When Shaye Molendyke was serving as an Air Force officer stationed in Germany in 2003, she had already discovered yoga and had embarked on a journey to get her master’s in counseling. It was while completing her counseling program and working on a military in-patient psychiatric ward that she encountered individuals passing through from the frontlines experiencing trauma, and wondered how she could affect meaningful change for these warriors.
What came from this confluence of interests and events is YogaFit for Warriors, a trauma-informed program designed for those who have PTSD or those who have a desire to help those with trauma or PTSD. Now retired, Molendyke serves as Director of Education for YogaFit, the largest yoga teacher training company in the world, and leads this effort to retrain individuals’ neurophysiology after traumatic events to be stronger and more resilient.
Molendyke said that in times of threat, the human body reverts to pre-recorded, evolutionary pathways automatically as an adaptive mechanism to survive. Vagal nerve stimulating exercises are meant to pause that automatic response and encourage the brain to tell a different story.
Vagal nerves are those carrying signals between the brain, heart and digestive system, playing a key part in the parasympathetic nervous system, or the network charged with rest and recovery in the body, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The stimulation of the system, through movement of the poses and yogic breathing, are among the benefits attributed to yoga.
A vagal stimulating exercise, Molendyke said, “can help turn the channel of the mind from the emergency broadcasting system.” A common example of such an exercise is splashing cold water on the face. Here, Molendyke provides tips for further stimulating the vagus nerve.
Activating warrior’s breath
First, heighten awareness of the breath, in and out through the nose, Molendyke said. Bring the hands, specifically the first three fingers, to the sides of the neck and gently press in. Now imagine breathing as if you have gills in the sides of your neck. One should feel the front of the neck shift back slightly, creating a wind tunnel effect for the breath to stimulate the vagus nerve at the back of the throat. The breath should be audible, like the sound Darth Vader makes when he breathes. Finally, exhale as though fogging up a mirror, but through the nose.
Breaking eye/neck tracking
This next exercise is best done lying down. Take the hands and lace them behind the head, as though in a kicked-back state, Molendyke said. Rest the head in the hands, with elbows splayed out to the sides. While the head remains steady, turn eyes to the left for 30 seconds and up to 3 minutes before alternating to the right for the same amount of time. Molendyke explained that, in a state of hypervigilance, the eyes and neck move in a coupled state, this exercise helps uncouple that connection. Relaxation from this exercise might look like a release, such as a yawn or sigh.
Other vagal nerve exercises include playing an instrument, whistling or humming. Tapping is another excellent practice that can help reset our physiology. Sometimes referred to today as the emotional freedom technique, tapping activates the ventral vagal pathway in the face by tapping on the inner eyebrow point, outer eye, under the eye, under the nose, under the chin, the collar bone, and underneath the armpit by about 4 inches. These sensitive areas of the body can help the limbic brain and the nervous system push the pause button and increase parasympathetic activity as well as vagal tone.
All of these tips, Molendyke said, can help the brain shift energetic states from a place of high sympathetic nervous system activity to a more calming parasympathetic state. Over time, these simple practices can increase an individual’s ability to emotionally self-regulate and ultimately tell a different story about their traumatic experiences as the higher brain regions like the pre-frontal cortex are better able to function from this place of calm awareness.
“Subtle, small changes add up to big changes,” Molendyke said. “Because we start to train our nervous system to feel more at ease, we train our mind to be more at ease, and bring back regulation. That creates a new pattern.”