The Vagaries of the Vagus

Learning about the Vagus with Bek Conroy

I am part of a reading group, organised by myself and Custom's curator Madeleine Collie. We are reading "The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins" by Anna Tsing. It is an extraordinary book and we are taking it a chapter at a time, which feels like an enormous indulgence. Singh writes a complex story of capitalism and it's truths, fictions and the possibility of existence without or despite it, through the lens of the rare matsutake mushroom which thrives in areas of human destruction. But it's far more than just a neat allegory. The mushrooms don't just take nutrients out of the soil in the forests where they grow, they participate in a vital system of communication. Fungus are more than the mushroom found above ground, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as mycelium, which operate below ground and connect the roots of neighbouring plants to one another. The result is that trees can effectively pass information to one another via the fungal (mycelial) network, regulating growth throughout a forest by distribution of nutrients - even creating toxic chemicals to kills off "invading" plants. (You can read a tidy explanation of this here). This complexity and Singh's concept of polyphonic assemblages, seems to be really important in the way we approach post-viral life. It's not enough to just decide to 'eat local', go vegan, or any of the other unique and complete choices we make to try to improve our impact on the world through food. We need to embody the interconnectedness of the systems of production, performance and care that are involved in the plate of food in front of us. We must remain fluid and changeable, because knowledge is fluid and changeable - so we can't ever know for sure that any of our choices are the right ones, at least not permanently. But that is not to say that we shouldn't make these important choices at all - so how to make them? Did you know that we have our own mycelial style network operating within our bodies? I mentioned the Vagus Nerve in my last post and we are going to explore it in more detail here, with Renata Byrne, Founder of Samadhi Yoga Folkestone, who can also shed some light on how we can listen in to our own network, to understand what it is that we need for health and survival. It's very existence demonstrates how tangled and co-dependent our human needs are.

A Wandering Path to Health, Happiness and Power; the Vagus Nerve Demystified.
By Renata Byrne
Image: Wellcome Library

Responsible for a good mental and emotional disposition when toned; rousing anxiety, irritability and negative mood when out-of-shape. The state of our relationships, physical wellbeing, sense of self and very existence on the planet depends upon this until recently little-known nerve as the body’s communication superhighway.
The tenth nerve of the autonomic nervous system, the vagus is an important player on the landscape of primal survival. She positively thrives on loving-kindness, a quality associated with the feminine ‘yin’ principle in Yogic and other wisdom traditions. Contrarily, she can be thrown into disarray when overly stimulated by the onset of exertive masculine ‘yang’’ forces (not to confuse masculine and feminine here as terms of sex or gender but rather the dynamics that underpin vagal orientation).
The word ‘vagus’ itself is latin for wanderer, illustrating well her roaming passage from brain to throat to heart and lungs and all the way down to the pelvis through the digestive tract. Interestingly, this route tracks the now scientifically recognised heart and gut brains, as well as the subtle energetic chakras long recognised by Eastern medicine as essential features of the body-mind (and which, incidentally, denote major anatomical nerve and gland plexusus).
As the prime driving force of the parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve is responsible for regulating our “rest-and-digest” or “tend-and-befriend” responses. On the flip side, the sympathetic nervous system drives the “fight-or-flight” response, shutting down any function it deems not to be of priority during times of crisis. Ideally, within the autonomic nervous system, a tug of war between the sympathetic and parasympathetic will bring about a ‘yin-yang’ like homeostasis, an interplay that gives rise to a harmonious whole.
Whether interpreted by the gros physiological or subtle ontological, both sciences equally reflect the concept of dualism, portraying the interrelatedness of seemingly independent and conflicting forces as complimentary. Today, being eaten by a predator is no longer a threat. Instead, a myriad of modern challenges as pandemics of the mind and body attack the human condition.
The ability to efficiently digest and assimilate nourishment and eliminate physical, mental and emotional toxicity, has become the most pressing demand of our time. If we are to prevail as a species, let alone evolve as beings of higher intelligence, we must align with nature. Empirical science and ancient wisdom now meet in recognition of the need for methods to release trauma and redress balance. The vagus nerve is key but personal responsibility lies with each individual to actively nurture her no less fiercely than a mother would her child.
Samadhi Yoga Renata Byrne