Strengthening Resilience One Breath At a Time
Yoga and vagal tone: How yoga can help you keep your nerve. By Tracy King
Reading time: 6 minutes
Being resilient enables us to navigate life's ups and downs more effectively, leading to improved mental and physical wellbeing, personal growth and stronger relationships with others. Life has more balance.
In terms of resilience, the ‘fight-or-flight’ survival response in the body, can be both beneficial and detrimental. In acute situations, where an immediate response is required, the ‘fight-or-flight’ mechanism enables individuals to react quickly and effectively to threats. This can be essential for survival and overcoming challenging situations.
Resilience comes into play by helping us effectively manage and recover from stress. Resilient individuals exhibit the ability to adapt to and bounce back from adversity, activating the ‘fight-or-flight’ response when necessary, but also engaging in effective stress-management techniques to restore balance and mitigate the negative consequences of chronic stress.
Chronic activation of this response without sufficient recovery time, however, can have negative consequences on physical and mental wellbeing. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, weakened immune function and increased risk of mental health conditions.
Our ‘fight or flight’ system lies within the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a part of the peripheral nervous system that controls involuntary body functions and regulates internal organs without conscious effort. It functions automatically and independently, working continuously to maintain homeostasis (balance) in the body.
The ANS consists of two main divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). The SNS is responsible for activating the ‘fight or flight’ response, which prepares the body for action in times of stress or danger. It increases heart rate, dilates blood vessels and releases stress hormones. The PSNS, on the other hand, is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ response, helping the body to relax and recover after periods of stress. It slows down heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and promotes digestion and restorative processes.
The vagus nerve is an important part of the nervous system and plays a vital role in regulating numerous bodily functions, including digestion, heart rate, and emotional wellbeing. Vagal toning refers to the ability to stimulate and strengthen the vagus nerve, leading to improved overall health. The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, extends from the brainstem to the abdomen, passing through several major organs along the way, including the heart, lungs and digestive system.
Vagal tone is associated with improved regulation of bodily functions and a greater ability to adapt and respond to stressors in a balanced manner. Higher vagal tone is generally seen as beneficial for overall health and wellbeing. When the vagus nerve is well-toned, it promotes a range of positive effects on the body, ncluding increased heart rate variability (a marker of cardiovascular health), improved digestive function, reduced inflammation, enhanced immune system function, and better stress management.
The Role of Yoga
While there are various methods to enhance vagal tone, yoga has emerged as a highly effective and accessible practice. There are various other methods and practices that can help enhance vagal toning too, such as singing and laughter.
It has been found that certain yoga practices activate the parasympathetic nervous system, triggering the relaxation response, increasing cabal tone and promoting overall balance in the body. These include deep and diaphragmatic breathing (pranayama), meditation and mindfulness practices, chanting and the movement of certain postures (asana).
Yoga places a strong emphasis on conscious breathing techniques, including diaphragmatic breathing and alternate nostril breathing. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and enhances vagal tone by activating the relaxation response. This type of breathing slows down the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and promotes a sense of calmness and wellbeing.
The physical postures (asanas) practiced in yoga help release tension and promote flexibility in the body. Sequences that involve gentle backbends, inversions and forward folds stimulate the vagus nerve as they engage the muscles surrounding it. By incorporating gentle twists and stretches into the practice, yoga creates a positive impact on vagal toning.
Yoga, as a holistic practice, also emphasises mindfulness and presentmoment awareness. Engaging in mindfulness meditation during yoga cultivates a deepening sense of relaxation, which positively influences vagal tone. By attuning to the sensations of the body and anchoring oneself in the present moment, individuals can experience a heightened connection to the vagus nerve and its beneficial effects.
Overall, vagal toning is about optimising the function of the vagus nerve, allowing for a better balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems and promoting overall health and wellbeing. By incorporating techniques and practices that support vagal toning into our daily lives, we can cultivate a greater sense of calm, resilience and physiological balance in the face of life's stressors.
The practice of yoga, with its combination of physical movement, breathwork and mindfulness, offers an effective pathway to stimulate and strengthen the vagus nerve. By incorporating yoga into our lives, we can enhance vagal toning, promoting balance and wellbeing throughout our energy system, in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies.
So embrace the power of yoga as a holistic practice to cultivate vagal toning and embark on a journey of improved health and vitality today.
Dr Tracy King is a clinical psychologist, spiritual emergence coach, yoga and meditation teacher, specialising in trauma and relationship work