I have to admit, I get excited when modern science catches up to ancient wisdom teachings. It satiates that conditioned part of my skeptical western mind to ask “But where’s the proof?” while simultaneously giving me permission to let my wings continue to reach for the spiritual skies.
So, if you haven’t yet heard of the vagus nerve, please let me introduce you…
The vagus nerve, stretching from the brain to the colon, is the longest cranial nerve in the human body. Aptly named for its vagrant composition, it wanders, stretching its squiggly branches to connect most of the major organs from the brain, down both sides of the heart and lungs, and following the spine to the digestive organs.
The vagus nerve plays an important role in nearly all aspects of our wellbeing from affecting stress response and reducing inflammation to aiding in the development of compassion and intuition. It also helps regulate all of our major bodily functions: breathing, heart rate, digestion, and even how we perceive, process, and glean meaning in our lives.
Interested? Here’s what you need to know…
The vagus nerve is the queen of the parasympathetic nervous system —
Vagal activation is associated with the part of our nervous system that is known as “rest and digest” or the one that helps us chill. This nerve can become inactivated when our body is in a constant state of “fight or flight” due to the stress and anxiety that runs rampant in modern society, keeping the sympathetic nervous system in survival overdrive. While this response has its purpose, it’s not meant to last beyond a few minutes. Today, we often find ourselves in prolonged stress response states, often eliciting them ourselves. Activation of the vagus nerve brings the two branches of our nervous system into balance, inducing our relaxation response, slowing our breath, and regulating our heart rate.
The vagus nerve is responsible for the mind-body connection —
As discussed in many eastern philosophies, the mind and body were considered separate entities — one where the mind exerted control and was therefore superior to the body, leading to shame around bodily desires (links can be made to obesity, sexual desire, and so forth). But other philosophies, such a yoga, saw the mind and body as a part of the coherent whole influencing one another and therefore intimately connecting to one another’s wellbeing.
Since the vagus nerve connects the brain to almost all of the major organs in the body, its role as mediator between thinking and feeling can be used to dismantle the mind-body distinction. The vagus nerve communicates information bidirectionally, with most of the communication moving from the body to the brain.
The vagus nerve is intimately involved with the heart —
Not only does the vagus nerve regulate the heart rate and blood pressure, it is an important player in your emotional health. Emotional processing happens between the brain, heart, and gut — a main reason why we have strong gut reactions to intense emotional and mental states. Additionally, it’s responsible for bringing the mind and heart into a state of resonate balance, also called coherence, which creates harmony supporting higher states of awareness. High vagal activation is what brings feelings of compassion and connectedness to one another, so if you’ve ever heard that humans are wired for compassion your vagus nerve is to thank for that.
The vagus nerve helps you achieve blissful states of consciousness —
Flow, or the rewarding state of consciousness that feels good when a person loses themselves wholeheartedly in an activity, is also described as “relaxed but heightened arousal.” This state is marked by the balance of yin and yang energies of the two branches of the nervous system, to which the vagus nerve plays a crucial role. Vagal activation is also linked to a feedback loop that is rooted in a smaller sense of self and reduced egocentric bias, including experiences of awe and wonder that produce spiritual feelings of ecstasy. Vagal activation is your secret weapon to getting high on life.
The vagus nerve is that “gut” feeling —
The vagus nerve is like a walkie-talkie between your gut and brain, using electric impulses to communicate how you feel. Your gut feelings are very real. So much so, that the gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain and vagal tone is important to developing our intuition or “gut knowings.” This connection between the gut and the brain is also known as the gut-brain axis and is a hot topic when it comes to wellbeing.
Ancient yogis likely knew the secrets of the vagus nerve, instead referring to it as the “kundalini serpent” because of the fact that it reaches all the way from the colon to the brain. The nerve is composed of mainly upward firing pulses, much like the mystical kundalini that arises from the root chakra (colon) to the crown chakra (brain). Its function is to “collect data” from the organs and glands, bringing information to the brain for deduction. When stimulated, the vagus nerve can also reduce inflammation and trigger the body’s natural healing system — which is similar to the role of kundalini energy.
Om namaha shivya!
Marcia Paige Hamelin is a 20-something trying to make sense of this world and hopefully help others along the way. A reiki master, meditation guide, yoga teacher, writer, photographer, and world traveler, Marcia delivers honestly from her own journey of self-discovery and hopes to empower others to find home in who they are. Her *always* obsessions are silence until black coffee is had, being small at the edge of the ocean, and feeling her feelings. Connect with her at marciapaigehamelin.com or on Instagram at @marciapaigehamelin.