IBS, activating your Vagus nerve, Breathing exercises and Yoga
Your brain and gut are intricately linked—the gut is where the mind and the body meet. Your digestive tract contains hundreds of millions of nerve cells that receive a constant barrage of signals about the state of your body, thoughts, and emotions. This makes your gut highly responsive to changes in your well-being, both physical and emotional.
The problem of IBS seems to lie in how the nervous system communicates with the digestive tract and findings linking the gut and the brain help to create a path to healing.
How Yoga Can Help IBS
Stress is one of the most common triggers of IBS symptoms. Yoga can help you shut down stress by calming the nervous system—and, in the process, calm your irritated digestive system. You don’t want to struggle to squeeze your body into postures that are more painful than peaceful. Make steady, smooth breathing the focus of your practice; if your breathing is strained, it will reinforce your stress and symptoms. We will include a relaxation pose at the end of your practice, and even consider starting your practice with relaxation. This can send a clear signal to your body and mind that it is time to slow down, let go, and shift toward a healing state.
Yoga can also help you tolerate uncomfortable sensations. If you have IBS, you have probably learned to recognize the first signs of an episode. You may be vigilant for any change in sensation in your belly and gut—the pressure of bloating or the first twinge of cramping that warns you things might quickly get worse. Unfortunately, anxiety about gut feelings can actually intensify your symptoms. But if you breathe and stay with the sensation, your body learns to relax, even with intense feelings. You can learn to be with your symptoms in the same accepting mindful way that you stay with the sensations of a yoga pose. This can profoundly change your experience of the pain and keep a mild episode from becoming severe
Yoga is a perfect training ground for cultivating a heightened awareness of cause and effect in your body that carries over to choices off the yoga mat. With time, you will find yourself having stronger insights into what is healing, and what is harmful, to your body. You will find yourself wanting to do what is good for your body, and less attracted to what makes your symptoms worse.
The following sequence will help reduce stress, release tension in the abdomen, and support general digestive health. It can ease discomfort during your milder symptoms and help prevent future episodes.
You can practice this sequence on its own or following a series of warm-ups and standing poses. As you hold each posture, stay with the sensations of your body and breath. Use the least amount of effort needed to hold the postures with integrity. Remind yourself in each pose to release any unnecessary tension throughout the body.
Parighasana (gate pose)
From tall kneeling, stretch your right leg out to the right, heel on the ground, foot flat, toes reaching to the floor. Inhale and lift your left arm up; exhale and lean your torso over the right leg. Rest your right hand on a block, the floor, or your shin. Reach through the left arm and hand with clear intention, noticing how this gesture increases the stretch in the left side of your body. Feel the breath in the left rib cage, waist, and belly. Choose a position for the head and neck that feels least strained, and remember to relax your face, softening your forehead, eyes, mouth, and jaw.
Stay in the pose for 5 to 10 breaths, then repeat on the other side. After practicing this posture on both sides, return to kneeling. Place your hands on your side ribs, and feel the movement of the breath under your hands. Inhale and exhale patiently and fully, letting your rib cage expand and contract.
Ardha matsyendrasana (half-seated spinal twist)
Come into a seated position, extend your left leg and cross your right leg on top, planting the foot flat on the ground next to your left knee. Then bend your left knee and bring the left foot to the outside of the right hip. Sit evenly on both hips and lengthen up through your spine. Slowly turn your torso toward the right leg. You can hug the right knee with your left arm, or bring the left elbow across the right thigh and press the outer thigh into the upper arm. As you exhale, slowly draw your navel toward your spine to help press the breath out smoothly. You may find that you can twist a bit more with each exhalation, but do not force or strain.
If this twist feels too compressive, try twisting in the opposite direction—to your left, away from the top leg. This version of the pose gives a little more space for the abdomen to relax and for the belly to breathe.
Hold for 5 to 10 breaths, then switch sides.
Jathara parivritti (reclining abdominal twist)
Lie down on your back with both legs straight. As you exhale, bend your right leg and hug it in to your belly. Pause here for a couple of breaths. Then take the right leg across your body, rolling to your outer left thigh and hip. Reach your right arm back, extending straight out from the shoulder, palm up. Let your right shoulder blade come off the ground, so that the spiral of the posture moves all the way from your legs through your pelvis, spine, ribs, and chest. If the pose feels too intense, consider placing a blanket or other support underneath the right knee and/or right arm. As you rest in the pose, feel the breath stretching the lower belly, side waist, and chest from the inside out.
Hold for 5 to 10 breaths, then return to lying on your back. Repeat on your left side.
Salamba setu bandhasana (supported bridge pose)
Place a bolster, a stack of firm blankets, or a block underneath your hips and lie on your back. Make sure the support is under your sacrum and pelvis, not your lower back or ribs. Slide your legs out straight, and relax your arms by your side, palms up. If you have a strap, loop it around the mid-thighs to support your legs in place. The strap should be tight enough for you to completely relax the effort in your legs, but not so tight that the legs are squeezed together. If you don’t have a strap, you can place the soles of your feet against a wall to provide more support for your legs.
Stay in this posture for at least 10 breaths, and up to five minutes. As you hold the posture, bring your awareness to your belly. Imagine that you are inhaling and exhaling through your navel, the breath moving into and through any tension in your abdominal organs. Sense the tension dissolving with each breath. When you come out of the posture, rest for 5 to 10 breaths lying on your back, hands on your belly.
If this posture is not comfortable, or you do not have props available, consider another gentle inversion, viparita karani (legs-up-the-wall pose).
Ananda balasana (happy baby pose)
Lie on your back, hug your knees into your chest, and take a breath or two, feeling your back relax into the support of the ground. Then let your knees drop wide apart, and reach the soles of your feet toward the ceiling. Keep your legs bent, with your feet directly over your knees. Hold on to the big toes or the sides of your feet. Relax into the pose, without trying to pull yourself deeper into it. Let the arms be straight, shoulder blades dropping to the ground. Relax the weight of your hips, lower back, and ribs, and feel the stretch in your groin and hips. Let the movement of your breath and belly fill the open space between your legs. Stay here for 10 breaths.
If this posture is too intense a stretch for your hips, practice supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle pose) instead.
After you complete this sequence, rest in savasana (corpse pose). Practice slow abdominal breathing, allowing the belly to rise and expand as you breathe in, and sink as you breathe out. Place your hands on your lower belly. Let this gesture be a comfort, reminding you of your deep desire to take care of yourself. If you have any discomfort in your abdomen, imagine the breath moving into and through the pain. Let the breath lead you into a state of deep rest and healing.
When your mind perceives something dangerous or stressful it activates the sympathetic nervous system which dumps adrenalin and other stress hormones into your body and your body responds – the blood pulls toward large skeletal muscles, Your body becomes ready for fight or flight mode a signal of readiness is sent to the brain the physical response you begin to breathe faster.
The brain perceives that your body is wound up and interprets it as confirmation that there is real danger present and continues with the stress response, which, in turn, keeps the body in a fight-or-flight mode, which then sends those stress signals back to the brain – and so the cycle goes on and on.
To break out of the loop you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest mode)
– convince your mind that there is no more danger or to stop the biological stress response so that the body signals the mind that it is no longer in a fight-or-flight mode. What’s important to us here is that the vagus nerve would communicate both of those messages, since it is responsible for most of parasympathetic messaging both from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain.
You can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve by getting yourself into the rest-and-digest mode because this nerve gets activated during the parasympathetic response.
The vagus nerve branches to yourthroat, lungs, heart and abdominal organs (not the large skeletal muscles).
You can control the depth of your breathing and the muscles of your larynx (that open and close the vocal cords and control the pitch of sound), which the branches of the vagus nerve also happen to innervate. So then it would make sense that to facilitate the parasympathetic response in the body (and stimulate the vagus nerve), we would need to exert influence over those two main areas.
Breathe (Pranayama) Energy - elongation of
Every time you inhale you activate your sympathetic response a bit (heart speeds, vagus nerve is suppressed); if you hold the air in, that response is accentuated.
Exhale we activate the parasympathetic response (and the heart rate slows down a bit, vagus nerve is active); if you hold the air out for few seconds it will facilitate the parasympathetic activation. The relationship between different parts of the breath matters as much as the depth of the breath = VAGAL TONE
Variability between the heart rate on the inhale and the exhale. The greater that variability is, the higher vagal tone you have, which means that your body can easily switch from the fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest mode and visa versa. It basically reflects your resilience.
“Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. One of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation. Low vagal tone means this regulation is less effective and inflammation can become excessive.”
Yogic science of ratio,
When we work with ratios we work on extending the length of four parts of the breath (inhale-hold after inhale-exhale-hold after exhale) as well as changing their relationship to one another for the purpose of sympathetic/parasympathetic management.
Think of your breath as a scale with the inhalation part of the breath (inhale + hold after inhale) on one side and exhalation part of the breath (exhale + hold after exhale) on the other side.
If you want to promote parasympathetic activation and vagus nerve stimulation you would need to gradually lengthen your exhale and pause after exhale.
The longer you make the exhalation part of the breath in relation to the inhalation part (comfortably), the more pronounced the parasympathetic effect will be. Just keep in mind that deep breathing is still important, so you don’t want to make your inhalation too short – deepening the breath in general is still a priority.
Inhale : Hold after Inhale : Exhale : Hold after ExhaleInhale : Hold after Inhale : Exhale : Hold after Exhale
1. 6:0:6:0 – 4 breaths
2. 6:0:8:0 – 4 breaths
3. 6:0:8:2 (adding a pause) – 4 breaths
4. 6:0:8:4 (lengthening the pause) – 6 or more breaths
5. 6:0:8:0 (to transition back to normal breathing) – 4 breaths