An important nexus between Kundalini yoga and Western medicine lies in their respective understandings of the importance of the vagus nerve in health and well-being. The vagus nerve “wanders” (vagus, Latin for wander) through the body and affects all major organs and their functioning. It is the second largest nerve in the body, second only to the spinal cord. Originating deep within the brain, the vagus nerve wanders through the neck, affecting speech, voice, continues through the thorax affecting all the organs of the body, and continues to the pelvic floor. The heart is one of the major organs affected by the vagus nerve.
Heart rate, blood pressure, sexual response, breathing, and the release of anti-stress hormones are examples of involuntary functions regulated by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve provides the gateway between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. All ten cranial nerves, including the vagus nerve, occur in pairs, right and left. The right vagus nerve innervates (goes to) the sinoatrial (SA) node of the heart, the heart’s natural pacemaker, and speeds up or slows down the heart rate. The degree of vagal tonality is an indication of healthy cardiac functioning.
Essentially, all autonomic somatic processes are regulated by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve can be thought of as a bi-directional biological data bus, where most of the communication is efferent, moving information from the organs to the brain. Researchers at HeartMath® Institute report that “The heart sends more information through the nervous system to the brain than the brain sends to the heart,”[ii] contrary to what most of us were taught. Similarly, yogis refer to the vagus nerve (the section between the heart center and crown) as the “mind nerve,” because the heart sends intuitions, images, and creative insights to the brain. Developing a strong nervous system is an integral part of Kundalini yoga, and provides a foundation on which to build vitality and resilience. A weak nervous system cannot adequately support growing awareness and the emergence of the evolutionary energy of kundalini.
Although vagal tonality cannot be directly measured, heart rate variability (HRV) is an important indirect bio-marker representing the functioning of the vagus nerve. HRV tracks the rhythm of your heartbeat as opposed to the morphology of individual heart beats. The mind-body connection becomes evident with HRV. In yogic language, Yogi Bhajan put it this way: “Every beat of your heart is the rhythm of your soul. The voice of your soul is your breath.” Yogic breathing, pranayam, is the first line of defense in strengthening the nervous system, in part, due to vagal nerve stimulation. Again, this can be demonstrated through HRV biofeedback and is highly effective in managing stress, anxiety, and stress-induced depression.
In The Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, researcher Robert W. Shields MD of the Neuromuscular Center at the Cleveland Clinic, reported that HRVdb [with deep breathing] is a reliable and sensitive clinical test for early detection of cardiovagal dysfunction in a wide range of autonomic disorder.”[iii] According to clinical research, low HRV is a predictor of morbidity[iv] and therefore improving vagal tonality as measured indirectly with HRV, may improve overall health and well-being. And as students of Yogi Bhajan, we have Kundalini yoga technology to affect nerve system functioning, which in turn affects the hormonal system.
Typically, the autonomic nervous system runs on “auto-pilot” without our conscious awareness. For example, we don’t have to think about breathing during our sleep or dilating our eyes when light increases. By practicing Kundalini yoga and meditation, we consciously and dynamically alter the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems depending upon the specific yogic technique. This combined method (HRV and Kundalini yoga) provides a powerful set of tools for stimulating the vagus nerve and strengthening the nervous system, non-invasively and with the evidence-based data that many Westerners seek.
Vagus Nerve: “Central Tuning String” of the Body
Ancient yogis referred to the vagus nerve as the “central tuning string of the body,”[v] because when it vibrates at specific frequencies, the heart generates an electromagnetic field that is harmonious and coherent. When the vagus nerve oscillates coherently, it sets the frequency to which the nervous system aligns itself. Like a tuning fork, the vagus nerve sets the frequency with which all the 72,000 vibratory nerve “strings” or “surs” begin to resonate. When the vagus nerve is out of tune, then the rest of the body falls into a state of incoherence, including the heart. Kundalini yoga and meditation exercises the vagus nerve and sets the tone for the entire nervous system.
From a Kundalini yogic perspective, the portion of the vagus nerve that travels from the heart to the crown of the head is identified as the “mind nerve,” because the wisdom of the heart communicates its impressions and images to the brain. This is known as One-Star spirituality, or Ik Tar[vi]. The yogis referred to the heart center (not to be confused with the heart chakra) as “Ik Tar,” or one-star. Ik Tar relates to the small portion of the energetic heart that lies slightly to the right of the sternum. The Sanskrit word Hrdayam is closely related with Ik Tar, neither directly translatable into English with a single word or two. “According to the teachings of Yogi Bhajan, Hrd” translates to “that which sucks everything in,” and “ayam,” means, “this” and “expansion,” together meaning the core of one’s heart and the light of one’s heart.
Sages and Saints from all Wisdom traditions have a specific name for this unique aspect of the heart such as “lotus of the heart,” secret “cave of the heart,” “flame of the heart,” and others. This imagery has endured through the millennia, and has even embedded itself into Western Science. Consider the logo for the American Heart Association, where a flame emanates from a heart.
From a Western perspective, the SA (sinoatrial node), residing in the left portion of the heart, may be analogous to the yogin’s “one-star.” The SA node is the body’s natural pacemaker, and “fires,” directing the heart to beat based on the impulses of the right vagus nerve. The vagus nerve innervates (goes into) the SA node, and either slows or speeds up the heart rate. When you inhale the heart rate should gradually (and imperceptibly) speed up and when you exhale the heart rate gradually slows down. The smooth increase and decrease in heart rate forms a nice sine wave pattern. When the vagus nerve (central tuning string) is healthy and toned, the heart (one star) beats rhythmically and coherently. The vagus nerve and the heart act in concert, and when the vagus nerve lacks tonality, the heart rate becomes erratic. The heart takes it cues from the vagus nerve.
HRV over Time (stressed ANS)[vii] HRV over Time (Coherent ANS, Heart Rhythm with Left Nostril Breathing)
HRV provides a dynamic window into ANS activity, and thus indirectly, vagal nerve tonality. Simply put, HRV serves as a vagal nerve activity index. Inhalation inhibits the vagal nerve as heart rate increases, and exhalation activates the vagal nerve as heart rate slows down. The vagal nerve is the primary “brake” on heart rate and other autonomic functions, evidenced by increased parasympathetic activity.
Vagal nerve stimulation performed through non-invasive yogic techniques, including pranayam (specific breathing exercises), yoga postures, and mindfulness meditations, are excellent technologies for stimulating the vagus nerve naturally. An HRV feedback session performed by the author using HeartMath® Desktop Pro while practicing left nostril breathing demonstrated a rhythmic heart pattern evidenced by its signature sine wave pattern. Left nostril breathing stimulates the parasympathetic system, and therefore the vagus nerve as well.
The first line of defense in improving vagal nerve tonality may well be the aforementioned non-invasive techniques before surgical options, specifically, implantable vagus nerve stimulator, (VNS) which electrically stimulates only the left vagus nerve through an implantable device. Due to the fact that the right vagus nerve goes directly to the heart’s SA node, artificial stimulation with electric impulses is not desirable. Whereas this device may be highly effective in its originally designed use of treating epilepsy, the FDA has also granted approved for its use in treating depression. Since ancient times, yogis have understood the importance of the vagus nerve, and how to maintain its health using yogic techniques.
Vagus Nerve Toning through Kundalini Yoga
Vagal Nerve Stimulation, through Kundalini Yoga, focuses on yogic techniques to help rebalance the autonomic nervous system. Acute and/or chronic periods of trauma, stress, anxiety, and stress-induced depression often causes parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) performance to be overshadowed by the sympathetic (flight/fight/freeze) activity. Improved vagal tonality and parasympathetic activity may lessen depression and potentially help prevent and relieve stress-induced illnesses and related conditions.
The effectiveness of vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) can be measured by monitoring daily HRV (heart rate variability), an index of cardiac vagal nerve tone, during Kundalini pranayam and meditation. One example specific to vagal tonality is “Sodarshan Chakra Kriya,” as detailed by Richard P. Brown, M.D. and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D. of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. They suggest that “Sudarshan Kriya may work like electronic vagal nerve stimulation, which has been shown to be effective for depression.”[viii] Unlike implantable vagal nerve stimulators, Kundalini yoga and meditation is non-invasive and safe to practice when directions are followed. As a yoga practitioner, you can determine for yourself whether the exercise is getting you into a state of heart rhythm coherence by measuring your own HRV, if desired. This is the power of Self-awareness.
[i] Yogi Bhajan. Praana, Praanee, Praanayam: Exploring the Breath Technology of Kundalini Yoga as Taught by Yogi Bhajan. KRI, Espanola, NM. 2006. Page 196.
[ii] Doc Childre, Howard Martin, Deborah Rozman, Rollin McCraty. et al. Heart Intelligence: Connecting with the Intuitive Guidance of the Heart. Waterfront Press, 2016. Page 30. https://openlibrary.org/publishers/Waterfront_Press
[iii] Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. “Heart rate variability with deep breathing as a clinical test of cardiovagal function” Vol. 76, Supplement 2, April 2009, p S37.
[iv] Sessa, Francesco et al. “Heart rate variability as predictive factor for sudden cardiac death.” Aging vol. 10,2 (2018): 166-177. doi:10.18632/aging.101386
accessed on August 21, 2019 5:54 pm PDT.
[vi] http://www.kundaliniresearchinstitute.org/FAQs/faq7.htm (no longer available)
[vii] HRV recordings performed during author’s session using the HeartMath® Inner Balance app.
[viii] http://aolresearch.org/pdf/other/Richard_Brown.pdf “Yogic Breathing and Meditation: When the Thalamus Quiets the Cortex and Rouses the Limbic System” P. 17. Accessed on August 22, 2019 at 11:13 am PDT.