Toward the end of a yoga class or during a guided meditation, it’s likely you’ve heard some version of: “Let’s take a few slow, deep breaths, allowing the body to relax as you gently exhale.” These are simple instructions intended to slow down your heart rate. But what you may not realize is that these slow, deep breaths—and exhalations, in particular—are stimulating your vagus nerve, which signals to the body that it is in a state of calm. It can now rest and digest, tend and befriend.

In Latin, the word “vagus” means wandering, a fitting description for this meandering nerve that stretches from the brain stem down to the colon, connecting to the middle ear, vocal cords, heart, lungs, and intestines along the way. The longest and most complicated of the body’s 12 cranial nerves—each connects the brain to other parts of the body—the vagus nerve plays many roles, affecting our emotional states, heart rate, inflammation levels, blood pressure, and digestion. It interacts with our autonomic nervous system (or ANS—a part of the nervous system that has three branches responsible for unconscious processes, such as digestion and breathing). In particular, it’s an advocate for the parasympathetic nervous system—the branch of the ANS that stimulates the body to “rest and digest.” The vagus nerve thus has a profound impact on our sense of safety and connection.

What’s the Message?
Why Your Out-Breath is Connected to Your Well-Being — by Caren Osten Gerszberg