Does yoga really stimulate the vagus nerve? Here’s what the science says

Young adult women practicing yoga together in a yoga studio
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Can yoga stimulate the vagus nerve? Once you’ve set aside some time, positioned yourself onto one of the best yoga mats and found your flow, the ancient practice of yoga can be very beneficial. It can improve your range of motion, encourage better balance and yes, this low-impact exercise is even able to stimulate your vagus nerve. 

The vagus nerve is the biggest cranial nerve in the body. It runs from the medulla oblongata (the bottom-most part of your brain) to the large intestine, passing the heart, lungs and liver on the way. It’s a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system, and science tells us that this nerve is responsible for the regulation of internal organ functions, including digestion, heart rate and respiratory rate, among other things. Stimulating your vagus nerve can send a chemical message to your body that it’s time to destress and relax after periods of stress. 

But how does yoga help to stimulate this nerve? And is there a specific kind of yoga that’s best? To help debunk this topic, we spoke to certified health coach, personal trainer, group fitness instructor and fellow yogi, Araceli De Leon from the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

What is the vagus nerve?

Your body has 12 cranial nerve pairings which send electrical signals between your brain and your body. The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve.

De Leon explains: “Although referred to as singular, it is actually a pair of nerves. Your vagus nerves are the longest mixed cranial nerve, running from the left and right side of the medulla oblongata portion of the brain stem to your large intestine. Your left vagus nerve travels down the left side of your body. The right vagus nerve travels down the right side of your body.”

Araceli De Leon
Araceli De Leon, MS

Araceli De Leon, MS, is an ACE certified health coach, personal trainer and group fitness instructor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University and a master’s degree from Point Loma Nazarene University, both in kinesiology. Araceli is also a certified 500-hour yoga teacher, she enjoys teaching yoga and co-leads yoga teacher training. 

What is the role of the vagus nerve?

According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, the most important function of the vagus nerve is ‘bringing information of the inner organs, such as the gut, liver, heart, and lungs to the brain.’

And, it’s for this reason De Leon tells us, this nerve plays a vital role in sustaining overall wellness. “This nerve is the sensory network that tells the brain what’s going on in our organs. It’s responsible for actions such as carrying sensory information from the skin of the ear, controlling the muscles that you use to swallow and speak and influencing your immune system.”

The vagus nerve can also stimulate muscles in the heart, according to findings published in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, working to lower resting heart rate. De Leon adds: “It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline response to danger.”

Young woman performs yoga moves on bluff above sea

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How does yoga stimulate the vagus nerve?

You can stimulate the vagus nerve in a number of ways. 

De Leon says: “In the thorax and abdomen, the vagus nerve is the main parasympathetic outflow to the heart and gastro-intestinal organs. In the heart, cardiac branches arise in the thorax, conveying parasympathetic innervation to the sinoatrial and atrioventricular nodes of the heart. 

“These branches stimulate a reduction in the resting heart rate. They are constantly active, producing a rhythm of 60 – 80 beats per minute. If the vagus nerve was lesioned, the resting heart rate would be around 100 beats per minute. 

“Yoga helps regulate the parasympathetic nervous system by reducing resting heart rate, breathing patterns and allowing the body and mind to release stress from daily life. For these reasons, yoga may help in increasing resiliency to life stressors and self-regulation, thus increasing vagal tone.”

The vagus nerve is also connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. 

Meaning? “Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve,” De Leon says. “Some yoga practices include singing, chanting and Ujjayi breath which will also stimulate the vagus nerve,” De Leon adds.

So if you’re looking for a science-backed way to reduce stress and slow down your breathing, yoga could be it. 

Why is it good to stimulate your vagus nerve?

According to Danielle Willis, yoga coach at audio-led fitness app WithU and fitness coach Omar Mansour, good ‘vagal regulation’ or ‘vagal tone’ is an ‘indicator of psychological resilience, which allows us to better cope with stress, anxiety, and discomfort’. They said: “When our vagal tone is dysregulated, our autonomic system is also off balance, which means both our physiology (body) and psychology (mind) is less capable of handling life.

“When we’re ‘in alignment’ as we call it in yoga, our tolerance levels are at a healthy level. Our digestive system is able to process nutrition, our energy levels are stable, and most of all, we’re calmer, happier, and better able to rebound with life.”

Check out our guides to “is yoga good for you?” and the benefits of yoga for more information on this popular practice. 

Becks Shepherd

Becks is a freelance journalist and writer writing for a range of titles including Stylist, The Independent and LiveScience covering lifestyle topics such as health and fitness, homes and food. She also ghostwrites for a number of Physiotherapists and Osteopaths. When she’s not reading or writing, you’ll find her in the gym, learning new techniques and perfecting her form.