One of the yogis I had in class recently, had a surgical procedure deferred due to high blood pressure. Terribly disappointing for him since he’s lost weight, reduced his alcohol consumption, is exercising more and has a regular and committed yoga practice. He says that he doesn’t feel stressed and his sleep quality is good.
The doctor has suggested medication for ‘life’, however, he wishes to explore breathing and other techniques to reduce his blood pressure naturally. He recently had a massage and was aware that his blood pressure was much improved after the massage. We know that massage helps brings us back to a state of balance – homeostasis – but what is happening in the body to trigger this coming home to ourselves and the reduction in blood pressure as a result?
Throughout my yoga therapy training and subsequently, I have been very interested in vagal tone and how this can impact our bodies and our minds. Vagus nerve stimulation may help lower blood pressure plus has many other health benefits including improving our mood and helping many disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinsons and fibromyalgia.
How does it work? The vagus nerve (meaning wandering in latin), wanders through all our main organs apart from the adrenal glands. Meaning its very much linked to the parasympathetic (PNS) or the rest and digest nervous system rather than the sympathetic (SNS) or fight, flight or freeze nervous system.
Trauma and anxiety may remain present in the subconscious long after the event or episode causing the initial pain and suffering was experienced. We may think we are ‘over it’, however the emotions may still be present in the body and the vagal tone impacted meaning our organs are never fully resting. Operating far below the level of our conscious minds, the vagus nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy.
So how can we improve vagal tone to encourage our organs to rest and renew and return ourselves to balance and help lower high blood pressure?
In the beginning a lot of practitioners may struggle, this is expected since as you become silent and settled and start to pay attention to yourself, you may get overwhelmed with the physical sensations and this triggers the SNS – the exact opposite of the desired outcome of the practice. In other words the sensation of the internal world can be so intense that when lacking the tools to work through those sensations; the practitioner often will dissociate during mindfulness exercises. The key to successfully using mindfulness as a tool to encourage the PNS is regular practice and when the mind hijacks you – gently bringing yourself back to your breath without judgement.
A simple mindfulness practice tuning into the 3 diaphragms is a great practice taking only a few moments. Sit tall and listen to your breath – inhaling nose and exhaling nose. Then awareness on the pelvic floor and the expansion – the drawing down of the pelvic floor on the inhale and the gentle lifting on the exhalation. Repeat for a few breaths. Next bring your awareness to your belly and feel the diaphragm contracting downwards on the inhalation and the gentle lifting on the exhalation. Again repeat for a few breaths. Lastly, awareness at the base of the throat, between the collar bones. Feel the descending diaphragm at the base of the throat on the inhalation and again the gentle lift of the diaphragm on the exhalation. Stay for a few breaths. Then feel the 3 diaphragms of the body, moving in harmony with each other. Stay a while and enjoy feeling a sense of openness and curiosity into the experience.
Sitting with a tall spine – head over heart and heart over pelvis. Consciously lengthening the exhalation induces the PNS. However, when lengthening the exhale, the breath may judder in which case the viloma breath (shine like the moon) is a deeply beneficial practice. The essence of the practice is to divide the exhale breath into equal parts with a pause between parts. Taking either 1 or 2 pauses during the exhalation and maintain a smooth and steady and effortless inhalation without any pauses. So inhale nose then exhale nose about a third of the breath – pause – exhale another third of the breath – pause – then final exhale – pause. Enjoying the feeling of emptiness before inviting the next inhalation.
Complete 10-12 rounds of breath and then let go of all breath control and observe the natural breath.
Active rest. Helping to return the body to homeostasis with fully supported asana held for a long period of time. Enabling the body and mind to submerge into a state of wholeness. Try the simple viparita karani/legs up the wall. Simply lie on your back and elevate your legs – against a wall is optimal although not a necessity. Elevating the pelvis, ie. back of sacrum on a block or bolster will also be greatly beneficial with the blood and lymphatic fluids returning to the heart. Feel tranquil yet alert. Stay for 20 minutes. A lovely practice to do before bed.