One of the powers we gain through conscious breathing practices is the ability to influence our nervous system directly and immediately. If we aim to boost our energy levels for enhanced focus and concentration, we can engage in upregulating breathing techniques. Conversely, if we seek to activate our relaxation response swiftly, there are effective methods to achieve this. Humming is a particularly potent way to trigger your relaxation response.

 


The role of the vagus nerve in relaxation

 

Before diving into the practice of humming, it's important to understand the pivotal role played by the vagus nerve in our nervous system. Originating from the base of the brain, the vagus traverses through the neck, connecting to vital organs like the heart, lungs, diaphragm, and stomach. Its winding pathway gives rise to its name, derived from the Latin word meaning "wandering." The vagus nerve acts as the primary nerve of our parasympathetic nervous system, often described as our “rest and digest mode.”


Functioning as a two-way communication system, the vagus nerve predominantly relays signals from the body to the brain. For instance, when we engage in slow breathing, the brain receives signals from the vagus nerve indicating safety, alleviating the need for immediate stress response. Slow (and light) breathing stands out as the most effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve and alleviate stress in both body and mind. If you have used the Oxa wearable, you can watch in real time your сalm score increasing—this indicates your vagus nerve is activating your relaxation response.


The health and functionality of your vagus nerve are gauged through vagal tone, a concept developed by Stephen Porges in his polyvagal theory. This term refers to the ability of your parasympathetic nervous system to activate and adapt in response to stressors. Breathing interventions that stimulate the vagus nerve play a pivotal role in regulating internal bodily processes such as glucose levels and inflammation. Moreover, they enhance our mental capacity to manage attention and emotions, especially during periods of acute or chronic stress. Socially, individuals with higher vagal tone exhibit enhanced skills in navigating interpersonal interactions and fostering positive connections.

Given the extensive network of the vagus nerve throughout the body, various practices beyond slow breathing can boost your vagal tone. These include gargling, meditation, singing and chanting, laughter, sexual intimacy, and, notably, humming.

 

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Why Humming Relaxes You

 

Humming emerges as a highly effective technique for increasing vagal tone. When you hum, the exhale is elongated due to resistance created by the closure of your vocal cords, generating the humming sound. As you have likely experienced in various breathing practices, an extended exhale increases your parasympathetic dominance, boosting vagal tone and inducing relaxation in both body and mind.


Furthermore, the vibration produced by humming directly stimulates the vagus nerve, which courses through the inner canal of your ear. Studies suggest that this vibration deactivates parts of the brain, particularly the amygdala associated with depression and the fight-or-flight response. While the ideal frequency for humming is around 120 Hertz, corresponding to the key of B, the exact pitch is not crucial.


Additionally, humming at a low pitch and with sufficient intensity significantly increases the production of nitric oxide in your nasal passages. Research has indicated a substantial increase in nitric oxide production compared to quiet nasal exhalation, particularly benefiting individuals with chronic rhinosinusitis and allergies. After humming for just a few minutes daily over a period of days, individuals reported significant relief from sinus issues, attributing these results to elevated nitric oxide levels and its antifungal properties. Try it right now—give it a go. Humm for the next 60 seconds and then pause and notice the feeling in your body and mind.

 


The yogic practice of humming like a Bee

 

My introduction to humming practice occurred during my pranayama training in Nepal and India, notably while studying the 15th-century text Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Among the eight pranayama practices taught in the text, one is called bhramari, meaning "bee" in Sanskrit. This practice derives its name from the buzzing sound produced during humming, resembling that of a bee. Bhramari is a straightforward pranayama technique that does not involve breath retention, specific counting, ratios, or designated body postures. Blocking the ears with thumbs and gently placing middle and ring fingers over the eyes can enhance the immersive experience, although it's not mandatory—the primary benefits arise from the humming vibration itself. Inhaling slowly (importantly through the nose) and exhaling with a prolonged humming sound, directing the low hum between the eyebrows, forms the essence of bhramari practice.


Bhramari redirects our senses inward, fostering interoceptive awareness—the ability to perceive our internal somatic landscape. The promised benefits of bhramari, according to yogic texts, include the release of physical and mental tension, along with the harmonization of subtle energy within the body. Additionally, consistent practice of bee humming eventually leads yogi, so the text says, to explore the psychic realm of the third eye (ajna chakra), that beatific realm where profound spiritual realizations unfold. Humming as a group indoors creates harmonics akin to a relaxing sound bath. 

 

 

Humming as a daily practice for relaxation

 

We need not be a yogi in India to experience the benefits of humming. Esoteric explanations aside, the physiological benefits of humming are felt within minutes of practicing. You can set aside a few minutes during the day for a formal humming practice, perhaps before you meditate, or else you can hum spontaneously during the day to increase your relaxation response. I’ve recently been monitoring my heart rate and heart rate variability on my Oxa as a way to gain insights into my humming practice.


Here are 5 suggested times to practice humming:

  1. In the morning: Start your day with humming to set a relaxed tone and enhance vagal tone for improved stress resilience throughout the day.
  2. Before bedtime: Incorporate humming into your bedtime routine to promote deep relaxation, ease tension, and facilitate a restful night's sleep.
  3. During stressful moments: Use humming as an on-the-spot relaxation tool during stressful situations to quickly activate your relaxation response and calm your nerves.
  4. Prior to meditation or yoga: Integrate humming into your meditation or yoga practice to deepen your relaxation, enhance mindfulness, and promote overall well-being.
  5. Before important events or presentations: Practice humming before important events, public speaking or presentations to reduce anxiety, center yourself, and cultivate a calm and focused mindset.
Matteo Pistono
Published:
May 14, 2024

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