Regulate Your Vagus Nerve to Reduce Stress! Part 2

ayurveda brain health healthy living meditation morning practice stress-free Feb 17, 2024

Did you miss Part 1 last week?  Check it out HERE.


PART 2:  Reversing the stress response 

When you experience stressful thoughts, your body triggers the sympathetic branch of the nervous system to activates the fight-flight-freeze response, giving you a burst of energy to respond to the perceived danger. 

Your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you primarily breathe from the chest and not the lower lungs. 

This can make you feel short of breath, which is a common symptom when you feel anxious or frustrated. 

At the same time, your body produces a surge of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which increase your blood pressure and pulse rate and put you in a revved-up state of high alert. This can be helpful during times of actual threat but may be harmful if left chronically in this state. 

Pranayama (Sanskrit for Breathwork) is a practice that activates the parasympathetic nervous system. 

When you breathe deeply and slowly, it enables you to downshift from the dominant sympathetic system to the parasympathetic system, which is the body's rest and digest system

The parasympathetic branch helps you feel calm, centred, and grounded. It reverses the stress response. 

Pranayama also helps to strengthen our digestive power, or agni.  It does this through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system which optimises the digestive process. 


Mediation gets lots of well-deserved credit for helping us manage stress.  Often overlooked, but equally effective and a great warm-up for meditation, is Breathwork, also known as Pranayama in Sanskrit.  Breathwork is the practice of consciously using the breath to enhance our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. 

The word pranayama comes from two Sanskrit terms: prana and ayamaPrana is the vital life force or energy that flows through our body and animates all living beings.  It is the cosmic intelligence within every cell, tissue, and organ.  The word ayama means “to extend” or “draw out.” 

In pranayama, we use our breath to extend or expand our life-force energy and improve the communication between all parts of our mind/body system. 

Benefits of pranayama 

  • Improved cognitive functions 
  • Increased mindful awareness 
  • Reduced anxiety and depression 
  • Lower/stabilised blood pressure 
  • Increased energy levels 
  • Muscle relaxation 
  • Decreased feelings of stress and overwhelm
  • There are studies that show breathwork can help treat depression, anxiety, and PTSD by reducing activity in stress parts of the brain and increasing activity in parts of the brain that regulate emotions. 
  • Reprogram your nervous system and experience both immediate and long-term benefits  

How to practise:

1.  Diaphragmatic Warmup 

  • Take your arms up overhead and breathe as deeply as you can through your nose
  • Release the breath and lower your arms – repeat 10X
  • Then do 10 slow side stretches with breath to each side, feeling the stretch on each side
  • As you do this your rib cage will move up and your diaphragm will lower, loosening the attachments and creating more flexibility 

2.  Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing 

  • Breathe through your nose, inhaling deeply into your belly and exhaling slowly. Control your exhale so that it lasts longer than the inhale.
  • The movement of the diaphragm during this breath cycle massages the vagus nerve—and during the exhale, the diaphragm releases around the vagus nerve, improving its functioning.

3.  Coherence Breathing 

  • Coherence Breathing is a very simple breathing technique in which the length of your inhalations and exhalations will follow a set ratio. 
  • For example, Inhale for 4 counts, Hold for 4 counts, Exhale for 8 counts.
  • Whatever the length of your inhale, your exhale is just a little bit longer.

4.  Ujjayi pranayama 

  • Ujjayi means “to be victorious” or “to gain mastery.” 
  • This gentle, rhythmic breath produces a pleasant, soothing sound—similar to the sound of the ocean waves rolling in and out.
  • Think of exhaling forcefully onto your glasses to clean them—now do the same thing with your mouth closed!
  • The benefits of meditation are both immediate and long-term. You can begin to experience benefits the first time you sit down to meditate and in the first few days of daily practice. The benefits that are noted will become more sustained with a regular practice. 

Your Home Practice this week:  Pranayama

Start any of these practises gently, for a few breaths, or a few minutes, and build up over time as you become accustomed to them.

  1. Start with the Diaphragmatic Warm Up before any breathing practice, for greatest effect.
  2. A few deep breaths through the nose.
  3. Coherence Breathing:  Inhale for 4 counts, Hold for 4 counts, Exhale for 8 counts.  Repeat this sequence for 6 - 8 rounds.
  4. Brahmari (humming breath with ears plugged) 30 respirations
  5. Slow Ujjayi (ocean breath) 5-10 second count for each inhale and exhale. 5-10 minutes

Try to build up a consistent practice–without judgement!  Remember, a regular practice will increase the benefits

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