“Your body is a site of liberation” declares poet, activist, and theologian Tricia Hersey in her radically grounding and liberating book Rest is Resistance – and if there is any way I can summarize vagus nerve stimulation, those seven words say it perfectly.
Your body is a site of liberation.
You are both a divine being who has a Soul, as well as a mammal who lives, breathes, and loves in a physical body.
Your body is a path, a doorway, a portal to freedom.
So why do we often prefer to focus just on the divine part when it comes to healing, and not the mammalian part?
Emotional healing, mental healing, and spiritual healing aren’t separate from the body. And yet, in modern wellness and spiritual circles, the nervous system – the very root of our physical existence that controls how well we function – is often totally left out of the picture.
Although nervous system healing might not be as glittery and glamorous as a lot of healing paths and practices out there, it is crucial and the deepest form of inner bodywork out there in my opinion.
☆ Note: the vagus nerve exercises I share in this article are just one part of nervous system healing, but they are an excellent first step. So please be gentle with yourself and seek out trained experts in nervous system healing if you feel the need for more in-depth guidance.
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What is the Vagus Nerve?
It is amazing how many hints and guides and intuitions for living come to the sensitive person who has ears to hear what his body is saying.– Rollo May
‘Vagus’ means wandering in Latin, which makes sense because it’s the longest cranial nerve in the human body, wandering from the brain all the way to the stomach.
Having such a huge reach throughout our bodies, the vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic (or rest and digest) system, which helps us to slow down, relax, digest our food, and connect with our environment and loved ones.
Can you see why learning how to stimulate the vagus nerve is so important? The vagus nerve has a direct influence over our heart rate, respiratory rate, and digestion.
If you have ever struggled with stress, anxiety, chronic pain, digestive issues, or problems relating to others (e.g., relationship problems), you likely possess low vagal tone, which means that your vagus nerve is underutilized, kind of like a weak flabby body that never exercises or goes to the gym.
To develop a high vagal tone (which results in feelings of calmness, ease, resilience in the face of stress, better immune functioning, improved sleep, relaxed social interactions, and so on), it’s helpful to explore and experiment with a variety of vagus nerve exercises. I’ll provide some ideas below.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation and the Spiritual Journey
As psychotherapist and pioneer in somatic psychology, Pat Ogden, writes:
In our bodies, in this moment, there live the seed impulses of the change and spiritual growth we seek, and to awaken them we must bring our awareness into the body, into the here and now.
She also writes:
The body always leads us home . . . if we can simply learn to trust sensation and stay with it long enough for it to reveal appropriate action, movement, insight, or feeling.
To clarify, learning to work with our vagus nerve helps to bring us into our bodies and therefore into the present moment.
And being in the present moment – being embodied, relaxed, grounded, and centered right here, right now – is a central part of the spiritual journey. We must be in the Now to truly receive and apprehend the miracle of existence and to live our true paths.
As you may or may not know, this space, this corner of the internet, is all about learning how to walk your own path, listen to your Soul, and deeply navigate the spiritual awakening journey. Learning to work at the level of the nervous system and bringing about healing via the vagus nerve is a much-needed part of that.
In other words, it’s all interconnected – just like the nervous system in our bodies.
7 Vagus Nerve Exercises For Nervous System Healing
The body is a multilingual being. It speaks through its color and its temperature, the flush of recognition, the glow of love, the ash of pain, the heat of arousal, the coldness of nonconviction. . . . It speaks through the leaping of the heart, the falling of the spirits, the pit at the center, and rising hope.– Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The simple idea behind these vagus nerve exercises is that triggering your parasympathetic nervous system creates more calm in the body. More calm = better physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
In other words, if your body is stuck in a fight or flight mode (aka., sympathetic nervous system activation) due to stored survival stress/trauma, these vagus nerve exercises can help you to calm down on many levels.
Studies surrounding the vagus nerve are still in their infancy, but research has already shown that vagus nerve stimulation helps to reduce inflammation in the body (1), provide depression relief (2), alleviate anxiety (3), soothe IBS (4), and many other applications (5).
☆ Important note: below I’ve selected a wide variety of vagus nerve exercises to help support nervous system healing. While I can’t assure you that each is scientifically verified or validated, I do trust in your ability to experiment and proceed with mindfulness self-awareness where necessary. If at any time you feel uncomfortable doing any of these exercises, please stop immediately and take a break. I also recommend going slowly and not overdoing this work – five to ten minutes per day is enough, so please don’t put any strain on yourself (which is the opposite of what we’re going for here!).
1. How to Build Somatic and Nervous System Capacity (a valuable pre-cursor video)
This is a valuable pre-cursor video that can give you context and authoritative guidance for nervous system healing from a somatic healing professional.
2. Vagus Nerve Activation | 10 Minute Daily Routines
A simple routine that involves tapping the belly, twisting, and pressing against the belly button – it’s quite fun!
3. Five Easy Ways to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
- 2:30 – Cold
- 3:35 – Massage
- 5:00 – Sing, hum, gargle, etc.
- 5:55 – Probiotics
- 6:50 – Sleeping on right side, not on back
- 7:37 – Gammacore, etc.
4. Turn off Anxiety in Your Nervous System (4 Ways to Turn on the Parasympathetic Response)
Provides a series of vagus nerve exercises, backed by a helpful explanation:
- 4:36 – Deepening breath
- 7:30 – Softening the eyes and peripheral vision
- 10:30 – Valsalva maneuver
- 12:05 – The yawn
5. Vagus Nerve Exercises To Rewire Your Brain From Anxiety
Provides an explanation of anxiety in relation to the nervous system, plus the following vagus nerve exercises:
- 5:29 – Gentle head roll/stretch
- 8:06 – Ribcage/neck bend
- 11:47 – Looking over the shoulder
6. Seven Ways to Stimulate the Power of the Vagus Nerve
- 8:01 – Breathwork
- 10:12 – Cold Water
- 11:35 – Tactile Sensitivity
- 14:12 – Singing
- 15:47 – Laugh
- 16:41 – Movement
- 17:45 – Nature
7. Vagus Nerve Massage
Offers a gentle vagus nerve massage (the actual massage part starts at 6:42). Simple and easy. :)
If you’d like to go deeper into the world of the vagus nerve and nervous system healing in general, I recommend looking into one or two of the following books:
To close, I’ll leave you with a quote by Goethe:
Take care of your body with steadfast fidelity. The soul must see through these eyes alone, and if they are dim, the whole world is clouded.
By taking care of our bodies and our nervous systems, we take care of our Souls. We think more clearly, feel more emotionally balanced, stay grounded, and have energy and vitality again.
Tell me, which of these vagus nerve exercises are your favorites? Do you have any others to recommend? I’d love to hear in the comments. :)