Could the health of a single nerve—the vagus nerve—be the key to well-being? That’s the idea behind a school of thought called polyvagal theory. Throughout our lives, the theory goes, resilience is shaped by how we perceive the external world (friend or foe?) and how well our autonomic nervous system (ANS)—the largely unconscious mechanism controlling heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate—responds.
Modern life is loud, noisy, and demanding. Buzzing phones, honking horns, and push notifications can send our nervous system into a constant state of high alert, causing it to pump out a rush of fear hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Over time, that hormone tsunami can compromise the immune system and lead to anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
The good news? According to mind-body experts, we can control our nervous system’s reactions to stress by toning the vagus nerve, one of the most complex neural highways within the human body.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus runs from the brainstem to the colon, touching nearly every physiological system along the way. It plays a central role in how we perceive and respond to the world around us, via two pathways.
One, the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus, carries messages about the external environment from your brain to your internal organs to regulate processes like breathing and digestion. When you get a fright, for example, the vagus can trigger a systemic shutdown by dropping your heart rate and opening your blood vessels, causing you to freeze. If it’s a big shock, it can cause blood pressure to drop precipitously, literally starving the brain of oxygen and causing you to faint.
The second pathway, centering around the throat chakra, is called the ventral vagus network. It controls speech, voice, and facial expression—how we present ourselves to the world through social cues. If you’re constantly communicating that you’re stressed through a panicked voice and tense expression, others may react to you the same way, reinforcing anxiety.
Boston University School of Medicine’s Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology, recently published a study arguing that yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises increase the vagal tone, which allows people to shift from an excited state to a relaxed one in the face of stress. Over time, she says, those who practice yoga accumulate less stress, increasing their resilience and well-being.
Yoga Practices for Vagal Toning
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath): After a busy day, doing Ujjayi breath can rapidly recalibrate the nervous system from reactive to relaxed. Slow, rhythmic breathing calms an overstimulated mind. Try doing 10 rounds, focusing on extending the length of your exhalation.
Meditation: Research on people who practice loving-kindness meditation revealed increased vagal tone. Ethical intention-setting shapes how we perceive the world, helping us to cultivate a compassionate, nonjudgmental response to things. Celebrate others’ happiness, show compassion toward those who are unhappy, and cultivate joy when others do wonderful things.
Restorative Yoga: This practice gives us control over the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing our reactive response. Find a relaxing position on the floor, a blanket, or a yoga mat, then cultivate awareness of your body and breath. Accept whatever you feel, including any areas of anxiety, heaviness, or constriction. Remain still for 30 minutes for a relaxing and fulfilling experience.
Cat-Cow Pose: These movements massage the area where the vagus nerve meets the belly. Repeat several times throughout the day.
Throat Chakra Opening: You can stimulate the vagus nerve with chest- and throat-opening yoga postures. In a seated position, place your hands on your shoulders and inhale as you open your elbows wide, and lift your chin. Exhale as you contract your elbows in front of your heart and tuck your chin. Take several deep breaths in this moving meditation.