Getting On My Nerves

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The core of the Art of Joyfulness-Mindful Living Excellence Retreat from 3rd to 5th January 2014 was, of course, the art of breathing. The way I see it, what we were taught was the art of meditation by focusing on the breath. I am not new to meditation for I am already aware and have been practising (though not very well or regularly) the other kind of meditation – transcendental meditation.

From what I can gather, transcendental meditation teaches you to focus on a mantra. You have to still your mind and recite a mantra over and over again. Your thoughts are bound to interrupt this recitation, but when you’re aware of your thoughts, let them go and return to focusing on the mantra. You can choose whatever mantra you please from Om to the Gayathri mantra. You’re even free to recite the Lord’s Prayer if you wish. There are no strictures and no one’s going to scold you. There is no right or wrong.

As I said, during the retreat, what we did was to focus, instead, on the breath. Like most breathing techniques, mindful breathing starts with correct posture. You must be comfortable and, ideally, you should keep your spine erect. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Here’s where it gets interesting. What you aim for is to make the length of your exhalation twice as long as the length of your inhalation. For example, when you inhale, mentally count to four. As you exhale, mentally count to eight. One thing I did notice was that this was harder to do after a meal. I couldn’t hold for eight counts and managed only six when exhaling. Have you experienced this? Any explanations?

Vaugs Nerve - this image is adapted from 12cranialnerves.wordpress.com

Vaugs Nerve – this image is adapted from 12cranialnerves.wordpress.com

For years, the people I know who’ve been meditating daily have enjoyed good health. They’re in their eighties and nineties, alert and in good health. So, I’ve always known about the enormous benefits of meditation. The new discovery I made during the retreat was about the existence of the vagus nerve and it’s relationship with meditation.

Here’s a description of the vagus nerve:

The vagus nerve is a mixed nerve with both sensory and motor functions. It is the longest of the cranial nerves as it extends from the brain stem, through the muscles of the mouth, neck, thorax, lungs, and abdomen. The vagus nerve conveys sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the nervous system. It also receives a special sense of taste sent from the epiglottis. The posterior muscle of the tongue, the palatoglossus, is controlled by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve helps to regulate the heartbeat, control muscle movement, keep a person breathing, and to transmit a variety of chemicals through the body. The vagus nerve controls muscles resulting in voice resonance and also the soft palate. It is responsible for homeostasis of the digestive tract, and contracting the muscles of the stomach. The vagus nerve controls the small and large intestines to help process food. The vagus nerve also sends sensory signals to the brain about what is being digested and what the body is getting out of it.

Now, what we learnt was that when you do mindful breathing, you stimulate this vagus nerve. In very simple terms, since it’s the messenger that carries information to all organs and parts of the body, when it’s stimulated, it’s wise to send good thoughts to it.

Personally, I’ve found that it takes me 10 to 15 minutes of deep breathing/meditation before I can completely let go of all the thoughts. It’s after this that my thoughts are what I call ‘pure’ thoughts. Many times, when my meditation session ends, I am a little calmer than before I started. Things that seem impossible before don’t immediately become possible, but I can feel more hopeful. That, alone, is good.

This is another photo that always reminds me of this. It’s a leaf from a conifer tree (I think that’s what they’re called) and we had one in our garden a long time ago. The branches and leaves grow upward, as though defying gravity. I’ve always associated it with this ‘impossible-becoming-possible’ notion.

Do you practice breathing techniques? If so, which one? What benefits have you derived from this practice?

By Aneeta Sundararaj


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