We had an up close and personal experience with the vagus nerve last week. While in Reno fasting for a medical procedure, my husband fainted in the bathroom, lost consciousness for a minute or two and cut his head in two places. After paramedics arrived, he again lost consciousness, heart rate went to zero beats per eternity, and then he magically came back. After two days and many tests (all of which came out normal), we are grateful for health and have a poignant appreciation of moments. His diagnosis was a vaso/vagal response to dehydration from fasting. With plenty of time to research and free hospital wi-fi, we now know much more about this fascinating and powerful vagus nerve, including how it responds to a myriad of contemplative practices.
The word vagus is from the Latin word for wandering (related to vagabond, for example). It was so named because this amazing 10th cranial nerve wanders all over your body, from your brain (cerebellum and brainstem) to the lowest viscera of your abdomen, touching your heart and most major organs along the way, including some major connections with your digestive system.
The vagus nerve is constantly sending sensory information about the state of the body’s organs ‘upstream’ to your brain. In fact, 80-90% of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are dedicated to communicating the state of your viscera up to your brain. When people say ‘trust your gut.’ they are in many ways saying, ‘trust your vagus nerve.’ Visceral feelings and gut-instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve (From Psychology Today The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure).
In Wisdom Healing Qigong (WHQ), we focus on bringing our minds into our bodies. In the Sound Healing practice, we chant healing vibrational sounds for the five organ systems. In Awakening Vitality and Lift Chi Up Pour Chi Down practices, we slowly move our bodies and visualize opening, expanding, and gathering energy throughout our bodies and organ systems. We focus on, get in touch with and profess gratitude for the incredible, intricate workings of our organs and cells. We send energy to where we perceive blockages and expand out to share our free flow of energy with others and with the universe. By focusing our attention and intention, we are, according to research, stimulating the vagus nerve. The nerve responds to positive energy, positive thinking. That’s why visualization works, that’s why positive affirmation works.
The Inner Smile is one of the Six Golden Keys of WHQ. It seems so simple. Think positive thoughts, smile into your brain, into your heart, into your organs. Simple. Inner Smile is taught by many Qigong grandmasters and has been a part of ancient Taoist practices for centuries.Why has this been promoted as a healthy practice for so long? Research in France indicates that facial muscles used to convey emotion trigger specific brain neurotransmitters. …Smile therapy has been shown to lower the stress hormones cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenaline. It can produce hormones which stabilize blood pressure, relax muscles, improve respiration, reduce pain, accelerate healing and stabilize the mood. (From Sarina Stone’s Medical Qigong website)
The vagus nerve, through its vast network of fibers and its major role in the parasympathetic nervous system, responds to these practices and stimulates the systems that produce healing hormones. …the vagus responds to our thoughts, both positive and negative, and due to its connection to the major organs, its responses can have far-reaching effects on our physical and mental health. (Unknown Country, The Vagus Nerve: Our Route to a Happier, Healthier Life?)
Part of healing is cultivating compassion for ourselves, others and the world. The Dalai Lama said that the seat of compassion is actually biological and — necessary for survival (Eiriu-Eolas, On Vagus Nerve, Meditation, and Health) . Professor Stephen Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago calls the vagus nerve the nerve of compassion. It’s sometimes called the Buddha nerve or the God nerve. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding. (Scientific American, Forget Survival of the Fittest: It’s Kindness That Counts).
In that same vein, studies by Nancy Eisenberg from Arizona State University show that children with a strong vagal response will stand up when others are being bullied. They’re also more cooperative and helpful to their peers. The link following is an easy read and well worth the time. ( Lovingkindness and the Vagus Nerve).
There are many ways to strengthen the vagal response. The articles linked above have many suggestions including deep, abdominal breathing, washing the face with cold water, humming, and chanting. A major strategy mentioned by all I’ve researched is to meditate, to breathe, to relax, to smile and to practice gratitude. Wisdom Healing Qigong is one way to tap into a comprehensive practice to do just that. See the Chi Center website to access online classes or join me in Bishop and Chalfant to practice WHQ. It’s always more fun to go to Vagus together! 🙂