Hollywood’s favourite wellbeing guru tells us that for ‘peak living’ and to combat stress overload stress we need to harness the power of our vagus nerve. Good news, everything he suggests is easy!

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He is both a medic and a meditator, who has accessed all that science and spirituality have to offer over decades, and he has never been ill in his 77 years. I’ve got Deepak Chopra, the American-Indian physician and integrative medicine pioneer, on Zoom and I want to know the one thing that will save our sanity, soothe our stress levels, and help us live a long and healthy life – like him! Turns out it’s very simple: to help achieve what he calls ‘peak living’ we should look after our vagus nerve. 

What is the vagus nerve?

“The vagus nerve is also called the healing nerve,” he says. “It’s the longest and most important nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. It controls many involuntary functions, including heart rate, breathing, digestion, and immune response.”

The vagus (which means ‘wanderer’) travels down from the brain through the neck, chest and diaphragm spreading its tentacles into all organs of the body, including the gut microbiome. It’s a nervous system highway with two-way traffic so it not only sends signals from the organs to the brain but vice versa. “The vagus nerve has bilateral traffic, so we can activate healing by vagal activation,” he says.

It is the key to balancing our entire system, says Chopra. Our bodies thrive when we’re in balance or 'homeostasis' – but modern life is throwing that equilibrium off daily, and we’re in chronic “sympathetic overdrive”. 

We’re too much in sympathetic fight-or-flight nervous system mode and not enough in the rest-and-digest parasympathetic mode, where our bodies can repair. This is wearing us out and making us more prone to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and mental health issues.

After his decades in the medical industry, vagal stimulation is the one thing that Chopra does above all else these days, and he suggests we should all be doing it too. “My practice now focuses only on vagal stimulation, which includes yoga, pranayama or deep breathing chanting, heart awareness, and then kriyas and bandhas [yogic practices involving breathwork and activating inner muscles] that we call in English ‘interoceptive awareness’,” Chopra explains.

Interoception means being aware of your body on the inside – your gut, your heartbeat, your breathing – and it’s now being dubbed the ‘sixth sense’.

How do you stimulate the vagus nerve?

Because the vagus is so long and far-reaching, there are endless ways we can activate it. It is influenced by eye movements, facial expressions (especially smiling), tone of voice, humming, chanting, singing, and breathwork among other things. “It interacts with all the solid organs of the body and ultimately also influences the activity of the gut microbiome bringing it to self-regulation and removing inflammation or dysbiosis [overgrowth of bad bacteria].”

Even spending time in nature, activates the vagus nerve, possibly because we’re more inclined to take a deep, slow breath and experience pleasant sensations through our eyes, skin and ears. Vagal toning is an inherent part of the time-honoured yoga practices that Chopra mentions – and has done every morning for 40 years.

Vagal toning is not woo-woo

If that all sounds a bit ‘made up’, there’s solid science behind so-called ‘vagal toning’ or ‘vagal stimulation’ and there are devices that do it for you. “A few years ago, the FDA [the US Food and Drug Administration] approved vagal implantation with electricity for intractable epilepsy,” he says. “And to the surprise of the investigators, they found not only was epilepsy improving, but other diseases were going into remission, including heart disease, autoimmune illness and rheumatoid arthritis.” According to a 2023 research paper the vagus nerve has anti-inflammatory abilities, suggesting that inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, sepsis, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer's disease, intractable hiccups, and chronic pain could all be helped with vagus nerve stimulation.

The rise  of vagal toning wearables

You know Chopra is onto something when tech companies are racing to bring vagal toning devices to the wellbeing market.

I have one such device, the Sensate, £299 a sonic vibrating pebble that sits on your chest, where the vagus nerve comes close to the surface. Even though I’m a yoga teacher and practice most days (yoga postures are also vagal toning, by the way) I use my Sensate for a stronger power down, while I’m reading or watching TV or using my LED mask. If I’m honest, I’m more likely to do it if I’m already doing something else I enjoy). There are also wearable in-ear devices such as the Neurosym, as the vagus can also be activated via the ear.

You don’t need to spend £300 on a gadget though. Vagal toning is easy and (often) free. You can simply slot a few of Chopra’s practices into your day, every day.

Or you can learn in person from the man himself on a series of longevity retreats, the next one being The Life & Soul Longevity Retreat at Rakxa Wellness in Bangkok, Thailand on 20 March 2024. I also recommend his latest book The Quantum Body: The New Science of Living a Longer, Healthier, More Vital Life, written with physicist Jack Tuszynski and endocrinologist Brian Fertig, full of science-backed actionable tips.

Deepak Chopra shares peak living tips with Get The Gloss Editorial Director Victoria Woodhall

Here are Deepak Chopra's vagus nerve-stimulating practices that you can do at home

Smile more – like you mean it

This is Chopra’s number one easy fix for vagal toning. “When we smile, the muscles in our face activate the vagus nerve and we send signals to the brain that we are happy and relaxed,” he says.

“This can lead to a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure and change your heart rate variability [a measure of stress resilience] and increase feelings of wellbeing.”

He recalls a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science “that found that when people were asked to smile for two minutes it increased vagal tone compared to those who were asked to keep a neutral expression. The more genuine this smile, the greater the increase in vagal tone.”

Try this Buddhist smiling exercise

Never mind grinning from ear to ear – try smiling from your hair to ‘down there’. “Close your eyes and you imagine every part of your body smiling including your hair follicles, your nose, your face, your heart, your lungs, your fingernails, even your genitalia, and all the orifices and smiling, and it immediately stimulates the vagus nerve.”

Sing, chant and hum like a bumble bee

There is scientific evidence that shows mantra chanting and humming may stimulate the vagus nerve

“The word enchanting means to become one with the divine to chanting, oneness through humming and chanting – all of that stimulates the vagus nerve.”

Try brahmari, the yoga humming bee breath. I teach this in every one of my online yoga classes for vagal toning and it’s Chopra-approved. Place your palms on your chest, take a deep breath in and a long slow humming breath out for as long as you can. Feel the vibration with your hands.

Move your eyes like a Bollywood dancer

The vagus nerve interacts with the ocular motor nerve, says Chopra, another cranial nerve that controls eye movement. “This simulation can help to calm the body and the mind and reduce stress and anxiety. There are eye movements and eye exercises that are effective in stimulating the vagus nerve.

Eye yoga exercises

Try my own eye yoga exercises (above) and Chopra’s suggestions below

  • Palming. Place your palms over your eyes and apply gentle pressure. This stimulates the oculocardiac reflex (OCR). “This which causes the heart rate to slow down,” says Chopra.
  • Divergent gaze. This is an exercise where you focus your eyes on a distant object and then slowly move them to the side. This exercise can help to relax the muscles in the eyes and neck, which can also, in turn, stimulate the vagus nerve.”
  • Bilateral eye movement or rapid side-to-side eye movements. “This is often used to treat trauma and anxiety disorders. Bilateral eye movement therapy involves rapid rhythmic eye movements from side to side. It takes a little practice, but if you've ever seen Bharatnatyam [traditional Indian] dancing, you see those dance moves with mudras [hand gestures], breathing and chanting. All of them stimulate the vagus nerve.”

Give yourself an inner squeeze

Interoception – the ability to feel your body on the inside, to respond to your inner cues  –improves the mind/body connection. And Chopra has a fun way to train it: “You can squeeze your rectum, called ‘ashwini mudra’, the horse mudra. That will stimulate the vagus nerve as well.”

Try vagal breathing

There are dozens of yoga breath practices called ‘pranayama’ and Chopra does breathwork daily. In his book, he mentions a specific technique called ‘vagal breathing.’

“The key is to exhale more slowly than you inhale,” he writes. “Inhale through your nose until your belly feels full. Hold for a count of four. Slowly exhale though your nose until your belly feels empty.” Repeat for five minutes making sure your breathing is comfortable and not forced.

Meditation to the sound of your heartbeat
If you struggle to meditate, try this 14-minute guided meditation. “You breathe to the rhythm of your own heartbeat and you can actually feel it slowing down. The entire cardiovascular system is in sync,” says Chopra.

Body scanning

You can do a body scan any time you are lying down, for example, in bed to improve interoceptive awareness. “Body scanning is part of Buddhist Vipassana meditation and once you scan the body, you become aware of pockets of discomfort in the body, and then you learn to bring your awareness to those pockets of discomfort. Close your eyes and feel the sensations in your abdomen from the inside out. That's it, don't analyse it. Just be aware.”

Connect with yourself not your ‘selfie’

‘Recapitulation’ is a thinking practice, where you revisit your day, your week and even parts of your life, at the end of the day. Chopra explains it in the video below.

Why? On a simple level, it helps you download your day. But on a deeper level it helps you connect with what he calls the unchanging “timeless you”, your original self, the person you are from birth – before you had a mind that could think (and take over!) – until death. “The fundamental you, what we call ‘I am’ is the non-changing factor in every changing experience," he says. 

We’ve become too obsessed with how we look, rather than who we are. And recapitulation can help you identify with the inner you instead of the outer you: your ‘self’ rather than your ‘selfie’.

Says Chopra: “Our society has sacrificed itself for its selfie!”

The Life & Soul Longevity Retreat at Rakxa Wellness in Bangkok, Thailand with Deepak Chopra runs from 20-25 March 2024