Agni & Autonomic Nervous System (Part 3)

Namaste to all the listeners. We are at the last part of our beautiful, interesting, and mind-opening discussion with Vaidya Victor. We are collaborating in terms of Ayurveda, Yoga, and cutting-edge neuroscience. Those who are joining today, please listen to parts one and two of our podcast on the autonomic nervous system and Ayurveda. Vaidya Victor is a veteran practitioner of Ayurveda, practicing for over ten years. He is based in Northern California, and his Institute is called the International Institute of Ayurveda, where he does consultations and provides the services. Recently, he has written a book on pulse diagnosis. I went through it, and it's a handy and student-friendly book. So, Vaidya Victor, welcome again.


March 23, 2022 | 35 minutes 41 seconds
By Vaidya. Jay Parla

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Victor - Thank you for having me, Vaidya Jay.

Vaidya - This is going to be a critical and useful podcast for all our listeners. We were building up to talk about how we learned all the knowledge of the influence of the autonomic nervous system, fight and flight mechanism, and how we are constantly under stressful states with the engagement of our cranial nerves, especially the vagus nerve all about. Would you talk to us about why Yoga has become important for us, how it can be helpful and how to incorporate yoga practices to guide people to help with the crisis that everybody is going through?

Victor - In episode 1, we talked about some of the fundamentals of the autonomic nervous system and the Vegas nervous, which is the biggest nerve or nerve bundle in the body. It is a two-way street; it sends information all over the body, from the brain to the heart, vital organs, and vice versa. Every part of the organ system communicates with every other part in both directions. It's important because when one engages in a practice like Yoga or specifically Asana, they enhance, refine, make more nuanced, sophisticated, and modify the communication between everything in the body. If you look at the Yoga Asanas, it's like, why would one put their body in that position? Many positions are based on a thorough understanding of the vagal pathways in the body, their effects on Manas (mind) and internal functioning of the body. That's why specific Asanas are correlated with specific effects. They communicate to the body so that the body will communicate to the person when to turn on or off or do this and that. It's a profound and powerful method to send communications through the autonomic nervous system.

Vaidya - I like the way you said it's two-way traffic. Sometimes one-way traffic from the central nervous system's higher centers increases and travels down to major organs such as the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver. When we are in crisis or stressful mode, the one-way traffic increases from the head towards the organs, and the traffic of the opposite direction that needs to go back or move gets congested. The great Yogic masters figured out the postures that would decongest the stuck prana or nervous communication. Is that the correct understanding for our listeners?

Victor - That's correct. It's profound and works effectively. The gift for the human body is that if one has something highly threatening or stressful in their life, they can use a Kriya on their body to affect the internal state around that experience. Or if one has something in their body that's physically driven and predominant, like a stomachache, they can use the mind to affect that. So at any given moment, we can use one to affect the other.

Vaidya - Beautiful. When people do Yoga, they feel different. It's an important piece of the puzzle. They feel different in their senses, like feeling joyful in the enlightenment because of the mechanisms corrected by the Yoga postures. What is the basic day-to-day set of asanas that you recommend to keep the traffic moving between the brain and the gut and the gut to the brain?

Victor - There are few simple ones, and because some people can't do Asana effectively for various reasons, Pranayama (breath practice) is the fundamental thing to affect the autonomic nervous system. If one does all the asanas they want, it will help, but if they don't have a pranayama practice, then they're missing out. So that's, that's a big deal right there. Even when practicing asanas, they need to breathe properly.

Vaidya - Exactly. I want to give a traffic example because it makes absolute sense. The yoga postures are like policeman who controls the traffic has to make sure that there are larger or much wider freeways to move the traffic efficiently. That's what the Pranayama does; the policeman is the asana practice, whereas a broader pathway is the Pranayama. In Ashtanga Yoga, we start with Asana and then go to Pranayama. As you said, it's difficult for some people to do the postures or find time to do the postures. Pranayama is an easy breathing exercise that does not need any prep work. Would you please talk about what these breathing techniques are?

Victor - There's, of course, the long deep breath, which is important, but unfortunately, most of the United States does not breathe properly. When a yoga instructor says, "breath into your belly," it doesn't mean that air is being pushed into the abdomen; it means that the diaphragm is fully extending, and for that to happen properly, the abdomen must be relaxed and allowed to expand on the inhale. The navel point goes outward, and one gets a kind of pregnant-looking belly on the full inhale, then on the exhale, it tracks back toward the spine. In that full engagement, the diaphragm communicates to the autonomic nervous system to tone down the activity so one feels less threatened or stressed and enters into the parasympathetic nervous system. It communicates to the vagus nerve to relax and calm down by literally massaging it. One is doing that, physically, not just mentally; they're not just saying those words, but giving the body a physical safety cue. Yogi's expanded on that; there are tons of Pranayama. There is alternate nostril breathing, which affects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. There are breaths in different strokes, like breathing in four, eight, or ten strokes, meaning a brief inhale four times until fully inhaled and then exhale four times until fully exhaled. There's also breath-holding, which involves inhaling for 20 seconds, holding the breath for 20 seconds, and exhaling for 20 seconds. It slows your breathing down to one breath a minute. The slower your breathing rate, the slower your heart rate, and the slower your breathing and heart rate, the more likely you will enter your parasympathetic nervous system.

Vaidya - Those unfamiliar with the term "diaphragm" are a large flat muscle that is not visible to us; it's like a dome when relaxed and separates all the organs of the chest from the abdomen. The lungs and the heart are separated from the stomach, liver, spleen, and other interesting organs. You're saying when that contracts, it pushes all the abdominal organs down towards the pelvis or the navel; that's why the belly becomes like a pregnant belly when we inhale. When we relax, all organs move to the chest, where the diaphragm moves towards the lungs and heart. One is massaging all these organs when they breathe like that, sending the traffic moving in another direction. Is that right?

Victor - Yes. The breath rate is also important for the autonomic nervous system, monitoring every breath you take even if you aren't consciously aware of it. It is in constant communication. Imagine, if you are walking down the street with someone, you're constantly aware of their movements and what they're doing. That's what the autonomic nervous system is like with the breath. The autonomic nervous system regulates the breath when we're not consciously regulating it.

Vaidya - I want to take the first example that you took, Vaidya Victor, a scenario where somebody has had a bad experience with the dog, and now every time they see the dog, they get into that same mode. The traffic from the brain is constantly triggering all the organs to become alert and be ready to run, but the situation is different. How does this breathing exercise or the abdominal breathing help them in that situation? How many times do they have to do it? Situations like that will come into our lives all the time. When do we do the abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing that you were explaining?

Victor- There are two important parts. We'll start with the one that everyone thought, which is the acute event. Let's revisit the example when one is ten years old and chased down the street by a barking dog, baring its teeth, growling, and coming after. It's good that the body perceived it as a threat and went into a sympathetic state, allowing the person to run fast and get away. The problem is that 15 years later, one is 25 years old and sees a cute little puppy, and it just reminds them of that dog. But this puppy is nowhere close to being aggressive, or it's not baring its teeth and chasing them. They're not ten years old anymore, so it couldn't even hurt them if it wanted to.
There's no actual threat present; however, the autonomic nervous system remembers that 10-year-old experience and acts as though one is under attack; that's the problem. One starts getting that stress in the body, starts getting nervous, starts feeling fear, and against their will, they start engaging their flight mechanism. The body wants to pull away, withdraw, and move away from the dog. That changes your physiology, heart rate increases, breathing rate increases, adrenaline releases, pupils dilate. Entire physiology changes; an important thing about that is the digestion slows to a grinding halt, and Agni gets displaced. One can recognize in that acute moment that there's no threat here, and they have the power to change how they feel. They are not going to do this by simply thinking to calm down. The effective way is to take deep breaths until that feeling inside your body normalizes, or at least the edge gets taken off to the point where one doesn't feel to engage their defense mechanism anymore. It's a crucial part because when that feeling dissipates in your body, it goes into normal functioning parasympathetically; it realizes that there's no threat present. They effectively commanded their autonomic nervous system that there was no threat present, even though it thought there was.

Vaidya - Breathing is like a circuit breaker that suddenly switches. Although one is aware that this is not the same threat, the nervous system continues because of the primitive brain's fight or flight mechanism. Breathing brings it to higher consciousness, and we don't have to be in that mode and then cut that off. It's a common practice for people. When they're in a stressful situation, They automatically say, "just breathe." People have a natural inner intuition, and we are taking this to the next level in a yogic way of breathing, where you use the diaphragm. It's a way to disconnect from the threat, not an obvious threat, but a perpetuated threat that's going on for years and years. Is there any other breathing exercise that you want to tell our listeners?

Victor - The other important part of that is that the beauty of the yogic breathing arts is to create a daily practice. It is not the most effective moment to do it when one is stressed or threatened. If one does a daily breathing practice, they communicate to their nervous system every day. It has benefits for the rest of the body, but today we're talking about the nervous system. The nervous system provides a sense of safety daily. One is building resilience day-to-day, and that's important because when one has enough resilience, they change their mental outlook on the world. Now, when they go for a walk, even see a dog that looks much like a threat, it would be triggering, but they have built up so much resilience that they don't even get afraid this time; it never even triggers, to begin with. That's what we want is when there's no threat, don't get triggered. It preserves our health in the long run.

Vaidya - That's beautiful. I think this is an essential tool for all our listeners. They can do the breathing practice maybe three minutes in the morning, three minutes in the evening. Most Ayurvedic practitioners give these breathing techniques. People think it's too simple or too time-consuming, but the long-term benefits are too great to ignore. What is the time duration for any of these yogic breathing practices? How would you tell our listeners here to carve out their breathing practice?

Victor - It depends on how much experience they have had with Yoga, Pranayama, Mantra, and meditation. Mantra and meditation are also powerful. If they have no experience, I'll have them start with three minutes on an empty stomach in the morning and evening. It's important to do most breathing exercises on an empty stomach. It's tolerable for most people, and they can handle that. Advanced practitioners want to get into it after realizing the benefits. One can do it for 11 or 31 minutes, and some people who are into it can go over an hour.

Vaidya - I've come across many studies where people in VA use breathing techniques for those suffering from PTSD. Schools find that the kids who enter the classroom after a few minutes of breathing techniques have a better state of mind to learn. It's scientifically validated that breathing allows us to change our day-to-day approach towards life. Anybody can do deep abdominal breathing, right?

Victor - The listeners can take a deep breath and see if they're engaging in abdominal movement. If not, that means the diaphragm is locked, which is a surefire sign of communicating a sense of dis-ease to the body. The body is reading that locked diaphragm as a sense of stress. It's not meaningless; it's important to learn how to engage that abdominal breath. That is the natural way we breathe, like how babies breathe, and one has to go through experiences to unlearn that. At first, it's cumbersome, it takes a few weeks, and one has to focus on it. One has to remind themselves every time, but then there's one day where the body remembers, and they don't have to think about it anymore. That one change alone is massive in someone's health profile.

Vaidya - I like the example of the diaphragm being traumatized by our experiences and doesn't know how to relax. The major signaling mechanism going forward has been hampered. I have seen in my practice, people who have this kind of narrow breathing where the diaphragm never relaxes are the ones who are more prone to Hiatal hernia because there is no movement. Have you come across something like that?

Victor - Heart conditions and weight gain are a big deal with that. The breath and metabolism are closely related and intertwined. If one does not breathe properly, their Vata dosha will be out of balance; and that can easily push the other two doshas out of balance.

Vaidya - Can we incorporate some chanting or mudras in life to help with the healthy functioning of the autonomic nervous system?

Victor - One of the ancient ways of affecting the autonomic nervous system is through the voice because the vagus nerve is attached to the vocal cords. When anyone speaks, they're engaging in some vague activity. The idea behind song or chanting is that when something is done with prosody, it has a special effect and influence that communicates a sense of safety via the ears, pathways, and hearing to the vagus nerve. Female voices are more parasympathetic than male voices. For example, a mother's lullaby is extremely soothing by nature and energy. Repetitive sound also does that; it doesn't have to be melodic; it can also be repetitive. There are some forms of chanting that are monotone but are repetitive. That repetition allows the body to enter into a parasympathetic state because one for an extended period stimulating the vagus nerve pathways attached to the voice box and ears. They're immersing themselves in this vibratory experience that is repeatedly telling the body that it's safe.

Vaidya - Any specific chants for our listeners to take away from this podcast?

Victor - I am a Kundalini Yoga practitioner. So I'll use a Kundalini Yoga mantra. There's a simple one that is Humee Hum Brahm Hum, and it will be familiar to many yoga practitioners. They activate the fourth chakra or the heart center and have a soothing vibratory effect. When you chant the Hu, you're supposed to use your navel point to push the air out on the exhale. Exhale Hum gives a vibration lower in the chest. It starts to vibrate the chest cavity, and the M vibrates the lips. The lips are also a place where the vagus nerve connects, stimulating all those pathways at once.

Vaidya - Our listeners can choose anything that vibrates with them, but those sound vibrations from the ancient language of Sanskrit or Gurumukhi, which the Kundalini Yoga uses. All of those are powerful vibrations because you're using the sound and breath at the same time. Is that right?

Victor. Singing tonifies the Vegas nerve. These mantras are specifically designed by the people who have practiced them for many years, were in deep meditation and uncovered their profound effects on the system. The way the tongue hits the roof of the mouth and all those things are specific and intentional. Even though singing, in general, is good, they're calling upon that effect in combination with specific sounds, meters, and repetitions to maximize and influence specific aspects of the being.

Vaidya - We have covered some of the diet protocols and spices in the previous podcasts. In this podcast, we talked about Yoga, breathing exercises, and mantras. Do you have any must-do recommendations, such as herbs or spices people should incorporate? Can you do us a favor of choosing a couple of herbs and spices to be used daily to keep the disengagement of fight or flight or autonomic nervous system?

Victor - On a general basis assuming one doesn't have any particular imbalance, Tumeric will be good.

Vaidya - Everybody knows about turmeric; it is such a great spice. Interestingly, one of the Sanskrit synonyms for Turmeric is Nisha, which means night or tranquilizing.

Victor - It has a calming effect and helps in increasing resilience, which is super important. Another one would be coriander because it's Sattvic.

Vaidya - People think coriander is just a mild spice, but I agree with you. Coriander is a soothing spice for pitta, and it also relieves the irritation caused by engaging the autonomic nervous system and feeling stressed. I like these two herbs, and I think our listeners will be able to incorporate that. How about a couple of gems of herbs that you want to use?

Victor - As far as herbs go, depending on the Dosha Guduchi is fantastic. Since we're talking in general, Triphala is also good.

Vaidya - I'm a big fan of Triphala too. Guduchi is a herb used to purify blood, etc., and is also a brain tonic. You chose these two, one for the gut and another for the brain and gut. How do you recommend taking these herbs?

Victor -Taking them as tea is the easiest way. There are many ways to use them together, but tea is the easiest way, especially for Triphala. Triphala and Guduchi are both safe. I wouldn't use Guduchi in a few situations, but it's perfectly safe for most people. They're both incredible plants.

Vaidya - I know that they have to consult an Ayurvedic practitioner for their expertise at some point. Our listeners can do little experiments, but expert guidance is required to do a proper herbal protocol. It's a teaser for our listeners to get into an Ayurvedic routine using these herbs. Thank you so much for your time. We look forward to having you again on another podcast in which we will talk about something interesting and mind-opening. At Athreya Herbs, we want to keep in tune with us, and the initiative that we have taken is to help people live a long, healthy life. Thank you for your time, Vaidya Victor.

Victor - Thank you, Vaidya Jay, it's been a pleasure.

Vaidya - Namaste everyone, have a great day.

Victor - Namaste.

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