On a crisp cloud-covered night last Saturday, my husband and I walked into the village to watch the annual holiday parade. The sidewalks were lined with bundled-up children, attentive guardians, and young adults in Santa hats taking a break from the village pub crawl. The parade's "floats" consisted of trucks and cars strewn with ropes of colored lights and blinking holiday decorations, many advertising local businesses. The girl scouts and animal rescue organizations marched and dispersed candy canes to the crowd, a couple of community bands enthusiastically played Carols, and a waving Santa Claus brought up the rear. The parade ended at the historic brick fire station where the parade's Santa led the gathered crowd in singing Jingle Bells. Kids, pub-crawlers, parents and grandparents, all sang together in the cold night air, "...jingle all the way!" I felt like I was among Who’s down in Who-ville, with nary a Grinch in sight.
It turns out that singing is good for you, as is chanting and audible diaphragmatic breathing, what we yogis call ujjayi pranayama. These sounded actions indirectly stimulate the vagus nerve, the body’s “air traffic controller”. One important job of the vagus nerve is to carry signals from the brain instructing our cells that it is time to “rest and digest”. High vagal tone is associated with our ability to be resilient and recover from stress quickly, and a healthy immune system. Low vagal tone, on the other hand, is associated with conditions such as anxiety and heart disease. Research on other conditions associated with low vagal tone are showing electric Vagal Nerve Stimulation (VNS) to be a promising therapy for migraines, Parkinson's, epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
Our faith-based yoga practice includes many activities that are known to “de-stress” our minds and bodies. Prayer, meditation, and gentle movement all have been shown to lower blood pressure and relax us. But we often forget to use our ujjayi breath to direct our asana, missing out on the associated increase in vagal tone. Ujjayi is likened to creating the sound of the ocean with our breath, audibly inhaling breath to the back of our throat and deep into our lungs, and then slowly exhaling, aided by a soft contraction of the belly, producing in our throat the sound found inside a seashell. Less poetically, ujjayi has been described by my daughter as "Darth Vader" breath. Russill Paul, a former Benedictine monk, in his book The Yoga of Sound, asserts that in sound and chant lay “the hidden power of yoga.” This is ancient wisdom that appears to be supported by a recent MRI study of the brain, available on the National Institute of Health website, that found chanting OM deactivates parts of the brain associated with stress—those areas of the brain that signal the body to “fight or flight”. Other researchers posit that yoga's ability to “turn off” the stress centers in our brain is one reason we feel so good after yoga class.
Which brings me back to Jingle Bells. This Christmas season, when the crowds at the shopping mall are overwhelming you, when you find yourself looking for a day on the calendar that is not booked with activity, when your cousin calls to explain why she is not talking to your Aunt, or when you are simply fed up with the constant electronic barrage of commercial ads and "news", find a moment or two to practice yoga off of your mat. Embrace your inner resiliency. Take a slow deep breath and then sing as the psalmist instructs: make a joyful noise.