For years I’ve been hearing the reports from our trainees: a client or student stopped drinking, another stopped arguing with her husband, another lost weight, another’s back doesn’t hurt anymore, another lowered her blood pressure. It’s not always easy, and people may be doing lots of good things for themselves in addition to their yoga sessions, but there are many, many success stories – subtle approaches to yoga tend to be deeply healing.
The mechanism? I don’t think you can reduce it to any one physical, psychological or spiritual process – but there is no doubt that improved vagal tone is involved.
The tenth cranial (or Vagus nerve) is the largest nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. It begins at the medulla (the lower part of the brain stem) and innervates the face, throat, heart, lungs and digestive organs. What’s interesting is that it’s fibers tend toward the afferent – 80-90 percent of the messages are sent from the body back up to the brain and those messages tell the brain how things are going out there and what it should do in response to these messages.
Low vagal tone (which is typically detected through measuring heart rate variability) means that you just don’t respond very well to stress. Little things trigger that worry crease between your eyebrows. Low vagal tone is associated with all sorts of things from inflammation, digestive issues, high blood pressure, depression, addiction, PTSD, and auto-immune diseases just to name a few.
The vagus nerve needs toning. It needs to train, to work out, to feel the burn, to get ripped. Except that kind of language really spooks the vagus nerve. Lars at the gym can help you build a six pack, but he probably can’t help you tone your vagus nerve. For that, you’ll need to find a Vagal Whisperer.
Vagal Whisperers understand that they need to treat your vagus nerve like a horse – because essentially, that’s how it acts. It will behave beautifully if it detects that you are safe, nourished, loved and rested. It will help you digest and eliminate your food, it will help you appreciate the sunset, it will respond to sweet smiles from your loved ones, it will keep your heart healthy, it will make your voice sonorous and your breathing steady and smooth.
But if it feels unsafe, stressed and hypervigilant, it will respond by shutting down all those functions and going into survival model. This is the HPA axis or stress response kicking in. It trumps the vagus nerve which then whinnies, canters off, and cowers shaking behind some trees.
When we’re young, if we are exposed to traumatic situations, we develop a vagus nerve that acts like that spooked horse and never learns to chill out. Until someone with skills coaxes it back to safety. I believe the world desperately needs talented Vagal Whisperers. And I don’t think there is anyone better able to coax the vagus nerve back to serenity than a good yoga teacher. Much like the cardiovascular system, the vagus nerve needs to keep up its training. Use it or lose it. This kind of training is as essential as cardiovascular training and it’s not necessarily easy. The survival response is tenacious, it doesn’t want to let go of the patterns that have kept you alive – even if they are destructive.
Learning how to systematically train the vagus nerve? It’s an art and science that is acquired through practice and training. It can be taught for sure, but it requires persistence, patience, experience, and can be facilitated by a good whisperer.