March 8, 2013

The Key to Yoga Bliss: A Little Vagal Stimulation. ~ Paula Grace Watkins

Is happiness as simple (and as complicated) as stimulating your vagus?


And it turns out us yogins might be particularly good at it.

Though still a young field of research, several scientific articles on the effects of yoga on psychological wellbeing point toward the vagus nerve as a key player underlying the mood enhancing effects of yoga.

The vagus nerve is critical to the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxing one). This nerve (vagus means wander-ing in Latin) literally wanders from your brainstem all the way down through your neck and into your chest and abdomen – one on each side of your body. It connects pretty much everything including your tongue, heart, lungs and intestines.

How do you stimulate it?

Pretty easily actually.

Brief kumbhaka (breath retention) followed by a slow rechaka (exhalation) is one reliable method for vagal stimulation. Theoretically (we don’t yet have the science for the next part), asanas that release muscle tension in the neck (tension that could otherwise interfere with the vagus nerve) might do it. It’s possible that inversions, backbends, and twists also stimulate the many vagus nerve fibers in the torso and neck.

Not so sure that this little vagus nerve could be the source of your happiness? The FDA is.

A few years ago the FDA approved surgical Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) as a treatment for severe depression. The VNS device is surgically implanted into the base of the neck where it stimulates the vagus nerve—sending electrical signals to the heart, brain and other parts of the body. This intervention is now also being researched here in Australia at the Black Dog Institute.

Now that you’ve got some scientific support for your yoga practice (and particularly pranayam / breathing exercises) get thee on the mat. Stimulate your vagus and get happy.



{Editor’s note: direct compression of the vagus nerve may result in a sudden drop in blood pressure as well as fainting. Please use caution and check with your health care provider if you have any concerns. ~ KB}


Paula Grace Watkins lives between Sydney and Byron Bay, Australia. She’s an researcher, clinician, yoga teacher, activist, blogger and raw food fanatic. Visit her at www.thehumangarden.com.au



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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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