Guest Blogger Reese Jones: Meditation & the Polyvagal Theory

Applying the Polyvagal Theory in Your Meditation Practice

The Polyvagal Theory is a concept recently developed by psychiatrist Stephen Porges which explains the parts of our nervous system, and how they handle stressful situations. In essence, he says that our body responds to experiences in three ways: fight-or-flight, immobilisation, and calmness (or our normal, peaceful state).

Defining the Three Responses

Fight-or-flight is the response of our sympathetic nervous system when it senses danger. This danger can be a real threat or even an imagined threat can cause activation of the fight or flight response. However, the other two responses — relaxation response and the immobilisation response—are both feelings of calmness invoked by the parasympathetic nervous system. This system has a major nerve called the vagus nerve. It has two parts: the dorsal (back) and the ventral (front). As a means to calm the body, the dorsal is what causes our body to shut down when we experience something traumatic this is the freeze response.
The ventral side of the vagus nerve, on the other hand, is the part that induces the feelings of calm and safely called the relaxation response. Intentionally activating the vagus nerve has the potential to create feelings of safety, deep states relaxation and help overcome trauma, anxiety, stress and even healing inflammation in the body.
Activating the Vagus Nerve
Porges also notes that your body can be trained to activate the vagus nerve and therefore turn on the parasympathetic nervous system and states of relaxation. This is why he highly favours body-calming activities like meditation, as it does a lot to calm your system. In fact, the Polyvagal Theory is heavily involved in the best practices for meditation and has given even more scientific validity to why meditation is so powerful for healing the body and mind. 
Here are some ways that you can intentionally activate the vagus nerve:
Find a Safe Place
Find your safe place. Contrary to popular belief you don’t need to be in a zen garden (though studies do show that fresh air helps calm the body). When choosing a place to meditate in, simply find a comfortable space in your home where you feel safe. This can be anything from your bedroom surrounded by pictures of your family, or the kitchen while you wait for your cake to bake. The important part is that you feel the safest wherever you are. It can also help to create a sacred space within your home that is your meditation sanctuary where you can meditate regularly. 
Connect with Other People
Aside from your environment, safety can also be found by being surrounded by other people. This feeling of connection also stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which allows your body to calm down. To this end, you might want to partake in community sessions, meditation classes or even spiritual retreats. Make an effort to connect with fellow practitioners. There's a big community out there.
If you can't physically be with others you can also visualise yourself surrounded by friends, family and even spiritual beings. Simply imagine being surrounded and meditating with a supportive community of spiritual allies can help you feel connected.
Relax your Face Muscles
This is a meditation "trick" that many people do not know about. As written about in Chad Foreman's article on how a simple smile can relax your entire body. Because of the close connection between facial nerves and the vagus nerve simply by relaxing your face muscles you can instantly achieve a state of rest. 
Deep Breathing
Aside from feelings of safety, another thing that can stimulate the vagus nerve is calm your system with some deep breathing exercises known as breathwork. Breathwork is hugely popular at the moment and polyvagal theory explains why it eliminates stress and activates deep states of relaxation so effectively. I highly recommend The Way of Meditation's course The Art of Breathing.
Chanting Om or Humming
Chanting Om has been shown to activate the vagus nerve too. You can simply hum or chant om, either works well. Chanting Om with a group is an incredible experience as the sound resonates through-out the whole room and it's easier to fully surrender and connect with the practice. The polyvagal theory explains why this ancient practice creates such deep states of relaxation and bliss. 
Detach from Thoughts
Often it's stressful thoughts of worry and fear that keep you in a constant state of 'fight or flight' which is the polar opposite of the relaxation response activated through the vagus nerve. Learning meditation techniques like mindfulness will help you disconnect from thoughts and give your nervous system a break and a chance to reset to a new normal where you can maintain a sense of ease. Enrol now in The way of meditation's free mindfulness course. Through other techniques mentioned above like deep breathing and chanting you can also detach from thoughts and get similar results. 
Written by Reese Jones
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