The tips I share below are aimed at getting us out of the fight-flight-freeze response (stress cycle), which many of us are in a lot of the time, and returning to rest-and-digest (relaxation) by accessing the parasympathetic nervous system. We will do this through stimulation of the vagus nerve (stay with me…).
The vagus nerve branches out from the brain stem to the inner ear, throat, diaphragm, lungs, heart and abdominal organs. Although we cannot consciously control our heart, kidneys or small intestine, we can control the muscles of respiration (breathing) and the muscles of the larynx (that open and close the vocal cords and control the pitch of sound). To facilitate the parasympathetic response in the body (and stimulate the vagus nerve), we need to exert influence over those two main areas, namely breath and sound.
Firstly, WORKING WITH BREATH
Let’s start by trying a couple of exercises to get an understanding of what we mean when we refer to deepening the breath.
1. You can intentionally control your respiratory musculature by expanding the chest first then the belly on the inhale, and then gradually contract the abdomen (draw your navel backwards towards your spine) and deflate the chest on the exhale. Adding this type of directionality to your breathing patterns helps to slow down the breath and gain more control over the respiratory musculature (don’t lift your shoulders, unclench your jaw, relax your face…).
Using this deeper way of breathing we can move onto the second step.
2. Lengthening the exhalation (exhale + hold after exhale, don’t strain).
Have you heard the phrase, ‘waiting to exhale’? It’s often used when someone is experiencing uncertainty or stress. Every time you inhale you activate your sympathetic response a bit (and your heart speeds up a little, the vagus nerve is suppressed); if you hold the air in, that response is accentuated.
Conversely, every time you exhale you activate the parasympathetic response (the heart rate slows down a bit and the vagus nerve is activated); if you hold the air out for few seconds it will further facilitate the parasympathetic activation. To promote parasympathetic activation and vagus nerve stimulation you would need to gradually lengthen your exhale and pause after exhale (comfortably). This pause or gap usually happens quite naturally after some minutes of the deep breathing mentioned above.
Using the deep-breathing technique above we’ll begin with simple breath ratios, for example Inhale for 6 seconds and then exhale for 6 seconds. Repeat for a few cycles. This is 1:1 breathing.
Next, and if accessible to you without strain, lengthen your exhalation to 8 seconds and introduce a short hold after exhale. So, 6-8-pause. You can gradually extend the ratio to inhale 6 seconds, exhale 8 seconds and hold for 4 seconds, 6-8-4. Repeat for a few cycles and gradually return to the comfortable breathing pace. (Again, don’t lift your shoulders, unclench your jaw, relax your face…).
As you may notice when practicing these breathing techniques, moving attention away from the external to the internal creates better body awareness and better concentration. The same can be said for this next technique which utilises SOUND: (Good, good, good, good vibrations…)
This is a journey into sound (beat Dis)
The Yogis amongst you will be aware when chanting OM we experience a vibration sensation around the ears. Science suggests that this sensation is transmitted through the auricular branch of the vagus nerve. Since the vagus nerve branches out into the inner ear and larynx, controlling the opening and closing of the vocal cords and sound pitch, it appears to get stimulated during vocalisation of O and M sounds.
In addition, we always chant on the exhalation, which as we know from above, means that the vagus nerve is activated in its role as parasympathetic system manager. Also, chanting usually facilitates lengthening of the exhalation, which further amplifies the parasympathetic effect, as mentioned above. It’s a double-win!
If chanting isn’t already part of your practice and seems a little out there, don’t worry, I have a few options for you; firstly, you could chant OM, instructions below; or softly hum your favourite song, this is perfectly acceptable and may be the most accessible option for you; or practice Bhrāmarī prāṇāyāma (bee breath), instructions below. Give these three options a try and see which sits best with you. If you laugh along the way, that’s an added bonus.
Basic Bhrāmarī (without mudra or Ujjāyī breath.)
Sit comfortably and allow your eyes to close. Take a breath or two to settle in and notice the state of your mind. When you’re ready, inhale and then, for the entire length of your exhalation, make a low- to medium-pitched humming sound in the throat. Notice how the sound waves gently vibrate your tongue, teeth, and sinuses. Imagine the sound is vibrating your entire brain (it really is). Do this practice for six rounds of breath and then, keeping your eyes closed, return to your normal breathing. Notice if anything has changed.
What else can we do?
So, that’s a few simple ways you can work with the (fascinating) vagus nerve and feel a whole heap better. What else can we do? You’ve possibly been enjoying a permitted daily walk during lockdown. If this was new for you, don’t let it go as lockdown eases. If you can keep it in your schedule it will continue to do you good. The days are getting longer (here in the northern-hemisphere) and (generally) the weather is better, with restrictions lifting be sure to get outside, even if you can only manage a few minutes. Enjoy the fresh air, all that vitamin D and the gorgeous colours that nature’s showing-off just now. Did you know that being outside in the morning (best within an hour of waking), absorbing daylight through the eyes, sets chemicals in motion to help you sleep at night?
As studios, gyms and classes start up, get involved. If you’d rather practice at home and haven’t started already, there are now lots of resources online – a benefit of the recent past… Do what’s fun for you and you’re more likely to keep it up. Movement is proven to not only improve our physical but our mental health too. Make a daily date incorporating breathwork (prāṇāyāma), sound, and movement and you will be paving the way to wellness. (A sing-a-long dance party in the kitchen counts, even if you’re dancing by yourself!)
Join the mailing list to be first to hear about what we’re doing, and when we’re doing it!