Yoga & The Science of Stress

Fire up your nerves for good health!

I’m intrigued with the incredible workings of the human body. I love the intricacies and the interplay that goes on, and I’m so impressed how this all carries on without any conscious input of our part. It seems that a whole lot of physical problems come about by our interference in its smooth running. We eat and drink too much, too little, wrong kind. We exercise not enough, too much, wrong way. We sleep too much, too little. And here’s the big one – we STRESS. TOO. MUCH.

Long term or frequent stress can negatively impact on all functions of the body. Indeed it is estimated that chronic stress over an extended period of time can do as much damage to your body as smoking, poor eating habits and lack of exercise. Some medical analysts also hypothesize that 90% of all immune related illness is caused by stress. The problems associated with long term stress are usually brought about by the body not being able to return to a stable condition; it stays on high alert and the stress hormones keep circulating round the body causing an ongoing highly alert state and gradually eroding our health.

All is not lost, however, yoga to the rescue!

There are so many ways yoga asanas, yoga breathing, relaxation, meditation and yoga wisdom can help on a physical, mental and emotional level to sustain the smooth running of the body. One very important player is our own inbuilt super hero, the vagus nerve. This month I am revealing my secret love affair with the vagus nerve.

Okay so we all are familiar with those anxiety/stress hormones adrenalin and cortisone which rush around causing confused thinking, fast heart beat and nervousness. Well the vagus nerve does the opposite. When it is activated it quietens everything down and brings us back to calmness.

In an ideal world the two opposites of the nervous system work in synchrony, the stress passes the vagus nerve activates and comfort returns. However all too often the vagus- enhancing-ideal-world is replaced with deadlines, rushing, pressure, anxiety and fear and we remain on high alert, creating for ourselves the possibilities of heart disease, high blood pressure, memory loss, relationship problems, mental disorders, digestive issues, anxiety attacks, auto-immune diseases and yes, even cancer.

Not only do external circumstances, and our reaction to them, affect the smooth activation of our friend the vagus, but also posture. The vagus nerves runs down each side of the neck from the base of the brain. As well as injuries like whiplash, strained muscles and bulging discs, our vulnerable neck is prone to what is known as ‘tech-neck’. This develops amongst users of electronic devices such as hand held phones, iPads and laptops. The head is habitually held in a forward position and to bring the face up to horizontal, the back of the neck has to compress which prevents the vagus nerve from properly activating and leaving us prone to indigestion, depression and anxiety. The good posture as taught in Mountain Pose is important not only for the health of our joints and muscles but also so our vagus nerve can properly activate.

When we stimulate this nerve a substance called acetylcholine is released. This substance is responsible for memory and learning, it is also calming and relaxing and helps fight depression and anxiety. New research has found that it is a major player in preventing inflammation which is thought to be a reaction to stress and a major player in many illnesses. Exciting new research has also found evidence of how stimulating the vagus nerve can activate our stem cells to repair and rebuild our organs, and another line of research implicates vagus stimulation in allowing our natural feelings of compassion to shine forth. Vagus activation is also credited with normalizing our blood sugar levels, lowering blood pressure, appetite control and preventing cluster headaches.

Several yoga practices can stimulate our vagus nerve. Slowing the breath down with deep slow Complete Yoga Breaths activates the vagus and helps us relax. It is possible to practice many of the yoga poses while using this breath and this will help us achieve to be a wonderfully calm and focused.

Even more of a stimulation to the vagus nerve is achieved by changing the breath ratio of complete yoga breathing. The best ever vagus stimulation is brought about by having the exhalation plus a subsequent retention twice as long as the inhalation. This is particularly useful in yoga poses where we are stretching our muscles. The long outward breath will help our muscles to relax and lengthen without us having to aggressively pull them and risk damage.

Ujjayi Breathing creates a soft constriction of the throat which stimulates the part of the vagus nerve in the neck. A similar but stronger effect is achieved by Brahmari Breathing which uses the voice to vibrate the vagus nerve. Loud singing (chanting of yoga mantras) also stimulates this throat area.

Other simple ways to activate the vagus nerve are sleeping on your right side or even better on your back. Laughter has also been found to increase vagal stimulation as has washing your face in cold water.

We have so many simple ways to better our health through activating this quiet little player. In fact much of our continuing good health is in our own hands.


By Vrndavan Dasi
Founder and Principal of Veda Yoga Teacher Training


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