Yoga is a practice that can fill up your vagal tank, so let’s take a deeper dive.
Everything we do, every situation we react to, every stressor – emotional or physical – requires some exertion. How quickly and efficiently you reset to baseline after exertion – well, that’s an indicator of how healthy you are.
We all have to deal with stressors in our lives from the major ones like death and divorce, to the minor ones like getting cut off in traffic. Yes, there’s a rude mudra just for that, but whether or not you use it may have to do with what resources are in your vagal tank.
In July, European researchers led by Sylvain Laborde in Germany, proposed a new theory to explain the complexity of nervous system self-regulation, they call it “Vagal Tank Theory” – and it is helpful for understanding the interaction of the neurobiologic and psychologic mechanisms that underlie the journey from rest to stress and back to rest again.
The Vagus nerve is the primary nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system – the initiator of the rest and digest response. Neuroscientists measure the health of this nerve or its “tone” by measuring heart rate variability (HRV) which is basically the capacity of the heart rate to adapt to different situations with responsiveness and accuracy.
There are neural networks that link the front brain to the heart. This suggests that we can use the rational mind to calm the nervous system. “I’m good, everything is going to be fine. Take a deep breath.” But that’s just the cognitive-behavioral piece of the pie. There are also endocrine, immune and autonomic nervous system factors that can cancel out affirmations or positive self-talk in a heartbeat.
The thing is that heart rate variability is usually measured during rest, or sitting down. But stress doesn’t always happen while sitting. Vagal Tank Theory suggests that self-regulation has to do not just with HRV at rest, but with how much energy you have in your tank in three different phases – resting, reacting, and recovering – the author’s call these the “The 3 R’” of vagal control. How fast you recover has to do with what’s in your tank and how quickly you refuel after a stressor.
Practically applying this theory, I think the H.A.L.T. acronym is useful. Are you Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? – because all of these can deplete your tank and make you less resilient. And then also are these states or traits? Because we can do more in the short term to self-regulate when you are talking about states.
But, when the state becomes a trait, then the vagal tank has become leaky, very hard to refuel sufficiently, and self-regulation becomes really difficult.
What fills your tank? What I love about this theory is that it considers both the neurophysiologic factors of self-regulation as well as the social and psychological. So while the efficient functioning of your nervous, immune, and endocrine systems is important for filling your tank, so is the efficiency of your support system, and your inner psychological resources such as willpower, self-compassion and agency.
When your tank is full, the authors suggest, you have better executive function (decision making, working memory, rationality, etc), better stress management, better emotional regulation, and better health in general.
So my job is to talk about what this has to do with yoga.
Pretty much everything!
Particularly if you are teaching slow, mindful, conscious practices. Through regular practice – including pranayama and meditation, you have an opportunity not only to help keep the tank full, but also to repair the damage done from too many stressors in too short a period of time. Yoga practice fills the tank in the short term, and helps repair the leaky tank so it can function better in the long term.
I’ll be talking more about Vagal Tank Theory during my Facebook livestream this coming Friday. Join me here.