Feeling Better From Brain to Belly: 6 Ways to Befriend Your Vagus Nerve in Yoga

Back view of a gracious young woman doing meditation in a cozy room. She is sitting in Lotus Pose while raising arms and connecting fingers. Full relaxation concept.

The past few weeks have been all about rest and healing for me. I recently underwent a bilateral mastectomy. My daily yoga practices have changed—understandably—but not ended. For obvious reasons, my physical movement is restricted, my energy is low, my digestion is off, and sleeping is not easy. My emphasis has been on supporting the vagus nerve in yoga.

Meditation, breathwork, and gentle movement have been my saviors and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. A huge benefit of these practices is the positive effects seen in several key areas of the body. Many nerves and tissues throughout our bodies can elicit such a beneficial effect if worked properly. The vagus nerve is a prime example of this and warrants a full discussion as a place to start and continue the healing process.

Warning: There is a lot of information here, but it is a must-read that can change your life from head to gut … literally.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labeled anatomical structure scheme and location diagram of human body longest nerve. Infographic with isolated ganglion, branches and plexus. Inner biological ANS.The vagus nerve (Latin for wanderer) is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It runs from the brain, passing and contacting the tongue, vocal cords, throat, heart, lungs, diaphragm, liver, spleen, large intestine, small intestine, pancreas, and kidneys and ending as a ball of nerve endings in the stomach. 

Why is the Vagus Nerve Important?

Fitness, yoga and senior women stretching and training body, breathing and mindfulness together in a studio. Wellness, meditation and zen concept.

Called the “nerve of emotion,” the vagus nerve is a superhighway of communication, relaying messages from the gut to the brain and back. As the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), it oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including:

  • mood
  • immune response
  • digestion
  • heart rate 
  • Most importantly, the parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest-and-digest” or relaxation response because it restores the body’s balance after a stressful event.

When the body is in a sympathetic state, its primary focus is being able to defend itself or flee from a dangerous or threatening situation. This fight-or-flight response is what we refer to as being stressed. By contrast, when in the parasympathetic state, the body is calm and composed and can focus on resting, healing, and digesting. Our ability to smoothly and easily return to a relaxed, non-stressed state depends on the activity or tone of the vagus nerve.

Your Health, the Vagus Nerve in Yoga

From a purely scientific perspective, vagal tone measures cardiovascular function that facilitates adaptive responses to environmental challenges.

  • Low vagal tone is characterized by anxiety, negativity, weak digestion, depression, and inflammation, all indications of stress. 
  • High vagal tone is associated with lower blood pressure, improved digestion, better mood, and reduced anxiety. 

Researchers who study the mind-body effects of holistic practices like yoga have found that incorporating even a few yoga practices each day can increase vagal tone. I hope by now you recognize that good vagal tone is key to optimizing your physical and mental health. 

Improving Vagal Tone

Think of the vagus nerve as a built-in de-stressor. With practice, you will be able to engage it at any time. In a world where situations continually elicit anxiety and stress, it’s worth knowing some quick and easy strategies for toning the vagus nerve to bring your body into a state of balance.

6 Yoga Practices to Tone the Vagus Nerve

  1. Slow, Deep Breathing

    Peaceful senior woman in Lotus position meditation with closed eyes at home while sitting on yoga mat on floor, Toning the Vagus Nerve practice.

    Deep diaphragmatic breathing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to tone the vagus nerve. Practicing three-part yogic breathing in which the belly expands outward and the exhale is long and slow sends a signal through the vagus nerve to the brain that says, “Time to relax.”

    *Quick Tip: To slow down your exhalation, imagine letting air out of a tire and exhalation with the sound of “shhh.”

  2. Singing and Chanting

    Young woman practicing yoga, sitting in Sukhasana pose, performing Humming Bee Breathing exercise, Bhramari Pranayama technique, a vagus nerve practice.

    The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat, so singing, humming, and chanting can activate it. Research has shown the Aum or Om mantra to be particularly effective for cultivating a sense of calm. 

    If chanting isn’t your thing, try adding a mantra to your asana practice when you exhale into a pose. Using a mantra on the exhalation calms your nervous system by helping to increase the length of the exhalation. Forward bending postures and twists, like Standing Forward Bend Pose (Uttanasana) and Sage’s Twist Pose (Marichyasana), lend themselves to this. Choose a simple mantra, such as Om or Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, and chant it aloud as you exhale into the pose. 

  3. Body Scan with Progressive Muscle Relaxation

    Group of yoga students practicing a body scan to help activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System

    Scan your body to identify where you are holding tension, then consciously release those areas.  This will help to activate the relaxation response. *Quick tip: Focus on releasing the tension around the eyes, face, jaw, and tops of the shoulders

  4. Practice Poses that Open the Chest and Neck

    Your vagus nerve passes right behind the sternocleidomastoid muscles (SCM) and in front of the scalenes, which tend to be the tightest muscles in the neck. From there, it branches down into the thorax (or chest). Gentle stretches that target the neck and chest can help trigger the relaxation response.

    Try these chest-opening poses: Cat/Cow Pose (Marjaryasana/Bitilasana), Sphinx Pose (Ardha Bhujangasana) and Fish Pose (Matsyasana).

    Sphinx Pose to Open the Neck and Chest to Help stimulate the Vagus Nerve.

    Practice this simple somatic neck stretch:

    1. Gazing at the wall before you, gently bring your right ear toward your right shoulder. Allow your eyes to also turn toward the right.
    2. Take 4 or 5 breaths, noticing any sensations in the left side of your neck. Then, inhale your head back to center, bringing your eyes forward. Pause for 1 to 2 breaths to notice how your neck feels before repeating to the left. 
    3. Repeat the movement again, this time directing your gaze in the opposite direction. Take time to notice any sensations in your neck, throat, and face. 


  5. Stimulate the Belly

    Restorative Child's Pose for soothing the belly and the Vagus Nerve.

    Because the vagus nerve culminates its journey in the gut, yoga poses stimulate the belly and help balance as you move the spine, belly, chest, and throat.

    Try these belly-stimulating poses: Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana), Supported Child’s Pose (Salamba Balasana), or Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana).

    Or practice twists, such as this simple seated twist done on the floor or in a chair:

    1. Inhale your arms out to the sides, palms turned up. As you exhale, turn your belly to your right, allowing your left hand to rest on your right thigh and your right hand behind you on the chair or floor.  
    2. With your next inhalation, lift your arms to chest height as you return to center. Exhale to the left, allowing your hands to rest along your left thigh and back. Alternate twisting to each side two to three more times, finishing by staying to the right.  
    3. Breathe as you maintain the twist, lengthening your spine with each inhalation. After 2 to 3 breaths, slowly rotate your head to gaze over your left shoulder. Again, stay for 2 to 3 breaths before inhaling back to center with arms outstretched. Repeat the hold to your left, this time turning the head to the right.
  6.  Meditate

    Meditation has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. In fact, studies have found that practicing lovingkindness meditation is especially beneficial for vagus nerve activity. Like chanting, meditation stimulates the relaxation response by slowing heart rate and respiration, relaxing the abdomen muscles, and slowing brainwave activity. 

    No matter your age or ability, nor whether you are recovering from surgery, treating a lifelong illness or simply want to supercharge your nervous system, the vagus nerve is a great place to start. 

Try this belly-stimulating sequence

Beverly Davis Baird

Beverly Davis-Baird, MA, e-RYT200/RYT 500, C-IAYT is a New Jersey-based yoga therapist, writer, and educator. She specializes in making yoga accessible for adults 50+, offering classes and workshops for back care, arthritis, bone health, balance, posture, and healthy aging. An educator at heart with over 20 years of experience as a public school teacher, Beverly brings her knowledge of individual learning styles to her classes, providing instruction that is clear, concise, inclusive, and compassionate. Bringing over 30 years of experience and training, she considers herself a lifelong learner and believes that the practice of yoga should bring spaciousness and release from tension, not create it. As such, she strives to make yoga accessible to people of differing abilities, believing the real benefits of yoga come from what is taken with you outside of class and into your life. To read her blog or learn more about her teaching schedule and latest offerings, please visit www.wisdomtreeyoga.com.

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