Ever had a “visceral reaction” to something? Have you ever “gone with your gut?” Maybe had “butterflies in your stomach?” Most of us can relate to these statements. And, some days, it can feel like all our thoughts and feelings are connected to our belly. This is actually more than a feeling. Our nervous system and our belly are connected. And, when we can calm one, we calm the other. Yoga is a great way to do this.
In talking about the connection between the nervous system and the belly, we especially need to talk about the Enteric Nervous System. The ENS is the body’s “belly brain.” This is the part of your nervous system that controls digestion and elimination. When your ENS isn’t functioning properly, is can lead to things like IBS and is even being linked to issues like depression and how well you handle stress. (You can read more about this here.)
If this sounds like something you might have heard in a yoga class, I am not surprised. Yogis for centuries have been talking about healthy digestion and elimination leading to overall health. You may have noticed just how many poses list this as a benefit and how many esoteric texts and practices reference exactly this.
Just like muscles and organs need to be toned, stretched, strengthened, so too does your nervous system. So, just how do you work with your Enteric Nervous System? The ENS communicates with your Parasympathetic Nervous System (the rest and digest part of the nervous system) via the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerve is huge – one of the largest nerves in the body. It is a superhighway of information translating into action running between the brain and most major organs. Much of what we do in yoga, particularly pranayama (the breathing practices of yoga), affects the Vagus Nerve. In essence, yoga is a Vagus Nerve workout that helps tone the ENS. When we do a Vagus Nerve workout, we are increasing our resiliency, our ability to deal with stress and switch more easily between the a dominant parasympathetic and dominant sympathetic nervous systems. (To learn more about Yoga and Vagal Tone, including a great explanation of ratio practices, check this out.)
The pranayam practice below affects your Vagus Nerve, your ENS and beyond that access the entire nervous system, as well as the muscles and organs of the belly. We cannot work with the belly without affecting the nervous system. And, we cannot work with the nervous system without affecting the belly. As you learned above, they are intrinsically linked. We help one, we help the other. Happy belly, happy being!
Building nervous system awareness with pranyama/breath:
Samana is one of the vayus, or energies, of the body. The Samana Vayu circulates energy within the belly, whereas most other vayus move between the belly and other parts of the body. This breathing technique is a meditation that builds awareness and energy in the belly.
- Breath in to fill the rib cage, then the belly.
- As you hold the breath, hold your focus at the solar plexus.
- Exhale by drawing the belly in and up, while keeping your rib cage expanded.
- As you exhale, circulate the sensation of your breathe throughout your body, but keep a reserve of that sensation at the solar plexus.
- 5 breaths.
- Repeat as many times as you like.
–>Try using this breath as you move through a slow yoga practice (like this one) and notice how it affects your body, mind and emotions.