Ear Massage for Vagus Nerve Stimulation


Research has shown that stimulating the vagus nerve can have a profound impact on our wellness. Stimulating the vagus nerve can help balance the autonomic nervous system, promoting parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) activity.

One way to stimulate the vagus nerve is through ear massage. When the vagus nerve is stimulated through ear massage, it can trigger a relaxation response in the body. This response is characterized by a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels. It can also promote better digestion, reduce inflammation, and improve mood.

Ear massage involves applying gentle pressure, gentle pulling, and circular motions to specific points on ear. Key target areas include:

Tragus: The small, pointed projection in front of the ear canal.
Cymba Conchae: The upper part of the ear’s concha, which is the hollow next to the ear canal.
Ear Canal: The passage leading from the outer ear to the eardrum.

Massage each target area for 1-2 minutes, repeating the process several times if desired. Note that there is no wrong way to do this. Personally, I find a gentle pulling or tugging motion through the outer perimeter of the ear to feel relaxing.

You can perform ear massage once or twice daily, or as needed for relaxation and stress relief.

This is an easy and safe technique that you can do to leverage the therapeutic potential of vagus nerve stimulation.

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Your Guide to a Better Night’s Sleep

In the midst of our bustling modern lives, achieving quality sleep can feel like an elusive dream. As we grapple with the demands of work, relationships, and technology, the concept of a peaceful night’s rest might seem like a distant fantasy. Yet, amidst this chaos, there are practices which can be very beneficial techniques to give you the upper hand and gently guide us back to sound sleeping. Here are a few pointers to get you on your way to a better night’s sleep.

Sleep Hygiene Practices

This first section outlines some basics around setting the stage for a better night’s sleep. You’ve probably heard these sleep hygiene tips before, but I wonder, are you doing them? These simple strategies are effective at both helping you fall asleep and improving your quantity and quality of sleep.

  • Keep a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Your body needs to become habituated to going to bed and getting up at set times, whether it’s a weekday or weekend. It sounds like tough love, but if you force yourself to get up, say, at 6:30 am for a few days, regardless of how you slept the night before, and then to go to bed promptly at 10:30 pm, it can help you reset your sleep pattern. It might be painful for a few days, but it will likely be worth it. Of course, having a consistent sleep schedule is not always possible for shift workers, and when this is the case, taking a look at all other strategies to ensure quality sleep becomes evermore important.
  • Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol too Close to Bedtime: These substances affect your readiness for sleep or the quality of sleep you get. As any coffee lover knows, caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you awake. It is best to avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, cola, and some pain relievers) for four to six hours before bedtime. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a sedative, and while it may help lull you into sleep, sedatives have a rebound effect and increase the number of awakenings throughout your night. Alcohol limits the amount of REM sleep we get and this is the crucial sleep which helps to store and organize our memories. 
  • Get Daily Exercise: A regular exercise routine can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Exercise strengthens circadian rhythms, and may stimulate longer periods of slow-wave sleep, the deepest and most restorative phase of sleep. Everyday it is important to find time for some movement – a walk/hike, a run, bike ride, weights, yoga class, swimming, an interval routine, or home calisthenics routine (aiming for 20-60 minutes). It is especially helpful if you get outside for your exercise, and particularly during the earlier part of the day, for the purpose of light exposure. Exposure to natural light in the day primes the evening release of natural melatonin that supports healthy sleep.

    It’s important to remember, however, exercise stimulates the body to secrete cortisol, which helps activate the alerting mechanism in the brain. So if you exercise too soon before bed you are fighting the cortisol in your system. Try to finish exercising at least 2-3 hours before bed or work out earlier in the day.
  • Minimize Light Exposure Before Bed: Light slows down the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep, and blue light from screens seems to be the most potent at doing this. Get the melatonin kicking in by dimming the lights in your home before bedtime. If you use a device before bed, turn the brightness level down on the screen, or consider using blue light blocking devices. Blinds in your room or using an eye mask can be helpful to block out the light while sleeping.
  • Keep Your Bedroom Cool: Cold induces sleep due to lower brain temperature. Research suggests a cool bedroom of around around 18-19 degrees Centigrade (66 degrees Fahrenheit) is best for sleep.  
  • Reduce Environmental Noise: Although it seems obvious, sometimes we don’t take the steps to minimize environmental noise. If you are a light sleeper and easily jostled by sound, consider using earplugs or “white noise” machines. Many people use a fan for white noise, which also helps keep the room cool. 
  • Set up a Bedtime Ritual: Along with establishing regular bedtime and wake-up times, it is helpful to set up a soothing bedtime ritual. If you’ve ever put a baby to sleep, you know how important these routines are in settling a wakeful brain into sleep mode. It works the same way for adults. Plan a relaxing routine for the 30-60 minutes before bed. This won’t be the same for everyone. For one person, it might be 15 minutes of meditation followed by a cup of chamomile tea. Someone else might like a warm bubble bath accompanied by calming music. Get the lights dim in the house, this also cues the brain that sleep time is coming.

Yoga Techniques

Yoga, with its rich tapestry of postures, breathwork, and meditation, offers a holistic approach to fostering a tranquil state conducive to restful sleep. In this section, I’ve listed some yoga techniques to help calm the mind and relax the body, which can be part of the bedtime ritual. I do not go into detail with the techniques listed below, but you will find links links to previous blogs I have written on the techniques with more detail. 

  • Breathing: At the heart of this transformative practice lies the power of deep, mindful breathing. By incorporating pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques, one can effortlessly invite a sense of calm and relaxation, paving the way for a peaceful transition into the realm of sleep. Try incorporating these breathing techniques in the evening to unwind before bed: Ujjaiya breathing and belly (diaphragmatic) breathing combined with a focus of slowing exhales
  • Gentle Yoga Poses: Certain postures can serve as a lullaby for the body, gently releasing tension and encouraging a state of tranquility. The poses shown below take advantage of calming practices such as inversions and vagus nerve stimulation to soothe the nervous system, helping the body shift into a state of ease and relaxation before bed.
  • In the realm of the mind, the meditative aspects of yoga hold the key to unlocking a peaceful sleep cycle. By incorporating mindfulness and meditation into one’s practice, individuals can cultivate an inner stillness that serves as a powerful antidote to the restlessness of the day. There are countless guided meditations you can source online and through various apps. Ultimately, you are looking for anything that promotes feelings of ease. Here are recordings of a progressive muscle relaxation meditation, a body scan meditation, which are all excellent for promoting relaxation and allowing for a seamless transition into a restorative sleep state. 

Cognitive Strategies

Anyone who has experienced insomnia will tell you the whole process of going to sleep is complicated by the fact that your mind develops a whole range of negative or anxious thoughts about it. These thoughts then prevent you from sleeping. However, by questioning the validity of these thoughts, we can decrease their power to cause us anxiety. Here are some typical negative thoughts of people with insomnia, and for each one, I’ve included an alternate response to challenge the negative thought and reduce anxiety :

  • Negative thought: “I’ve got to fall asleep right now or I won’t be able to function tomorrow.” Alternate response: “ Actually, there’s no urgency. You’ve done without sleep before. You’ll be a little tired, which is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it’s hardly the end of the world.”
  • Negative thought: “It isn’t normal to have this kind of insomnia. It means there’s something wrong with me.” Alternate Response: “ Unfortunately, insomnia is quite common. Almost everyone experiences it sometimes. No one will think less of you for having it.”
  • Negative thought: “I could will myself to go to sleep if I tried hard enough.” Alternate response: “Trying to force yourself to sleep never works. It increases anxiety, which only fuels your insomnia. It’s better to let go of the attempt, and give in to not sleeping. Then you can relax a little.”
  • Negative thought: “I need to remember all the things I’m lying awake thinking about.” Alternate response: “If something is worth remembering, get out of bed, write it down, and go back to bed. There’s plenty of opportunity to plan things tomorrow.”
  • Negative thought: “I never get enough sleep.” Alternate Response: “This is probably true for most people; you are not alone. It’s simply uncomfortable and inconvenient. It’s not the end of the world.”

I hope this blog gives you a few new ideas on how to improve your sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is an underestimated aspect of our health and well-being. By incorporating these science-backed tips into your routine, you can set yourself up for a more restful and rejuvenating night’s sleep. Remember, it may take time to see significant improvements, so be patient and consistent in your efforts to achieve better sleep. Sweet dreams!

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Re-frame and Befriend Anxiety

In our over-stimulating world, our systems responsible for anxiety are being triggered in ways that it was not designed for. For many of us this has led to an increasing frequency and intensity of our body’s anxious response. However, if anxiety can be re-framed in terms of its relationship with the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) we can appreciate its usefulness and regain some control.

The job of the ANS is to scan the environment (both the external and internal environment) for signs of threat or danger. In her book, the Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Debb Dana describes the ANS as acting like a security system of a house. It is always on guard, scanning all incoming information at a rapid processing level (beyond our awareness) to detect any signs of danger or threat. As soon as threat is detected, the sympathetic response is triggered, and the body’s systems are put into action for fight or flight mode. Here’s where anxiety steps in. What we know to be typical anxiety symptoms (increased heart rate, tight/constricted breathing, hyperventilation, sweating, muscle tension, constricted vision, dizziness, feeling of being outside of oneself) are all normal experiences of the fight/flight response. These symptoms may feel uncomfortable, but they are normal and expected. Our system is getting ready to run, resist, or fight the threat. All of this is important when we need to protect ourselves a dangerous situation.

Unfortunately, those of us with anxiety know that it can sometimes show up without good reason and be detrimental in our functioning. This is because your nervous system can be triggered by false threats the same as it is by real threats. In fact, we humans have such powerfully imaginative minds that the simple act of thinking about a stressful event can activate the fight/flight response in the body. The speedy ANS doesn’t distinguish between a real, immediate threat versus one that you are replaying in your mind from last week or one that you are imagining in the future.

Keep in mind a surge of anxiety symptoms is not really a problem in most cases – the signal comes, we feel it briefly, and assuming there’s no actual danger, our system calms down returning to a regulated state. A problem occurs when the feelings of anxiety are particularly intense or untimely because people can start fearing the anxiety itself. This can lead to a cycle of increasingly frequent and sometimes debilitating symptoms.

Fortunately, we can use mindfulness to interrupt this spiral. If we can monitor our wandering minds when they drift to stress-provoking memories or imaginational stories, we can redirect our minds to the safe present moment, quelling the nervous system’s threat response. Therefore, when we feel that fear of an anxious response rise up, we can turn it into cue to return our thinking to the present moment. Take a couple of breaths, bring your mind back to a task, feel your feet on the ground, be present.

We can also acknowledge, that while the acute symptoms of anxiety are not comfortable, they are completely safe. Getting familiar with how your anxiety feels and welcoming the multitude of sensations is an important part of integrating it into your life. We can learn to accept the feelings of anxiety, and even befriend them.

The reality is, no amount of resisting, avoiding, or pushing away your body’s response to anxiety is helpful in the moment; it will just fire up the nervous system’s protective response even more. Alternatively, you can take a breath and say, “Thanks nervous system for alerting me, I realize you are just trying to protect me, but I’m okay right now.” We can observe and accept anxiety with a sense of curiosity and non-judgment. Rather than labeling your anxiety as “bad” or “unwanted,” observe it as a natural response to a perceived threat or stressor and use your mindfulness to determine whether that response is to something imagined or real.

 

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How to Feel Your Feelings

People often talk about “feeling your feelings” but what does this really mean? 

The key to understanding this is to remember emotional processing is an embodied (or in your body) experience – it’s not just in your mind. So when a feeling comes up, you may have lots of thoughts or stories about what it means, but to truly feel your feelings, you need to attend to the sensations in your body. For example, where do you feel it? Is it in your belly, is it in your chest, is it in your arms? How would you describe it? Is there heaviness, constriction, restlessness? Give attention to the details of the bodily sensations and allow them to be felt.

The second part of feeling your feelings requires you to inquire, “What is it asking of you?” If it’s sadness, it might want you to cry. If it’s anger, it might want you to yell. If it’s disappointment, it might want you to move or shake. The key is to be with it fully, express it, and let it move through you as opposed to resisting it. On the other side of this expression is where you will find relief, and likely, a readiness to move on. 

Our human brains are a powerful instruments that can override and suppress the felt-sense of emotion. At moments, this can be helpful because sometimes we are not in the environment to full express the emotions moving through us. However, when we suppress emotions too often, or block the “big feels”, they don’t go away, but are rather stored in our bodies through the physiology of our nervous systems. So this is a gentle reminder of the importance of finding safe moments to truly feel and process your emotions.

Un-stick those feelings and give movement to your emotions…

Write them out
Walk them out
Talk them out
Shake them out
Cry them out
Dance them out
Scream them out
Draw them out
Stretch (yoga) them out
Hug them out

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Parallel in Yoga Therapy and Counselling – a Strengths-based Approach

I love doing yoga therapy. I have been a yoga therapist for many years now and I’ve had much success in helping my clients progress in their mental health problems. I also love doing counselling work which is why I went back to school to become a registered counsellor. During my educational training for counselling, I needed to contemplate and develop my preferred therapeutic style. What I learned is there is a common thread that binds my approach in yoga therapy to my preferred orientation in counselling and this is through the strengths-based paradigm.

In the realm of mental health and personal growth, the traditional problem-focused approach in counseling has long been the norm. However, many mental health professionals are recognizing the power of the strengths-based approach in fostering positive change and empowering individuals. Rather than solely focusing on deficits and difficulties, this approach centers around uncovering and harnessing an individual’s innate strengths, skills, and resources. When the spotlight is shifted to a person’s strengths, they are empowered to take ownership of their personal growth journey and overcome challenges in a unique and meaningful manner.

Yoga therapy is typically an adjunct therapy to counselling and is unique in its interventions through the implementation of yoga postures, breathing exercises, meditations, and other yoga based practices for symptom management and relief. In my opinion, one of the significant pieces to the healing that occurs in yoga therapy is the clarity individuals gain when given an opportunity to be in a setting where their mind is calmed and they get a chance to connect to their bodies. During these moments, insight often emerges and I hear statements of certainty about what needs to be done to help themselves heal. The client’s plan for healing is completely self-generated; my role is to simply facilitate the inquiry and promote the setting for the client to make this connection, and in this way, a strengths-based orientation is in play.

Central to the strengths-based approach is the idea of empowerment, and this is where the two disciplines merge. In both yoga therapy and a counselling of this style, the client is encouraged to trust that what presents true and important to them through self inquiry is where the focus is placed. In a strengths-based approach clients are encouraged to recognize their unique capabilities, past successes, and existing resources to tackle challenges. In yoga therapy, empowerment emerges when a client discovers they have the answers within themselves and realize this potential. Both bolster confidence and self-efficacy for one’s healing journey and equip an individual with the resilience needed to face future challenges.

In a world that often magnifies weaknesses and problems, the strengths-based approach offers a refreshing perspective that empowers individuals to harness their innate potential. In doing yoga therapy, I have seen its tremendous benefit towards self-realization and meaningful transformation. I look forward to further connecting to this orientation in my practice of counselling therapy.

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Yoga Therapy and Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance refers to the psychological discomfort or tension that arises when a person holds contradictory beliefs, attitudes, or values, or when their actions are inconsistent with their beliefs. With human nature comes an inherent motivation to maintain consistency between our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, and when there is a discrepancy between these elements, it creates a state of internal discomfort, or cognitive dissonance.

To reduce cognitive dissonance and restore a sense of internal consistency, individuals often employ various strategies such as rationalizing or justifying their behavior, seeking out information that supports their choices, minimizing the importance of the inconsistency, or changing their beliefs or attitudes to align with their actions. Left unchecked, these coping strategies can become enduring patterns in one’s life, leading to confusion, struggle, and even somatic health problems.

Yoga therapy can be a valuable tool in helping individuals address cognitive dissonance and promote inner harmony. Here are a few ways in which yoga therapy can support individuals experiencing cognitive dissonance:

  • Increased Self-Awareness: Yoga therapy encourages individuals to cultivate mindfulness and self-reflection. By practicing yoga, individuals can develop a deeper understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. This heightened self-awareness can help individuals recognize and acknowledge cognitive dissonance within themselves.
  • Emotional Regulation: Yoga therapy incorporates breathwork (pranayama) and relaxation techniques that can help individuals manage their emotions. By learning to regulate their breath and calm the mind, individuals can better cope with the discomfort and tension that cognitive dissonance may bring.
  • Mind-Body Connection: Yoga therapy emphasizes the integration of mind and body. By engaging in physical postures (asanas) and movement, individuals can develop a greater sense of embodiment. This mind-body connection can provide insights into how cognitive dissonance manifests physically and emotionally, facilitating the exploration and resolution of the underlying conflicts.
  • Cultivation of Non-judgment: Yoga therapy encourages non-judgmental self-observation and acceptance. Through yoga practice, individuals can learn to observe their thoughts, beliefs, and actions without harsh self-criticism or judgment. This compassionate self-awareness can create a safe space for individuals to explore their cognitive dissonance with kindness and curiosity.
  • Exploration of Core Beliefs: Yoga therapy can offer a platform for individuals to examine their core beliefs and values. Through guided reflection, journaling, or discussions, individuals can explore the origins and implications of their conflicting beliefs. This process can lead to a deeper understanding of oneself and open the path to resolving cognitive dissonance.
  • Integration and Harmonization: Yoga therapy aims to create balance and integration within the individual. By incorporating practices that promote harmony between body, mind, and spirit, individuals can work towards resolving cognitive dissonance by aligning their thoughts, beliefs, and actions.

It’s important to note that yoga therapy should be used as a complementary approach alongside other therapeutic interventions, such as counseling or cognitive-behavioral techniques, depending on the severity and nature of cognitive dissonance. A qualified yoga therapist or mental health professional can provide guidance and support throughout this process.

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The Deeper Meaning of Savasana

Lying on one’s back, with arms and legs falling gently to the side, slow and soothing abdominal breathing relaxing every muscle, Savasana.

Did you know there is more than just relaxation to this pose? The hint comes from its name Savasana, a Sanskrit word translated as Corpse Pose, and this is both literal and symbolic. This pose asks you to practice lying like a corpse while considering the nature of one’s own consciousness in relation to life and death. No small order when you consider it seems to be humanity’s theme to live in a state of resistance to the reality of death. Yoga challenges this fear head on. Savasana, the practice of dying, is an essential part of living fully, and an essential part of spiritual practice.

In most modern yoga classes you will see Corpse Pose embedded at the end of the class, however, traditional yogasana routines would begin and end with it. This carefully designed structure was intended to bring awareness to the cyclical nature of being, as it carries the participant through a symbolic cycle of death, birth, action, and death during a single yoga session.

As we come to Savasana at the end of the class, it’s ultimately a practice of letting go. It’s the yogic way of letting unwanted elements within us die, empowering us to surrender to life. It serves as self-awareness, a reflection of how we hold so tightly to all that we cannot control within and around us, and how difficult it can be to rest in stillness and vulnerability. Traditional yoga teaches us that letting go into stillness requires practice as we challenge ourselves to work with the restless nature of the mind and the layers of resistance to accepting things as they are, including the inevitability of death.

Through Corpse Pose, as we develop the skill to enter into a relaxed consciousness, living fully in our experiences, moment-to-moment, we are called to a deeper connection. Here the bridge to the soul is strengthened, the heart opens, and our inner teacher awakens. Being a corpse is the yogi’s spiritual wake-up call. We learn we are more than our bodies; we are more than our egos.

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Embodiment

What does it mean to be embodied and why is it important?

In yoga and counselling circles, this term means to connect one’s awareness through the body – accessing the senses and registering internal cues/sensations from inside the body. For example, you might notice the feeling of your breath, the temperature of your body, areas of pressure or tension, or sometimes noticing more complex experiences such as the feeling of an emotion or the energetic state of your nervous system. When we sense what is happening in our bodies, our attention shifts to the present moment, which also means we are engaging in mindfulness. I often use the term “embodied mindfulness” to reference when we are paying attention to the present moment through our bodies.

Over the years of working with individuals in a yoga therapy setting, I’ve learned people vary tremendously in their skill level of embodied self awareness, and this is important because both our physical health and emotional health require us to listen and receive information from our bodies in a skillful way. Many individuals who have experienced trauma or suffer with depression tend to be low on their ability to get embodied, and indicates the need to reestablish this connection for healing (Bo Forbes, Neuroscience of Depression, 2022). I like to remind my clients, emotions are not just experienced in the mind, they are a head to toe experience, and therefore the body needs to be included in the healing.

Learning to listen to the signals within the body is all the more important when you consider more information goes from our body to our brain than our brain to our body. About 70% of information from our nerves goes from our body to our brain, sometimes known as the information superhighway through the vagus nerve. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that the vagus nerve is so closely entwined with the digestive system that stimulation of the nerve can improve irritable bowel syndrome.

Moreover, when we develop the skill of embodiment, and use our bodies as resource for understanding what is going on in around us, we can better discern whether our responses accurately reflect our circumstances. For example, you can use your sensory awareness to determine if you are reacting fearfully in a situation that is actually safe, or alternatively, needing to listen to cues of danger that maybe your mind didn’t register. In essence we are opening the communication lines between mind and body, and this opens all doors for mindful, healthy living.

Good news! Developing your ability to sense what is going on inside can be practiced and improved. Begin by taking a couple minutes everyday to sit quietly with your eyes closed and ask yourself what you notice in your body – any sensations, tension, feelings, or what’s your breathing like?… Whatever shows up is information about what is going on for you, and with that information you can discern what is needed going forward.

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Interrupting the Wandering Mind is Helpful for Depression


Research is proving, a wandering mind is not a happy mind. A study done by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that 47% of the time, people were thinking about something other than what they were actually doing, and regardless of whether the wandering thoughts were positive or negative in nature, the more thinking time spent out of the present moment related to greater unhappiness (Killingsworth, M. and Gilbert, D., 2010). Considering these results and the increasing prevalence of depression and other mood disorders, it makes sense we learn strategies to interrupt and steer our wandering minds. Yoga and mindfulness can help you get there.

You might be wondering what is so bad about a wandering mind. For this, consider where your thoughts go when left to wander. The mind ruminates on past events; it elaborates in self-evaluation, comparing, and judging; it daydreams and imagines future scenarios (often negative); and it assigns stories to experiences. Wandering minds jump from direct experience into elaboration – taking you from the present moment into the past, future, or fantasy. As much as this can contribute to creativity, when left unchecked, the wandering mind develops habits of analyzing and projecting negatively towards ourselves and others, making it a very unhealthy addiction.

So, if being lost in our thoughts is making us unhappy, it is important to learn ways to lessen the mind’s natural inclination towards wandering. Ultimately this is about interrupting the moments when we get lost in thought and learning how to redirect ourselves back to the immediate experience, in other words, becoming more mindful. We can do this by accessing our senses – take a couple deep breaths and feel the sensation of the breath moving, smell the air, scan your environment, feel the weight of your feet on the ground, etc. We can also do this by immersing ourselves in the states of creative flow, choosing activities where we are totally absorbed into the experience of the activity, e.g., music, dance, art, gardening, etc.

In yoga and meditation, we practice embodied mindfulness, which is particularly helpful for interrupting the wandering mind. Embodied mindfulness is simply being aware of body experiences as they happen, and we learn to do this without narrating, evaluating, or judging what we are sensing. By noticing what you feel in your body, we teach ourselves to come back to the present moment through the internal sensations, heightening our interoceptive abilities. Embodied mindfulness also helps us build emotional resilience (Bo Forbes, The Neuroscience of Depression (boforbes.com). Regularly checking in to what you notice in your body, without needing to control, change or fix what we feel, gives space for the emotions to be there and helps them move in our bodies, and this can interrupt a cycle of rumination or feelings getting “stuck”.

Try these practices to strengthen your mindfulness skills and “rein-in” the wandering mind:

  1. Body-based Check-ins: Embodied mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced and it doesn’t have to be reserved to yoga class. You can do a couple minute practice anytime in your day.

    Start by settling your attention inwardly (it is helpful to close your eyes) and sense what you notice in your body (without the need to interpret, control, change or fix what it is that you feel). E.g., Do you have tension anywhere? How does your breath feel? Are there any feelings or emotions present and where do you feel this in your body? Are there any other sensations are present in your body and where? If at any time, you come across difficult feelings, see if you can meet them with self compassion. Try breathing into the feeling and notice how it shifts and changes over time.
  2. Mindfulness Meditation with Mental Labeling: In this style of meditation, you are developing the brain’s capacity to recognize when it has wandered off and to learn your habits of what types of thoughts you are ruminating on (giving you insight). Lastly, it gives you practice to how to let go of thoughts.

Find a comfortable seat, set a timer for 5-10 minutes, and close your eyes (or cast your gaze downwards if preferred). In the meditation you aim to keep your mind steady on one thing, usually the feeling of your breath somewhere in your body, and whenever your mind wanders away, the mind can be recruited to briefly step in and label the type of thought you’re having. For example, you can say “obsessing over details” or “negative self-judgment” or “revisiting the past”, and then you return your focus to back to your breath. This is repeated every time you notice your mind has wandered simply as an act of recognition. Don’t be discouraged if you repeatedly do this, that’s totally normal and it’s the important part of the training.

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Somatics and Yoga

For many of you who have attended my yoga classes, you’ll likely recall a portion of the class is devoted to gentle movement patterns linking breathing in and out. The pattern would go as follows: engage a body part (like shrugging the shoulders) on the inhale, and then relax or do the opposite motion (lower the shoulders) on the exhale. These movement patterns, are always done slowly and with mindful attention to the body’s sensations. This is pattern of movement is known as somatics, and is very helpful to reducing chronic muscle tension, pain, and retraining the nervous system out of habitual holding patterns.

Somatics describes any practice that uses the mind-body connection to help you survey your internal self and listen to signals your body sends about areas of pain, discomfort, or imbalance. Somatics can be applied to many different movement practices such as yoga, tai chi, dancing, Pilates, etc. As these practices become more mindful through the somatic process, they allow you to access more information about the ways you hold on to your experiences in your body.

Thomas Hanna, an educator in the field, coined the term in 1970 to describe a number of techniques that share one important similarity: they help people increase body awareness through a combination of movement and relaxation, and specifically a process known as pandiculation. Pandiculation in it’s original definition means the act of stretching oneself, especially on waking (picture the yawn and stretch). Pandiculation is our innate response to the sensations of lack of movement and to tension building up in our muscles.

A somatic exercises is essentially a voluntary pandiculation exercise. The muscles are contracted and released in such a way that feedback loop in our nervous system, which regulates the level of tension in our muscles, is naturally reset. This resetting reduces muscular tension and restores conscious, voluntary control over our muscles. This prevents the buildup of tension and pain in our muscles is critical to maintaining healthy posture and movement.

Somatics are a great resource for nervous system regulation. Breaking the cycle of chronic and unconscious tensing patterns in the body it so important for both physical and emotional health restoration, and this is why body somatic exercises are offered in my classes and individual work.

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Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi, pronounced as ‘ooh-JAI-yee’, is a sanskrit term meaning victory; and pranayama means the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises; therefore, ujjayi pranayama means “victorious breathing”, and in the yogic traditions, this breathing technique helps you achieve victory over the unsettled mind.

Ujjayi pranayama is frequently practiced in many yoga classes because of its simplicity and effectiveness. Due to the way this breathing style elongates the breath and brings focus through sound, it is especially helpful for stimulating the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, which brings about a relaxation response in the body. Research has found that slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing increases healthy vagal tone. When we are ramped up with stress (an over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system), conscious breathing techniques, such as Ujjayi Pranayama, where there is good diaphragmatic movement and extending the length of the exhale, are especially helpful.

Ujjayi pranayama requires a slight constriction in the back of the throat by engaging your whisper muscles which produces a light audible quality to the breath and creates a warmth in the throat where the vagus nerve runs through. The sound encourages a wakening of the inner ear, and as we listen to that sound, it anchors our attention.

How to do Ujjayi Pranayama

To learn this breath, exhale out of your mouth as if you are fogging up a mirror, making a “haaa” sound from the back of the throat. Practice this a few times and see if you can extend the length of the “haaa” sound. Now, breathe in the same manner but close your mouth and exhale out of your nose, noticing the whisper sound coming from the back of the throat. Some people describe the sounds like the waves of the ocean.

It is important to note the sound produced by the constriction of the throat is traditionally done on both the inhale and exhale; however, I find it helpful to start with practicing making the sound only on the exhale, at least until it becomes more familiar and comfortable.

Start with an even count for your inhale and exhale. For even deeper relaxation, gradually increase the length of your exhale as compared to the inhale. For example, you might start out with a 4-count on the inhale and exhale the exhale to a 6 or 8 count exhale. This has a calming effect on your parasympathetic nervous system.

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Adhi Mudra for Anxiety

A mudra is a specific position of the body most often involving the hands and fingers which is used to symbolically channel the body’s energy flow for a desired effect or intention.

Adhi translates to “first” because this is the first mudra we do prenatally. It is a self-soothing gesture and comforts us during anxious times. Adhi Mudra draws the excess mental activity down into the body where it can be processed and grounded making it a good mudra to try when feeling anxious.

Adhi Mudra is an easy mudra to do at anytime, for example you can do it during meditation, in a yoga pose, during pranayama, or you can easily hold your hands in this position during a stressful moment in your day and no one will know that you are doing something to ease your anxiety. 

How to practice Adhi Mudra

  1. Find a comfortable seated position.
  2. Hold your thumbs in the center of your palms and wrap your other fingers lightly around each thumb. 
  3. Rest the knuckles of your hands downward on your lap (downward facing hands is associated with calming the mind while upward facing hands is associated with increased energy/alertness).
  4. Relax your shoulders, face, and forearms. 
  5. Hold this gesture for a few minutes and notice how it feels, then release your hands.

Try combining this mudra with slow diaphragmatic breathing for extra benefit to calming anxiety.

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How Yoga Can Help Manage Chronic Stress & Burnout

Living during the time of a pandemic with worldly tensions around every corner, combined with constant societal pressure to be pushing, achieving, and being productive, and there’s no mystery why so many are teetering on the edge of burnout. Stress is a part of life; it is certainly not going away, and in order to thrive, we need to weather the storms. It is critical we learn ways to keep our nervous systems resilient so we can continue to “bounce back”, and yoga’s ability to improve nervous system flexibility can help manage chronic stress and even prevent burnout.

Chronic Stress & Burnout

Some of us are so used to being chronically stressed that our systems barely remember or know what it feels like to be restored and relaxed. Signs you are dealing with chronic stress are not being able to relax, finding it difficult to switch off from thinking or doing, irregular/rapid heart rate, panic attacks, insomnia, frequent bursts of irritation, rapid/shallow breathing, digestion problems, aches and pains from tense muscles and extreme tiredness.

It’s a very fine tipping point from chronic stress to burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It could be the compounding effect of one thing after another or it can be one big event like taking care of a sick loved one or losing a job or home. Burnout happens as a result of a complete overwhelm to the nervous system; it’s when our bodies literally force us to stop doing by shutting us down. In burnout, your nervous system shifts to a state of “freeze” (see dorsal vagal pathway in the polyvagal theory), which presents with symptoms of feeling frozen, numb, void of emotion, and having no motivation or energy.

Unfortunately, when dealing with high stress, we often make unhealthy lifestyle choices which heighten our risk for burnout, e.g. poor diet, too much caffeine, lack of sleep, no exercise, and numbing out or “leaving the body” by scrolling or binging on media. Unfortunately, these habits create a pattern where we are not replenishing our systems, nor are we processing anything – there is no emotional discharge, and our experiences can get stuck in the physical body.

We can interrupt and counteract this accumulation of internalized stress through yoga. Plenty of research is underway to understand this relationship better. The current research focusing on stress and burnout in healthcare workers, shows yoga is effective in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal and psychological issues, and in subjects who practiced yoga and mind-body meditation, sleep is improved and stress levels and burnout are consistently reduced.  The Use of Yoga to Manage Stress and Burnout in Healthcare Workers: A Systematic Review (nih.gov).

Below I highlight a few of the helpful ways in which yoga interrupts the compounding effect of stress and the shut down response of the body. It is important to note there are many different styles of yoga. For the purposes of this topic of stress and burnout, I am speaking about yoga of a slow and gentle nature, and practices which are intentional in its therapeutic application of pacing, posture choice, meditation, and breathing techniques.

Yoga Applications to Manage Stress and Burnout

Inner Body Sensing (Embodiment)
Yoga teaches us awareness skills of what’s happening within our bodies – noticing feelings, sensations, energy levels, body positioning, etc.  When we regularly practice tuning inwards to the senses of the body, we get more familiar, more comfortable, and more tolerant of that which we can receive, including experiences which are unpleasant. This helps be more proficient in digesting all the emotional-mental stress that is moving through us and we become more resilient to stressful and emotional times. In addition, by being more embodied, we are better able to attend to momentary muscular tension and this can awaken us from a shut-down response.

In my classes and in yoga therapy sessions, I often take the students through a mind-body check-in to heighten the skills of inner body sensing. Once this process is familiar, the check-in can be used throughout your day to keep the flow of body-based processing going and become more proficient at assessing your nervous system status, allowing you to intervene with therapeutic tools (breathing, meditations, gentle yoga) as needed. This helps to lower anxiety or awaken us from a shut-down response.

Try this quick mind-body check in to improve your embodiment skills (can be done in any posture and any time in the day):

  • Start by noticing where your body is grounding. If standing feel your feet to the ground; if sitting or leaning, feel the connection of ground through your seat, back and legs; if lying down, sense the back of your body and all the places it makes contact to surfaces beneath you.
  • Move your attention to sensing how you are holding yourself – posture, body tension, and notice any other sensations present with you in the moment.
  • Sense your breath and notice the rate and depth of your breath in this moment.
  • Reflect on anything else that seems to be present withing your internal body awareness – feelings, thoughts, energy levels, etc.

Mindful Breathing and Moving
Breathing properly is key to regulating our nervous systems and an important antidote to chronic stress and burnout. Breathing slowly, through the nose and with good movement in the diaphragm will help recovery. Be aware if you have a pattern of hyperventilation or upper chest breathing (it is very helpful to do regular checking of your breath throughout the day). Focus on long smooth breaths, breathing into to the lower lungs (expanding low ribs and belly on the inhale), and working towards a slightly longer exhalation, will help to engage the vagus nerve and parasympathetic division of the nervous system. Check out this information page for more information on how to do proper diaphragmatic breathing.

Mindful movement is about paying attention to what you feel as you move and making decisions of how much of a stretch or how long to hold a stretch based on what feels helpful in the moment. Many slow paced, gentle yoga classes are excellent to encourage the mindfulness aspect while moving; however, doing a few stretches on your own can be very effective as well. The process is accumulative – the more your body relaxes from the mindful movement, the more the mind relaxes and the nervous system regulates, and this pattern becomes more efficient with practice.

Try this short yoga class focusing on mindful movement. For more classes like this, try Stretch & Relax Yoga which is offered as a drop-in class at In Balance Yoga.

Intentional Rest (relaxing or restorative yoga postures and meditations)
When you take time to properly rest (not zone out on your phone), but enter a state in which you find a comfortable posture, close your eyes, and actively encourage a quieting of the mind and body, then your brain waves shift from the active thinking, known as Beta state, to the slower Alpha state where decompression happens. Brief periods of relaxed, alpha state in your day will assist the brain with waste removal, aid in the consolidation of new skills and knowledge, and serve as a way to balance the drive for productivity. After intentional rest in alpha state, your mind is more receptive, open, creative, and less critical, and this is important to restore the balance of stress and burnout.

Doing a restorative yoga pose or guided meditation, such as body scans and Yoga Nidras, will provide you with a moment in your day for intentional rest. Check out this blog highlighting a few yoga techniques and postures to stimulate the vagus nerve in relationship to regulating the nervous system. When possible, it is beneficial to close the eyes and use an eye pillow when resting. The light pressure on the eyeballs from the pillow stimulates the vagus nerve and oculocardiac reflex, facilitating the relaxation response.

If you want to learn more about how yoga can help you manage chronic stress or return you to a more regulated state in the case of burn out, consider connecting with a yoga therapist. With guidance and practice, you can develop better regulation skills for emotional resistance to stress and burnout.

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Yoga Techniques to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve plays a central role in your emotional and physical health. The vagus nerve travels from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. Therefore, any yoga practices that stimulate these areas of the body can improve the tone of the vagus nerve. Stimulating the vagus nerve has a regulating effect on your body and mind, helping you regain balance if you are either ramped-up with anxiety or shut down with pain or fatigue.

You can learn how to regulate the functioning of your vagus nerve with these yoga techniques:

1. Diaphragmatic breathing – increases vagal tone and this can be accented by extending the length of the exhale to be longer than the inhale.
How To Do Diaphragmatic Breathing – YouTube

2. Body scan with progressive muscle relaxation – doing a scan of your body to identify where you are holding tension and then consciously releasing those areas of tension. (When short of time, focusing on releasing the tension around the eyes, face, jaw, and tops of the shoulder is especially helpful in to improve vagal tone).
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation – YouTube

3. Practicing yoga postures that open across your chest and throat – Examples: cow pose, shoulder extension stretch, sphynx pose, fish pose (active or supported)

4. Poses that release or stimulate the belly – Examples: cobra pose, prone lying over cushion, child’s pose with folded blanket connect to abdomen, back extension over bolster

5. Loving kindness meditation – this meditation helps to establish feelings of positive emotion and connection with others, as part of the social engagement properties of the vagus
Loving Kindness Mediation – YouTube

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A Therapeutic Approach To Yoga For Trauma

One of the defining features of traumatic events is the loss of choice over what happened to you. The events can leave you feeling helpless, trapped, or powerless. Therefore, an important part of recovery from trauma involves realizing that you do have choices available to you now, and a therapeutic approach to yoga should provide the same. In a trauma-sensitive yoga class you will feel free to decide things like how to move and breathe or whether you want your eyes open or closed. 

When we do not feel as though we have choices, our nervous system can perceive this as a threat, and shift us into sympathetic activation making us feel agitated or fearful in our body. Therefore, it is important to search out yoga classes where options and invitational language is used. The class should offer room to explore movements, take rests, and encourage pacing which feels helpful and safe. 

When embarking on yoga experiences and dealing with trauma, I invite you to think of your yoga space as being sacred and nourishing…and each time you come to your mat it is like a pilgrimage to your body, mind, heart, and soul. Therapeutic yoga for trauma recovery is best supported when you have a calm and peaceful environment for your practice. You might find this within a class, or if you are choosing to begin a home-based practice, I encourage you to take some time to prepare your space to be comforting for your body and mind—preferably somewhere you can minimize the unpredictable or chaotic aspects of life.

Ideally, the class and setting you choose for yourself should feel safe enough for you to relax and give you plenty of opportunity to make moment-by-moment choices depending on your needs. Doing yoga with this baseline of safety will then allow you to observe your body and mind for patterns of tension or changes in how you are breathing that arise as you practice, and potentially release trauma related emotions from your body. When yoga is done this way, it can help you reconnect to your body in a positive and empowered way.


Renee offers individualized yoga therapy sessions for individuals dealing with the effects of trauma, where the nature of trust, choices, and safety are put at the forefront of the sessions. Healing from trauma requires a process of re-learning to trust and regulate the feelings in the body through the nervous system, and yoga therapy treatments or trauma sensitive yoga classes provide a very helpful starting point for this healing.

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Wellbeing Practices To Support The Winter Blues

As we near the start of winter and work through the shortest, dark days of the year, it’s important to monitor how this affects your emotional and spiritual wellbeing. In the winter months, it’s easier to get socially isolated, which strongly affects our mood, and some people are especially sensitive to the limited daylight exposure and suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Here are five things you can do to keep your resiliency up through the season.

1. Get socially connected
This will be our second pandemic winter and the effects of prolonged social distancing on mood can’t be understated. Connecting with others in a safe way is very important.
● Make it a priority to get out and see people. Make an effort to set up visiting date times and when Covid safety is a concern, meet outdoors, wear a mask, or visit with them virtually
● Create a new social obligation for yourself, for example, start up a weekly class of anything that peaks your interest – art, fitness, education, etc. Many classes have an online option when needed
● Increase your volunteerism; it helps combat feelings of isolation

2. Prioritize outdoor time
● As often as possible, try to get 30 minutes exposure to daylight (not through windows) 
● You can combine this with walking outdoors to get some exercise

3. Stick to routine
When our bodies fall out of routine, our internal systems (digestive system, nervous system, endocrine system, etc.) can become disregulated, making us feel worse. Sticking to a routine can be very helpful to keep our mental and physical health at its best.
● Give yourself an 8-hour sleep opportunity nightly, minimize exposure to screens just before bed to help boost natural melatonin production
● Keep bedtime and wake up times as consistent as possible
● Stay consistent with your eating schedule on weekends
● Regular exercise boosts your mood, and you’ll pump extra oxygen to your brain, which can help you feel more alert

4. Consider supplements in your diet, particularly Vitamin D
As our exposure to sunlight dwindles in the winter, our stores of vitamin D naturally decrease, and if your diet is low in Vitamin D, you’ll likely benefit from some supplementation. 
● To combat SAD, research shows Vit D3 (the type that your body naturally produces through your skin) is favoured over D2 for helpfulness
● If you are unsure about your diet and need for supplementation, consider consulting with a dietician or naturopath

5. Yoga and meditation
● Yoga promotes circulation, strength, and flexibility, and can help combat pain and lethargy
● Classes promote social connection to others in group settings
● Certain meditations, such as gratitude or loving kindness meditations, encourage the feeling of connectedness with others and help the release of the “feel good” hormones in the body – dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Try this Loving Kindness Meditation: Loving Kindness Mediation – YouTube

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I Wish I’d Met Yoga in my Youth

Take a think back and try to remember your youth… what stands out in your memory?
I have lots of milestone memories, as the teen years are a very significant time, but sadly, outside some of those ‘stand-out’ memories, the general theme for my youth is a feeling of not really being at home in myself. Teen years are a naturally confusing time as there is so much change going on in the body and of one’s position in life, but my time was even more confusing with this feeling of being lost—I didn’t know who I was, what I liked, or what I wanted. I had no guiding compass and this led to many poor decisions on my part as I was easily swayed by others’ ideas and opinions. This is an experience I’m sure many of our youth can relate to today.

Fast forward to now. After many years of practicing and teaching yoga, I developed a healthier relationship with my body and mind, learned how to self regulate, manage stress and emotions, and achieve better balance in my life. Most importantly, though, yoga has given me enough self-awareness and connection that it has empowered me to know who I am and what I want so that I am able to make right decisions for myself. Sheesh! I wish I’d been introduced yoga when I was younger.

Now consider the youth of today, and the weight of pressures they are facing. We are currently living through the second year of a global pandemic, full of uncertainty, fear, and isolation. Combine this with the regular pressures of the teen years as they navigate life through a distorted lens of social media and YouTube, and the and it’s no wonder why mental health illness is on the rise in our young people. We are living in a world of overstimulation and constant busyness and we rarely have opportunity to pause, reflect, feel, and quiet the internal monologue. We are starving for connection with ourselves and there is a degrading ability to know how to do this, and our youth are especially suffering.

This is where yoga fits in, it’s a discipline that directly counteracts the ails of our disconnected lives. Yoga provides the safe setting where you get time to move your body to feel better, time for introspection, and to learn skills of how to focus and calm—it’s a refuge from the rush. There are simple practices which help calm the racing mind, regulate emotions, and reconnect to ourselves. It’s actually all very simple… it just needs to be learned and practiced. I really think it’s time we get our young people learning the wisdom of yoga and valuing the self care that they need. It’s a perfect time in their lives to develop healthy new patterns and thrive through the inevitable pressures of life.

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Finding Your Center (a meditation)

Have you ever paused to consider what the phrase ‘center yourself’ really means? I think most of us have a notion that this means to settle excessive mind chatter and to ground ourselves inwards, and I would agree with this. Over the years of practicing yoga I have found it a very valuable skill to drop in and connect that feeling of my internal center. To get started on this process, try the guided meditation below. Do this daily for 1-2 weeks and notice how it can help you feel less scattered, and have better clarity in navigating your day. 

Instructions for meditation: Finding Your Center

  1. Come to a comfortable seated position, close your eyes and connect to your body in the way of sensing and feeling—notice the sense of grounding of your body, the weight of your body, the posture, and any other sensations.
  1. Then sense the core of your body from the inside and notice where you would locate the feeling of your body’s center. Take some time to land in just the right spot where you feel your center to be. Try not to get too literal on this one, see if you can connect to your personal “feeling” of center. 
  1. Begin to sense the flow of your breath moving in and out of your body and gently direct the breath towards this internal center area. Work with long, smooth breaths, filling and releasing from your center. 
  1. Now connect with your center on a feeling level and sense how this part of you holds an energy about it that is knowing and calm. This is a place where all the distractions of busy life fall away and only a personal truth remains. Take a moment to ask your center what it knows to be true at this moment, and see what shows up. Or ask yourself, “What is important in my life today?” Take whatever shows up and let this be information for you on how to move forward in this moment, or on this day. 

To be guided in this meditation, play the video below

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Why You Need To Prioritize Sleep

I’ve been working on a project of creating a self-help PDF on ways to improve your sleep from a yoga perspective. Originally my interest stemmed from the fact that I, like many of you, struggled with episodes of insomnia in my life. It was particularly bad for me in my more anxious youth, before I met yoga, and I would overthink many nights into oblivion. Fast forward to now, with many years of practicing yoga, meditation, and plenty of learning about how to improve my sleep, and I can say my episodes of insomnia are much less and much more manageable. 

One of the most influential sources of motivation that brought me to a turning point of taking my sleep health more seriously was hearing an interview with sleep expert and researcher Matthew Walker. You can find many lectures, podcasts, and written work by him, but ultimately his message is loud and clear—you need to prioritize your sleep way more, as the lack of sleep is literally killing you! Until delving into his work, I always assumed I could catch up after a bad night or two, but after perusing Walker’s work, I realized this couldn’t be further from the truth. His research shows anything less than 7 hours of sleep, for most adults, is sleep deprivation, and there are major health consequences when we don’t get this amount of sleep. In fact, there does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough). So in this blog I want to share some of his more poignant points about why you need to take getting a good night’s sleep more seriously:

-Drowsy driving is the cause of hundreds of thousands of traffic accidents and fatalities each year. Tragically, one person dies in a traffic accident every hour in the United States due to a fatigue-related error, in fact, vehicle accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.

-Sleep enriches a diversity of memory functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices. Without the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night, studies show severely reduced capacity in all memory functions. 

-Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

-Sleep deprivation degrades cardiovascular health. Shorter sleep was associated with a 45 percent increased risk of developing and/or dying from coronary heart disease. Adults forty-five years or older who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven to eight hours a night.

-Sleep disruption contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Sleep recalibrates our emotional brain circuits, allowing us to navigate next-day social and psychological challenges. 

-Dreams help mollify painful memories and provide a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity.

-Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. In the body, sleep restocks the immune system, helping fight malignancy, preventing infection, and warding off colds and flus.

-Sleep deprivation affects hormone balance in both males and females affecting reproductive capability.

-Inadequate sleep—even moderate reductions for just one week—disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic.

-Weight gain is associated with poor sleep. Too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you feel hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction.

-Sleep deprivation ages our skin and we literally look less attractive from it.

If you find these points intriguing, I strongly suggest you check out some of Matthew Walker’s work, starting with his very informative TED talk: Sleep is Your Superpower. My hope is to motivate you to prioritize your sleep more, as it has been a huge omission in the public health education for mind and body health—it is just as important as the type of food you eat and the amount of exercise you get, yet regularly under-considered. Don’t doubt all manner of health can be helped with a regular sleep schedule, and if you are ready to get started on improving your nightly zzz’s, I look forward to sharing more information on how to improve your sleep through yoga and other tips in the PDF I have coming out in the fall. 

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Struggling with Downward Dog? 5 Tips To Give You More Comfort

This iconic yoga pose is not as easy as the yogi’s make it look. There are plenty of reasons why your beginner yoga body may not adopt this pose so quickly. When I first started yoga, I recall the feeling of effort and struggle in downward dog (DD), and I dreaded it each class. For me, it was the tightness in my shoulders and posterior leg muscles, and lack of awareness on how to properly engage my muscles and modify in this pose, which caused the strain. It took me a few years before I found comfort in DD, and looking back, it was a combination of experiences, awareness, and practices which helped me. So for those of you struggling with DD, here are five tips which might help you progress in this pose:

Tip 1 – Know how you look in the pose

I realize part of the challenge is that some of us aren’t aware of what we are doing in DD, and we have no idea that our alignment is creating an inefficiency. The picture below (left) shows the most typical alignment I see in beginners, or in students who get stuck due to the lack of range of motion (ROM) in their shoulders, hips, and legs. Typically, the back is rounded, the shoulders have not reached full flexion, and the head is in front of the shoulder line. The picture on the right utilizes alignment arrows to highlight how the upper body is shifted forward from the triangular frame.

Now I am the first to preach that we don’t want to get too caught up in “perfect alignment” since it can make us lose sight of our body’s safety and comfort for the sake of outward appearances. However, in the case of DD, learning what you look like in the pose can tell you a lot about how to direct your efforts for more comfort. It is well worth your while to take a look in the mirror, or even better, take a picture of yourself in the pose, and if your DD looks anything like the picture above, please keep reading the next few tips to establish greater ease and comfort in this pose. 

Tip 2 – Check your shoulder ROM

In order to create the straight line of the upper body in DD, it requires full ROM in the shoulder flexion. It’s good to first know if you are restricted in shoulder flexion, and you can assess this by simply reaching your arms overhead (without letting your back arch) and noting if you can get your upper arm in line with your ears. It makes sense that if you can’t do it standing then you won’t be too successful in DD. Below, the picture on the left shows standing flexion with restricted ROM and picture on right shows full ROM.

If you find your shoulders are tight, you may need a little extra practice stretching into this motion, and a convenient way to do this is to do puppy pose (picture below), where you can deepen your shoulder flexion. This pose serves as a great warm up for DD as well.

Also, for tight shoulders, the spacing position of our hands in DD should be noted. When kneeling on all fours (table top pose), before entering DD, ensure that you position your hands forward from the shoulder line. You can also play around with the distance between the hands; try placing them slightly wider than shoulder width if that provides you with more comfort and ROM.

Tip 3 – Let go of perfectly straight legs and heels down

If you have tight hamstrings and calves, it is going to be very difficult for you to get straight legs and heels down. If you fight against this tightness, it means something else will need to give in the alignment, and often the back gets rounded and the body’s alignment shifts forward to compensate. I strongly suggest letting go of the goal to have straight legs and flat feet. Instead, bend the knees and keep the heels lifted. Put your focus more on tilting the sit bones of the bottom up and lengthening through the spine. In fact, I advise always mastering the bent-knee down dog first, and then progressing towards straightening the legs and later to the heels. Some people need to stay with the bent-knee DD their whole lives, and that’s okay!

A side note about the legs in DD, sometimes it’s nice to use this posture as a purposeful way to stretch the calves, and when this is our intention, give yourself permission to focus on that area and let worries about alignment go.

Tip 4 – Learn the shift

Ultimately, in order to create the most energy efficient DD, we want the weight between the hands and feet to be even. However, for many of us, all the weight is through the arms and shoulders because our upper body alignment is positioned too far forward. What we need to balance this out is to learn to engage the upper body—press through the hands, lengthen through the arms and spine, and create a shift of our upper body back (aiming to move the rib cage more towards the upper thighs). Have a look at this shift demonstrated with a chair version of DD below (the chair version is a nice way to first learn the shift; however, just make sure you anchor your chair so that it doesn’t slide). Also, note, this shift back with the torso does require a decent amount of shoulder strength, and this may need to develop overtime.

Note, some people are hyper mobile in shoulders, and if this is you, it’s important to be conservative in the shift back and more important to engage the muscles about the shoulder girdle and core to prevent excessive shoulder flexion and spinal extension. Again, this is where having a picture of yourself helps to draw awareness of what your body is doing.

Tip 5 – Note head alignment

Don’t forget the neck is part of the spine. Our goal is to keep length and neutrality through the entire length of the spine, and some people leave the head hanging down (see poor head alignment below in picture on the left, and good head alignment in picture on the right). It helps to come back to the shoulder flexion of the upper arms being in line with the ears, and our gaze should be towards the feet.

Hopefully some of these tips are useful in helping you create more comfort and ease in DD. It’s certainly worth your while if you plan to do yoga regularly—this classic pose is sure to keep showing up in your classes!

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Improve Your Balance in Yoga

Balance is a learned skill, and we must practice our balance in order to improve it. For many adults, our daily activities do not challenge our balance systems enough and it worsens over time. This is why yoga is so great—many of the poses engage the body in balance and stability giving you the practice you need. With better balance we gain confidence to participate in more challenging activities and it helps us prevent falls. To set you up for success, here are five foundational principles to help you get more out of your standing balance poses:

1. Connect to Your Foundation
When we have a mindful connection to our base, we feel more stable and grounded, and in our standing balance poses, our base is our feet. Because yoga is done in bare feet it is especially great for giving us tactile feedback and we can learn more about how we weight bear and align through our feet. With this feedback, there is potential for noticing where we have asymmetrical grounding or deviated alignment (affecting our balance from the base up).

When aiming for good alignment in the feet you should feel connection through all four corners of the foot, which are: the mound of big toe, the mound of pinky toe, the inside edge of the heel, and the outside edge of the heel. You should also be aiming to weight bear evenly from the inside edge to the outside edge of the foot. Also, a lot of our foot stability comes from the toes. For improved balance, work on spreading the toes and when you need extra stability through your foot, and try pressing the big toe mound and little toe mound lightly into the ground and notice how that activates the muscles of the arches of the foot and generates a more stable feel. For more details on this, please watch this helpful video by Doug Keller on the corners of the foot and how to strengthen the arches.

2. Find Your Center of Gravity
A good rule in our standing single leg balance poses is to make sure you have shifted your center of gravity over-top the standing foot, and for most of us, our center of gravity is our pelvis. Most of us do this subtle shift unconsciously; however, sometimes this skill gets lost or disinhibited, such as when we have pain or dysfunction on one leg and we avoid complete commitment of our weight on it. This can be a learned response that can persist even after the leg problem has gone away; therefore, it is important to ensure your are shifting your pelvis-center over the standing foot for optimal balance alignment. A common mistake is to lean the torso to the balancing leg while leaving the pelvis behind.

3. Activate the Stabilizers
Our stabilizing muscles are responsible for creating the micro-adjustments required for better balance. These smaller muscles create subtle engagement closer to the bone, supporting our joints and enabling us to coordinate different parts of the body to stand or move together. There are stabilizers acting around every joint in the body during balance; however a couple key areas that weaken on people are the stabilizers around the core and hips. The stabilizing core muscles support the connection of the spine to the pelvis and they are the transverse abdominis, multifidi, the iliopsoas, and the quadratus lumborum. For the hip, the gluteus medius muscle (at the lateral hip) is a vital support when standing single-legged as it adjusts the position of the pelvis in relation to the standing leg. All these muscles should be reflexively engaging as we correct and steady in our balance poses, but if you notice weakness (maybe from an old injury or surgery) you may need to consult with a professional to learn focused training of these muscles for their optimal recruitment.

Most importantly, when training the stabilizers of the body, we need to be able to stay in our balance poses long enough to benefit. In yoga, this means choosing options that meet, and gently stretch, our current capability. It’s when we stay somewhere slightly unstable that our muscles and our nervous system learn to compensate, creating inner equilibrium that enables us to handle more challenge next time. If you choose balance poses too difficult to stay in the pose you will not be training the stabilizers.

4. Find Your Drishti
Drishti means “focal point.” It refers specifically to where we orient our eyes and, in a broader sense, to where we focus our energy. Our eyes play a large role in balance. Many of the nerve fibers from the eye neural tracts (the neural fibers within the brain that connect to the eye) interact with the vestibular system, the parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance and eye movements. You can easily get an understanding of importance of vision in balance when trying to stand on one foot with your eyes closed.

In our standing balance poses we have better equilibrium when we take advantage of this eye-vestibular connection by fixing our gaze on an unmoving object, but we also use drishti to take advantage of the way it organizes our energy. By steadying our gaze we are consciously limiting visual distraction giving us more capacity for redirecting this energy towards internal awareness .

5. Regulate Your Breath

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said: “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” This advice is particularly relevant to stability work, which depends on a delicate balance between effort and ease. It’s not uncommon to hold our breath when struggling to maintain stability; loss of easy breathing is a sign that we are trying too hard, holding too tightly, creating rigidity rather than stability. If we can let go of our attachment to a pose sufficiently to find ease in our breathing, we may begin to find physical and mental equilibrium too.

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Train Your Mind to Stop Over-thinking

One of the things we are trying to do in meditation and in yoga is to shift our minds from the ‘thinking state’ into the ‘aware state’. In the thinking state we are lost in our heads, in the future or past—planning, strategizing, ruminating, imagining, creating, and dreaming . While in the aware state, our minds are anchored to the present moment, such as when we connect to our senses, paying attention to what we notice or feel around us or within us, e.g. feeling our breath. A huge step in curbing the over-thinking mind is to practice dropping into the aware state more often.

Much of the day our minds are preoccupied by the thinking state, which is both marvelous and troublesome at the same time. The human mind’s default to the thinking state brings us in touch with imagination, memory, and creativity, and is the source of all the great discoveries, stories, and innovations…. and we really wouldn’t want to lose this. However, too much of one thing can leave us unbalanced, and our minds have a tendency to lapse into over-thinking mode, sometimes putting us in a constant state of worry about future, past, and imagined scenarios (none of which are actually happening now!). When we always live in our heads this way, it can become habitual and damaging to our health since our bodies don’t realize these thoughts aren’t actually real or happening now, and consequently, our physical selves react to the stress of the thoughts like they are actually happening. This can be the source of much of our stress, anxiety, and physical ails (increased body tension, pain, high heart rate/BP, digestive issues).

To manage the over-thinking mind we want to train the brain to recognize and then snap out of the thinking state, and how we do this is to practice the shifting our attention to the aware state. We do this over and over again in yoga—the instructor cues you to sense your breathing, to feel a certain body part, to connect to the ground. We do this repeatedly in meditation—relax a certain area of your body, focus on something, and come back to your breath. The benefit here lies in the repetition. Overtime when you practice yoga and meditation regularly, your brain is literally being trained to do this shift on its own, and we learn to self-regulate. It becomes more automatic to check in, sense, and feel, and you get better at recognizing when you’ve slipped into over-thinking mode, and consequently stop the runaway train.

The hard part for many people is that they get stuck in their heads and lack the ability to recognize when their minds have run away on them and so they need to develop the skill of shifting their attention. Below are some ways to start developing this attention-shift skill.

4 ways to train the mind to recognize and shift out of over-thinking mode:

  1. Regularly attend yoga classes – ones where the teacher regularly provides cues to notice your breathing and body sensations
  2. Practice this simple embodied exercise called What’s Happening Now:
    Five times a day take a 20 second pause from whatever you are doing and ask yourself theses 3 questions:
    1) Is there any tension in my body?
    2) How does my breathing feel?
    3) What am I thinking about?
    Repeat this for a whole week and see if you start automatically doing it thereafter.
  3. Take breaks in your day to immerse yourself in your senses—take in the smells, sounds, touch, and sights around you, e.g. really smell the soap as you wash the dishes or feel the warmth of the sun as it touches your skin.
  4. Start a basic breathing meditation practice. Aim for a commitment of 5-10 minutes per day. Here is a video to try a basic Breathing Meditation.
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The Heart Space

Follow your heart… Open up your heart… The heart knows…
We are all familiar with these expressions about the heart. Often, we reference the heart as a part of ourselves we can source for answers outside of the analytical mind; a place from which we can be informed from a body-felt wisdom and emotional truth; a part of ourselves that knows who we are and what we truly want. Do you believe in this heart space?

I do. I believe this heart-felt wisdom is ages old, and the heart is symbolic of our sense of center. Our busy, intellectual minds go astray and we get caught in the story telling, the details, and the analysis of it all. Yet most of us have, at some point, experienced the feeling of being calm, grounded and centered into ourselves. When you are connected to yourself in this way, you are more in tune with your authentic, emotional needs and confident in the choices of the path before you.

I believe this inner guiding truth teller is always there, it just gets buried under the layers of reflexive, conditioned thinking and out of balance from habitual doing. An effective way to reconnect to the wisdom of the heart space is through a physical yoga practice—engage in postures which literally energize around the heart. Don’t think about it so much as finding the perfect pose, but rather movement about this figurative center to bring feeling and connection back to this part of you.

Drop into the metaphor and let your practice bring balance and connection back into the heart space. Feel from the core of the body what is missing—back bends, forward folds, twists, or wherever the movement has been lacking, and dive into the expression of these forms. Bring the breath in to fill the heart space, sense and feel this giving and receiving of energy to this part of you, and at the end of the practice ask nothing of your heart other than for it to speak, and maybe in the quiet moments you will hear what it is that only the heart know to be true for you.

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Consistency is Key

Early on in my career as a Kinesiologist, I thought exercise prescriptions needed to exactly address the type of injury, and I would often get caught up in a textbook model of treatment. Later I realized, what actually helped my clients the most was the regularity of their routine—half the time the particular exercises, and even the intensity, were irrelevant, so long as it was a balanced routine, and they were doing it regularly. The same is true in my yoga studio. The client who comes to me for a private lesson to help with a problem, but loses the discipline to keep up with it, never benefits. While the person attending my yoga classes two to three times a week will claim surprise that they never expected their pain to go away as well.

Movement to the body is crucial to our health and healing, and since the body is an integrated system where all systems connect and relate to one another, when we do yoga and other exercises regularly, every part of us is benefiting. For example, when I am consistent with my yoga and running, not only do I feel my body is stronger and has more stamina, but I also notice my mental health is more stable, my digestion is better, and I sleep more soundly.

We all know this, regular exercise so important to overall health, so why don’t we all do it? I find one of the main issues is people make exercise feel unenjoyable. They choose something too intense for their level or they choose something they really don’t like and demanding too much time in their day. It’s important to choose wisely and start easy… For some, this might look like a 10 minute walk with a couple floor exercises, or five quick yoga poses on your work break. Ask yourself what can you commit to that doesn’t feel like a chore or doesn’t make you pay the next day. If you are unsure how to get started or lack the discipline, find an instructor to assist you, but most importantly, design it for success and make it part of your routine (much like brushing your teeth!). Remember your health is a lifelong project, and what we do on a consistent basis forms the foundation of our health.
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Mindful Check-in Meditation

Here is a very short check-in meditation you can do to drop into how you are feeling in the moment. This will give you information about what you might need in your day, or the qualities you might like to nurture in your practice.

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Tight hamstrings? Make Sure Your Glutes Are Engaging Optimally

In yoga, there is a common tendency to think in terms of flexibility, and how that affects our yoga practice. However, the inability to engage a muscle effectively plays an equally important role in our practice, and there needs to be a good balance between the two. Consider the hamstrings, a muscle group often associated with being overly tight—the source of the tightness may not be a lack of stretching, but rather related to the relationship of activation in the gluteal muscles.

The hamstrings and the glutes both work to extend the hip. The glutes are really powerful muscles that are supposed to be used every time we walk when we extend our leg behind us, but if our glutes aren’t working properly, then our hamstrings will be working too much. So you can stretch your hamstrings every day as much as you want, but if every time you walk, you’re overusing the hamstrings, they won’t stretch out, they’re going to get tight.

When thinking about how to most optimally stretch your hamstrings, it’s important to consider this overuse factor. Strengthening the glutes and learning how to use the glutes in asana and yoga practice helps you learn how to use the glutes in your everyday life. That will lessen the overstimulation of the hamstrings, and then you can actually stretch them more effectively.

Try this self-check activity for engaging the glutes:
Place your hand on your right gluteal muscle, and take a step forward with the right leg. As you land your weight on that leg and transfer your weight overtop the right foot, purposely engage the gluteal muscle and see if you can feel the contraction of the muscle. Continue through the step, still engaging the glute and see if you can sense the contraction through the push off phase of the step (when the right leg is back). Then do this activity on the left side. If you notice a deficiency of activation, practice this activity until it become automatic.

Also practice engaging the glutes during yoga poses such as Bridge Pose, Warrior I (on the back leg), Locust Pose. These poses are helpful in building the strength in this muscle.

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Mantra Meditation

If you find your mind particularly unsettled in meditation, and you are having trouble staying present to your breath, you might like to try a mantra meditation. In a mantra meditation, you select a favorite word, phrase, prayer, or fragment of a poem to repeat and focus on. Ideally, the mantra is short so you can repeat it easily, without getting lost in a long phrase. Choose something meaningful for yourself, or something that encourages strength and positivity in your life.

Examples of short mantras
– I have time
– Dream big
– May I be at peace
– I am love
– Spread love and kindness
– I am enough
– I deserve happiness
– I am on my own path
– Peace and calm
– Ease and flow
– Let go
– Be here now
– May I be healed
– May (all beings/I) be safe and free from harm
– Thank you

How to do the meditation
Sit on a chair or the floor and make sure you feel supported, aligned, and in a place where you can remain still and relaxed. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths or do some breathing practices for several minutes, then relax your breath completely.

Repeat your mantra slowly and concentrate on its sound as fully as you can. Repeat it in unison with the natural rhythm of your breath. Either split it so you repeat half the mantra when you inhale and the other half when you exhale, or repeat it on both the inhalation and the exhalation.

After about 10 recitations, repeat the mantra silently by moving only your lips (this helps you keep a steady pace). Then, after another 10 repetitions, recite it internally without moving your lips.

As thoughts arise, simply return to the mantra, knowing this is a natural part of the process. Gently bring your attention back again and again, experiencing the internal sound as fully as possible.

Use a timer if you know you want to practice for a certain amount of time.

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Prop Substitutes for Online Yoga

For those of you joining me for the online classes, especially if you are new to yoga, you’ll notice that I use yoga props in my class. When doing classes at home, especially if you are not sure if you want to invest in your own props, here are a few prop substitute ideas. Keep in mind these are just suggestions; feel free to use something different and get creative with whatever you have around your home!

Prop Substitutes:

Yoga Blocks

  • A few books stacked on top of one another (non-slippery covers)
  • A shoe box or other similarly sized Tupperware, filled with something so it doesn’t collapse easily
  • A cut piece of wood
  • A chair/step-stool

Straps

  • A scarf
  • A tie
  • A belt
  • A robe belt
  • A piece of rope
  • A jump rope

Bolsters

  • Towels or blankets rolled or folded
  • Narrow pillows or cushions 
  • A rolled yoga mat

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Healing from Covid-19 and the Vagus Nerve

Feeling ill and not fitting into easily diagnosable conditions is frustrating. One ER doctor said it best when he told me,” I can see you are unwell, but the tests we have done don’t give us a hint of what direction to keep searching…” In the worst moments of my illness, I was so breathless and weak I could barely walk from my bedroom to the living room, yet the doctors listening to my lungs would hear clear breaths. Despite this, my symptoms were very real, and the best way I could describe it was like my body forgot how to breathe on its own. 

In these last 4 months, living with long-haul Covid symptoms, I began to realize it felt like my body could no longer regulate—it felt hijacked in its ability to slow the heart rate, digest, or to breathe smoothly and relaxed. Current research on the virus still has not determined if the prolonged symptoms of Covid-19 are because the virus remains in the body for an extended period of time attacking different organs/systems, or if its the body’s own immune system creating havoc on the organs in attempt to fight off this very aggressive virus. Either way, much of what I experienced felt neurologically based, and I discovered many other people describing the same experiences on the Slack Body-Politic Covid-19 Support . I also found discussions on the possibility that some of the effects from the virus could be from damaging the autonomic nervous system, and specifically affecting the vagus nerve.

The autonomic nervous system affects functions we don’t consciously think about, such as digestion, breathing, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure, and is primarily controlled through the vagus nerve. When I described feeling, “Like my body forgot how to breathe on its own,” I could see how this could relate to an impairment of autonomic functioning. On the support group, I found a self-help exercise claiming to ‘reset’ the vagus nerve’. It was a simple exercise where you place your hands behind your head and move your eyes to the three o’clock position and wait until you experience a yawn or a swallow (link to exercise video). I was surprised that I actually found it helpful and this got me wanting to understand the functioning of the vagus nerve further.

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It starts in the brain as a cranial nerve, descends down through the neck, then wanders around through to the heart, lungs, digestive system, liver, spleen, and pancreas. It is the main nerve controlling the regulation of all these organs through the parasympathetic nervous system (NS), (the rest and digest branch of the NS, opposite the excitatory, sympathetic NS of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’). For example when the heart rate goes up, it’s the vagus nerve which sends the signal to the heart to slow down. 

The vagus nerve is also responsible for controlling the amount of inflammation in your body after an injury or illness. A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal, but an overabundance is linked to many very serious conditions, from sepsis to autoimmune diseases. A study done by a group of researchers in Amsterdam, showed when the vagus nerve is stimulated, inflammation in the body is greatly reduced. Therefore, the chronic inflammation of conditions where the body’s immune system is overactive, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can be reduced when the nerve is stimulated. 

In the possible case Covid-19 does damage or affects the vagus nerve in some way, I wanted to learn how to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally. I learned the health and proper functioning of the vagus nerve is measured by its vagal tone, and the tone of the vagus nerve is key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart-rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart-rate speeds up a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart-rate, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone is associated with better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lowered blood pressure, improved digestion, and reduced migraines (not to mention better mood, less anxiety, and better stress resilience). Below are six techniques found to improve vagal tone.

Six ways to improve the vagal tone the vagus nerve:

1. Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing—Breathing with good movement in your diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs, stimulates and tones the vagus nerve. 

2. Humming/chanting/singing—Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. You can hum (try Bhramari Breathing), or repeat the sound ‘OM’. 

3. Washing your face with cold water—The mechanism here is not known, but cold water on your face stimulates the vagus nerve.

4. Meditation—Both mindfulness meditation, where we give full attention to the present moment, and loving kindness meditation, which invokes a feeling of social connection, have been shown to improve vagal tone.

5. Balancing the gut microbiome—The vagus nerve reads the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. In this way, the gut microbiome can have an affect on your mood, stress levels and overall inflammation. Try using probiotics and working on your diet to optimize your gut microbiome (if unsure consult with a dietician or naturopath). 

6. Yoga—Its relationship to its slow mindful movements and breathing make it an especially good exercise form to promote vagal tone.

My symptoms and daily functionality are improving, and I felt comfortable practicing these 6 generally safe and simple techniques. So if you are dealing with long-term effects of Covid, or any other chronic auto-immune condition, I hope they can help you too.

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