How many people do you know of that suffer from depression or anxiety? My bet is that you know quite a few. These disorders are unfortunately becoming more and more common in our western society where we are driven by ambition, a propensity for material possessions and high mortgages. The effect of this rat on the wheel living style often means we have checked out, living either in rumination over past issues or obsessing over future issues; the present doesn’t really get much of a look in. Our insidious loss of spirituality in the name of chasing cars has further impacted our wellbeing, for without spirituality, we will always be yearning for something more, a means of quelling our growing discontentment of our endless pursuits, which ultimately offer little purpose. Nigel Marsh nailed it in his Ted Talk when he said “Often, people work long hard hours at jobs they hate, to earn money to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like”. How then can we balance the pressures of modern society and find fulfilment to improve our outlook on life?
The Vagus Nerve
Developing a sense of purpose can help us recognise that our role in life has a far greater value than what we do every day. Our connection to the universe is pivotal in helping us develop beliefs around our purpose. Just as the universe has electrical currents; we also have electrons within that behave like waves in a sea of energy. One could say that we are all inherently connected to the universe by our physical being and that our invisible connections are a network of vibrations forming a unified field. It is therefore fair to say that our spiritual world influences our physical world. This is where the vagus nerve comes in. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve in our limbic brain; it is connected to our gut and our heart and plays a pivotal role in our mood. It is therefore the most obvious physical representation of the body-mind connection. We have all, at some point in our lives, experienced the “heart ache” that comes with emotional trauma or had a gut instinct that tells us when something isn’t quite right. These visceral vibrational feelings we feel in our gut and our heart, are how we feel life intensely, so if we are not feeling grounded, connected to people or our planet, our state of mind is affected and we lose all sense of our greater purpose.
The Potential of Yoga and Pranayama
Herein lies the potential of yoga and breathing techniques. Deep breathing sends strong signals from the lungs, stimulating the vagus nerve. These signals are in direct proportion to the depth of our breath. This rise of vagal response results in a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure and increases the production of serotonin, Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) and other key neurotransmitters that calm the nervous system. Anti-depressants work in a similar way but deep breathing is a natural way to stimulate our vagus nerve. Studies have shown that yoga students experience higher levels of GABA after a yoga session suggesting that yoga and pranayama are valuable tools for disorders such as depression and anxiety. 1, 2 The next time you are in the pits or feeling wired, try practising inverted postures such as sarvangasana and halasana followed by Bhramari Pranayama. Bhramari Pranayama, also called humming bee breath has an instant calming effect and is simple to do. Sit comfortably with your spine erect and allow your eyes to close. Take a few breaths to settle in and when you are ready, inhale through the nostrils and draw the back of the tongue to the throat. Exhale slowly through your nose during which time, you make a low- to medium-pitched humming sound in the throat like a bee. Your mouth should be closed during the exhalation, hence you will not hear the “zzz” sound of a bee; it will sound more like a swarm of bees. Notice how the sound waves gently vibrate your palate, throat, and ears – part of the connection to the vagus nerve. Do this practice for ten rounds of breath and then, keeping your eyes closed, return to your normal breathing and notice how you are feeling.
Of course, yoga not only calms our nervous system, it is also valuable in bringing our awareness to the present moment and allowing us to access the silent space between our thoughts. It anchors us to the earth and reminds us that we are part of an ecosystem, an expansive timeline. It initiates transformation of our ego to our real self and provides the journey in finding our greater purpose and the meaning of life.
Yoga and the journey of self-discovery
At least this has been my experience; a surprising journey that was initiated by a feeling likened to being trapped on a rat wheel. It was and has been an infinite journey of self-discovery, of unravelling the coat and the emotional baggage I had adorned myself with, mostly sub-consciously. It has been a voyage of freedom from financial duress and one of self-acceptance, devoid of feelings of ineptness, or of competency for that matter. There is no finish date; I don’t have to rush it and there are no trophies to win. Although I am not particularly flexible, yoga has undoubtedly rendered me mentally flexible. I have opened myself up to possibilities, the search for my life’s purpose has evolved and my sense of inner peace is a celebration of my journey. I’m grounded, no longer chasing cars…. just being, and for that I am eternally grateful.
“To return to our authenticity, we have to let go of all that we are not. We recognise and let go of the judgments, fears, and “shoulds” that keep us stuck.”
― Henna Inam, Wired for Authenticity: Seven Practices to Inspire, Adapt, & Lead
The yogic practice of satya (truth) focuses on carefully choosing our words so they do the least harm and most good