innervates all of our sense organs so it’s also thought to be important in the process of forming emotional bonds and relationship with others including maternal bonding.
Top US university’s have performed studies where groups of students were shown pictures to illicit the feelings of compassion such as people undergoing hardship; the result was vagus nerve activation. Conversely, students shown images to illicit feelings of pride such as national sports teams or flags, inhibited the vagus nerve. Interesting… so essentially these feelings oppose one another: pride and over-inflated egoic behaviours inhibit the feelings of love, compassion, oneness. When I first took up yoga, it was purely for physical reasons, to improve muscle tone, balance and build core strength. The knock-on effect was that I found a way to manage my stress levels whilst working my socks off travelling across the US every week and missing my family back home in Scotland. I never expected that yoga would be linked with further changes within my emotional state but if we look toward the 8 limbs of yoga, practising compassion, mindful life choices, keeping our physical bodies in good shape and meditating regularly truly can bring about a complete shift in the way we live our lives… and part of the reason why, could be down to the vagus nerve.
So how can we turn on this rest and restore activity through the parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve using yoga? First off, it’s all about the breath, bring your breath deep into the belly and find ujjayi breath, breath of fire (well it sure as hell sounds trans-formative doesn’t it?!, those yogis 1000s of years ago were right). Try to really extend the exhales, perhaps trying a count of 3 on the inhale in through the nose, a pause retaining the breath for 3 and then exhaling for 6. As you exhale, really contract the lungs, lifting the diaphragm to empty out all of the stagnant air that can sometimes dwell at the bottom of your lungs, working with the breath in this way aids detoxification of our physiological systems. Secondly, adopt a flowing practise, flowing through asana (postures) further stimulates the vagus nerve allowing us to drop into a more mindful, meditative state while we practise. Thirdly, work on postures that open up the chest, lift your sternum (breast-bone) skyward dropping your shoulders all the way down the spine in modifications of extended mountain pose, warrior 1 and back bends such as cobra pose, upward facing bow pose, locust and bridge pose. Finally, practise your inversions. Inversions such as shoulder stand and head stand compress the brain stem where the vagus nerve originates, so when we come out of these postures, fresh oxygenated blood flow can activate the nerve, allowing a feeling of calm and well-being to emanate through your system.
Other practises that stimulate the vagus nerve include singing (or chanting mantras if you prefer to stick with the yogic way); cryotherapy or ice baths and exposure to cold water, massage, exercise and laughter. So whether you prefer a big old belly laugh, or you fancy coming along to one of the Holistic Yoga Adventure days we’re running throughout summer combining yoga with the fresh waters of the Atlantic ocean (where we hope to find a few laughs too !), give a spare thought to your ‘wandering’ nerve and switch on the R & R vibes. Namaste. Heather