If you are a yogi, you probably don’t need anyone to tell you that consistent practice helps
us connect our physical body with our mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. You’ve experienced it - enter the popular quote, “yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory” given to us by K. Pattabhi Jois. Our practice is experiential. Our mats are our lab. We learn every time we intentionally move, breathe, chant, or meditate, and there are no words that will ever be able to completely describe what that consistent practice brings to our lives.
But have you ever tried to explain those benefits, the transformation that happens, the stress-reduction you experience, to someone who has never practiced yoga? You can’t tell me you’ve never seen that blank stare back, or felt that tinge of disbelief, or heard the response that they understand because they work out too. So, there we are, knowing the immense transformational benefits of a practice, but unable to communicate it accurately because, well, like I said before, so much of it is honestly beyond words and only available through experience.
So for just a moment let's talk science - how we can logically show that yoga connects and heals. It connects the systems in our body for improved functioning. It connects our body, mind, emotions and spirit. It allows us the space to become aware of all of these aspects and intentionally utilize our energy to support them as needed at any given moment. While, as a yogi, I do not believe that science can explain it all (I still believe there are mechanisms at work that we cannot quantify and extrapolate), there have been several studies and writings in recent years regarding the vagus nerve, its tone, and the resulting changes from increasing its tone through yoga.
Basically, the vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, running from the brain stem to the colon. It controls both sensations felt on the skin or in the muscles (somatic components) and sensations felt in the organs of the body (visceral components), specifically heart rate, breathing rate and digestion. The vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system supports a relaxation state (often called rest-and-digest), while the sympathetic nervous system supports a tense state (often called a fight-or-flight response). When we increase the functioning ability of our parasympathetic nervous system we are strengthening our physical ability to support a relaxation state. Since the vagus nerve controls the functioning of our parasympathetic nervous system, strengthening its tone supports our physical ability to find a state of relaxation - not just while strengthening it, but at any time it is used. And, because our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in opposition to each other, a higher functioning vagus nerve means we can more easily transition between these states - in practical terms that means it is much easier to find relaxation after a state of tension.
Enter yogic breathing, chanting, movement and meditation. “Research has found that slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing increases healthy vagal tone." Exhales specifically promote vagus nerve functioning, along with heart opening across the chest, collar bones and throat. Because the vagus nerve is also connected to the belly, counter movements in the belly help to stimulate it too - think cat and cow pose alternations. And now here’s the ah-ha moment - think chaturanga to upward facing dog to downward facing dog and how the belly moves in and out in that flow, and how the chest opens - all stimulating your vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. It all gives a better understanding to why there are so many vinyasas in between postures in the foundational ashtanga sequence. Meditation has also been shown to increase parasympathetic functioning. Both meta meditation and yoga Nidra provide benefits by stimulating positive thought or physical awareness along with deep breathing that allows opening through your chest and belly.
So there it is, the most prevalent scientific concept behind the benefits of yoga. It’s interesting to hear a logical component and explanation, and know there is science that supports the process, even though it can never replace the learning that happens on our mat every day. As yogis we know to always breathe deeply, keep an open heart and find peace, not just to strengthen our parasympathetic nervous system, but also our spirit and our lives, so that we can give back to and stay connected with our inner selves and the world around us.
At Yoga Life Center, LLC we offer a strong foundational ashtanga program. The ashtanga sequence is ancient and was developed as a healing process. We also offer meditation and have an upcoming Yoga Nidra workshop. Check our classes and events - we are all over helping you stimulate that parasympathetic nervous system!
Written by Trisha Rachoy
Trisha is a co-owner and founder of Yoga Life Center, LLC. She is an ashtanga yoga practitioner, a mom of 4 kids and 2 dogs, and an attorney. She focuses on teaching both ashtanga classes and peak classes at Yoga Life Center. You can also find her leading arm balance and inversion workshops often, and hosting yoga challenges on social media. She is on Facebook as Trisha Rachoy and Instagram as @trachoy_yoga.