With all the focus on aerobic exercise, you could be forgiven for thinking that what your heart wants is for you to constantly running, swimming or cycling. But a number of medical studies are showing that practicing yoga can significantly contributes to cardiovascular health. These days, doctors and other health practitioners are increasingly recognizing the benefits of yoga for the healthy functioning of the heart. More research, particularly in the past five years, is revealing how regular yoga practice can help to manage the levels of cortisol and adrenaline – the fight or flight/stress hormones – that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and put pressure on the heart by narrowing the arteries and raising blood pressure.
This calming effect on the body and mind is due in large part to the activity of the Vagus Nerve, that has been dubbed the “air traffic controller” of our nervous system. The Vagus is our largest cranial nerve, connecting the brain to the rest of the body via the facial muscles, heart, lungs, digestive tract, kidneys and reproductive organs. The Vagus Nerve plays a key role in the function of the parasympathetic nervous system (our ‘all-safe’ response) and helps to regulate many bodily functions including breathing, digestion as well as how we receive and interpret information from our environment, in particular our social environment.
What is fascinating cardiologists is the connection between the Vagus Nerve and the heart. They have discovered that the Vagus Nerve regulates heart rate through electrical signals and the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. It is this neurotransmitter that tells our lungs to breathe. And here lies a key. If our body is getting flooded with stress signals what can we do? It turns out that we can indirectly stimulate the Vagus Nerve (and thus develop a more finely tuned response to danger and safety) by working with the areas and functions that it controls; throat, lungs, heart and abdominal organs, but especially by working with our breath.
Pranayama, the kind of slow, rhythmic abdominal breathing that we learn to do in yoga has been shown to stimulate the Vagus Nerve and improve what is called ‘vagal tone’—that is, the body’s ability to accurately interpret signals of danger and safety and to better cope with stress. This practice, embedded for centuries within ancient wisdom traditions, is fast coming to be seen an advanced biohack technique and a promising part of the future of medicine.
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