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How Yoga Helps With Stress

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

Yoga, pranayama (breathing practices), and meditation can play an enormous role in easing stress and anxiety and reducing inflammation –  an underlying cause of many illnesses.  But HOW does it work?

The tools we use in our yoga practice can help with stress by regulating your nervous system.  Researchers who study the powerful mind-body connection have found that a significant aspect of how we react to stress may be the vagus nerve (pronounced just like the famous city in Nevada).

Let’s go to Vagus

The vagus nerve is the largest cranial nerve that transmits messages between the brain and the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems.  It is a very significant messaging system that connects your brain to your major organ systems.  That means that your breathing, digestion and heart rate are all directly connected to the vagus nerve. As a result, this neural pathway aids your ability to find calm and weather the storms of life.

Toning up in Vagus

A term called “vagal tone” refers to your body’s ability to effectively react to stress. It impacts whether you feel safe and grounded at any given time. This is why practices that stimulate this nerve can improve your overall sense of security while reducing the effects of stress and inflammation.

People with high “vagal tone” have an easier time moving from a heightened state to a relaxed one. They would, for example, recover faster from a stressful argument with a boss, spouse, or their children than someone with low vagal tone. As a result, these people tend to be healthier and more resilient. Low “vagal tone” on the other hand, indicates difficultly managing stress and often shows up as anxiety, negativity, poor digestion, depression, and inflammation.

How do I get some high vagal tone?

This is where the tools of yoga come into play.  Research shows that stimulating the vagus nerve through yoga may improve vagal tone.  Yoga increases parasympathetic activity (the relaxation response) as well as heart rate variability –another indicator of resilience.

According to a 2016 study at Carnegie Mellon University, found in Biological Psychiatry, 35 people practiced meditation as a way to deal with stress, specifically unemployment in this case. After a period of four months, these test subjects showed higher levels of brain connectivity and lowered inflammation, indicating improved vagal tone. J. David Creswell, PhD, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon states, “We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience. These changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health.”

Three practices to try now

  1. Conscious Breathing: The fastest way to balance the sympathetic – parasympathetic nervous system is with the breath. To balance any over-stimulation of the sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze) nervous system, vagus nerve yoga focuses on using the diaphragm for breathing and extending the length of the exhale. For example, start with a 3 count inhale and a 6 count exhale. Learn more breathing practices to relax here.

  2. Open Your Heart: Yoga postures that open up across your chest and throat can stimulate the vagus nerve. From a seated position, bring your hands to your shoulders. Inhale, open your elbows wide, and lift your chin, expanding across the front of your chest. Exhale and pull your elbows in front of your heart and slightly tuck your chin down. Repeat several times, opening up to the feeling.

  3. Massage the Belly: Not quite literally in this case. You can, however, stimulate the vagus nerve as it passes through your belly with yoga. Start in a tabletop position on all fours with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. On an inhale, lift your head and tilt your hips as you drop your belly down toward the floor moving into Cow Pose. As you exhale, drop your head and hips as you arch through your spine into Cat Pose. Repeat moving with your breath several times as you get a gentle massage for your belly and spine.

Come practice with me

If you’d like to join me in yoga practices that really help you tap into the vagus nerve and activate your body’s relaxation response, check out my group Slow Flow classes – more details here. I also have a few available spots for one-on-one yoga instruction personalized for your specific needs – combining therapeutic movement, breath, alignment and mindful awareness to move better and feel better.  Giving you the tools you need to weather any storm and feel more YOU.  Find out more and book your spot –

How do you feel?

Let me know how you get along with these three practices.  Did you notice a difference?  Try checking in with yourself both before and after you do these exercises.  You may just find yourself feeling more ready for any challenges that come your way.  Are there other practices that you enjoy that bring a sense of calmness to your life?

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