Breathing Exercises & The Vagus Nerve
Article by Lucas Rockwood
Breathing exercises are one of the most effective ways to stimulate your vagus nerve, upregulate your parasympathetic nervous system response, and combat stress and anxiety. But with so many exercises to choose from, how do you know which are best for you? Let’s take a closer look.
Exaggerated Diaphragmatic Breathing
Your diaphragm is your body’s primary breathing muscle, positioned at base of your ribcage, separating your upper and lower thoracic cavities. All breathing practices utilize your diaphragm to some extent, but there are specific techniques that encourage a rest and digest response.
In its relaxed position, your diaphragm has a dome shape and snuggles up against your heart. When you inhale deeply, the muscle flattens down and creates extra space for your heart, resulting in an increase in stroke volume and increased heart rate. When you exhale, the muscle domes back up to increase intrathoracic pressure, slowing the heart and reducing stroke volume. These changes in pressure in the heart are sensed by baroreceptors that communicate to your brain via the vagus nerve. In this way, deep breathing increases vagus nerve activity, the heart-to-brain communication, and by exaggerating the exhale. The brain’s response is to slow the heart, promote relaxation, and upregulate the parasympathetic response.
Large diaphragmatic movements combined with a prolonged exhale are key, and when choosing breathing exercises for self-soothing, we choose practices that mimic this profile. To further amplify the rest and digestion response, we can also include two other techniques that stimulate the vagus nerve.
Ujjayi breathing in yoga, also known as ocean breathing, sounds like Darth Vader or a whisper that originates in the back of your throat. This practice oscillates your throat and, by proxy, your vagus nerve which runs down either side of your neck.
- Hold your hand in front of your face as if it were a mirror
- Open your mouth and fog up the imagined mirror by exhaling with a “ha ha” sound
- Now inhale with the same “ha ha” whisper sound
- Finally, close your mouth, breathe through your nose only, but continue to make that “ha ha” whisper sound both on the inhale and the exhale
- You’ll find the exhale easy, but the inhale takes some practice
This classic yoga technique is largely forgotten but is very easy to learn and extremely effective for vagus nerve stimulation. At the top of each inhale, close your nose firmly, and drop your chin to your chest. This chin lock gently compresses and stimulates your vagus nerve, further amplifying the rest and digest response.
As we’ve learned, when you exhale, your diaphragm snuggles up to the heart, reducing stroke volume and heart rate. During breathing exercises, if we exhale more than we inhale, we amplify this response. This simple practice has an almost immediate relaxing effect, and when combined with the other techniques covered, the result is profound.
Stress Less Breathing
During this practice you’ll combine the three techniques above: ocean breath, chin lock, and extended exhale. To practice, you’ll inhale through your nose to the count of four, pinch and close your nose, lock your chin, hold for four, and then exhale to the count of eight.
- Sit comfortably, chin parallel to the floor
- Inhale through both nostrils for 1-2-3-4
- Close your nose, lock your chin, and hold for 1-2-3-4
- Lift your chin and exhale to the count of 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1
- Repeat for 10 rounds in total
If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, glaucoma, or a pulmonary condition, check with your doctor before starting any breathing practices.