Diaphragmatic Breathing & The Vagus Nerve
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
This incredible magic we all hold inside, helping to keep us alive, a way of measuring our emotions, a tool to keep us centred and something so easily taken for granted, but once you tap into the power of your breath, it can become such an important aspect of your life in a very different way.
I started meditation in 2016 out of curiosity, and I have to admit it took a while for me to fully understand and enjoy these mindful moments out of my day.
Beginning with an irregular 5 minutes of Headspace here and there, 5 years on, it’s something I do almost daily and am incredibly grateful for that moment of curiosity back in 2016.
Through building a regular meditation (whether that be guided or on your own, for 5 minutes or an hour, however you choose to approach it, there’s no right or wrong) we create this awareness of our breath and the magic it can create.
I’ve noticed a couple examples of this in my own life recently, and if anything it’s made my daily meditation even more important to me. One of these being last month flying back from our honeymoon in Mauritius, a few hours into the flight we had the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced (turns out we flew through an electrical storm, so that will do it) and I genuinely thought we were going to die, but my instant reaction was to tap into my breath and take slow, deep belly breaths to calm myself. Even a year ago, I doubt that’s how I would have responded, but deep belly breaths are now my go to source of calm.
This style of breath is one I often use in my classes to either help arrive onto the mat, or to prepare for savasana, especially after a dynamic class where cortisol levels can often rise.
The Vagus Nerve
Diaphragmatic breathing helps stimulate the vagus nerve, one of the most important components of our central nervous system. The vagus nerve is responsible for our digestive system, our heart rate and our respiratory system, sending signals to these organs depending on our state of mind.
When we stimulate the vagus nerve, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system (our place of rest and digest) and our brains sends signals to our digestive organs - letting them know it’s safe to digest food (we may often hear our tummies rumbling when we feel nice and relaxed), it lowers our heart rate and slows our breath down.
We spend so much of our time in our sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight), and this is almost built into our DNA, dating back to our ancestors who needed to be on high alert for danger a lot of the time, but as we don’t need to be in that constant state of mind anymore, it’s so important we make an effort to calm our minds and our bodies, as often as we can, and one of my favourite ways of doing this, and something which is always available to us, is through breathing.
Make yourself comfortable in a quiet and calm place, sitting or lying down, whichever you’d prefer. Placing one hand on your heart space and one hand on your belly, close your eyes and start to notice how your breath feels, noticing where it’s going and spending a few moments connecting to the natural rhythm of your breath first of all.
Starting to draw the breath deeper into your lower hand on your belly next, into your diaphragm, with nice long and slow breaths, exhaling each breath as slowly as you inhaled.
Focussing on this breath and doing it for as long as you like, knowing you can always return back to it in moments of worry or anxiety, or just as a way of inviting some calm into your day.