Your Vagal Nerve System

In 2019 Conference, Members by MaryBeth Smith

by Elinor Silverstein

Elinor Silverstein

Recently, I met a lovely man at a dinner party. He had been diagnosed, then misdiagnosed, and two months later, re-diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

His face showed little expression, but his walk looked relatively healthy. He said he had pain and trembling in his left arm and hand. Mostly, he felt very sad and scared about this diagnosis and its implications, especially since he does not have a partner.

As we talked, he became more and more anxious, constantly cutting me off, even interrupting himself. He explained that this was the result of his extremely low dopamine levels. To him, everything was black and white. He was distressed about his dopamine levels and what he might be like in the future.

I invited him to come to my studio to show him what the Feldenkrais Method® could do. Together, perhaps we can re-write history and maybe even re-wire your brain, I said. We call it neuroplasticity.


He arrived the next day at the appointed time, both excited and terribly nervous. I liked that: more to work with. If we begin to work with the whole vagal nerve system, then we might stimulate his parasympathetic nervous system to help him find his place of calm, and his whole self. My aim was to improve his vagal tone. He trusted me and away we went.

I spent most of his lesson working with his head and neck, along his sternocleidomastoid muscle, because the vagus nerve travels through this area. I gently guided his head, rolling it in a small movement, from side to side. He used his eyes to guide the movement. I also whispered to him because doing so stimulates communication with the vagus nerve, which is innervated into the ear. Working in this way invited a sense of softness, safety, and security within himself.

During his lesson, I also touched and moved his lower legs and feet. His left side felt very hard and rigid. From my experience, this did not feel “typically Parkinsonian” to me; I wondered whether he had ever been touched in this way. He confirmed that he never gets any kind of hands-on touch at all. Using the same quality of touch, I moved and glided his skin over the muscles of his lower left leg. Soon, his tissue was remarkably softer, and his ankle-foot connection became more flexible.

He let out a great sigh and finally began to breathe easily and more deeply. This is a primary indicator of increased vagal tone. His eyes watered, and his lips began to quiver. He said he couldn’t believe how good he felt, how safe and natural this is, and that he could feel all of it. When we, as Guild Certified Feldenkras PractitionersCM, can give people back their dignity and ability to function, and live their lives more fully, we have truly given them the greatest gift.


Image via Pixabay

Vagal tone can be measured by Heart Rate Variability. Simply explained, the time interval between heartbeats is measured over a specific time period. Your heart can speed up from a momentary fear or excitement; then you can measure your health by how quickly your heart rate comes back to its original tempo. Moshe used to talk about this phenomenon, but he never used this exact language. Now we know that Heart Rate Variability is a measure of resilience.

Your Vagal Nerve System starts in the base of your brain. It branches down each side of your neck, continuing down your throat to your heart, lungs, diaphragm, and all your digestive organs. Although the vagus nerve travels from the brain downward, between 85-90% of its nerve fibers transmit their information from the belly up. This means, when you have that “gut feeling,” you might be right! The vagus nerve branches send neurochemicals up from your belly all the way to your brain to say, “Wait, what was that sound?” or “Whoa, what was that feeling of love I just felt?” The vagus nerve regulates the dynamic balance of your sympathetic-parasympathetic functions.

When people have poor vagal tone it can show up in many ways; for example, heart health, digestive issues like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), depression and anxiety, sleep problems, and decreased immune response. Strong vagal tone is indicated by excellent heart health, strong immune system, resilience, general happiness and joy. Some people have that certain joie de vivre, that zest and zeal, and you just want to know how they got it. They have optimal vagal tone.

Moshe Feldenkrais said his dream was to help people to improve the quality of their lives and restore them to their full dignity. He desired to help society in this way. I believe the Feldenkrais Method can help everyone on the planet to increase their vagal tone, and improve their health, wellness, and being. One vagal nerve at a time.

Elinor Silverstein will present a workshop on the Vagal Nerve System at the 2019 Feldenkrais Method Conference in Boulder, CO. She introduces it in this video .