Have you heard this saying? ‘Some wander to get lost and some to find themselves.’ It’s a beautifully apt observation because our inner wanderer does play hide-and-seek with us if we upset the poetic rhythm of our well-being.
And how would we upset our rhythm? By almost anything — stressful relationships, negative thoughts, unpleasant encounters, food that our digestive system cannot process… so who exactly is this inner wanderer who gets all hot and bothered over such matters?
It is the emotional vagus nerve… the nerve of all nerves that gets its name ‘vagus’ from Latin, and means wandering, rambling or strolling. And it does exactly that — par excellence! It starts in the brain and then rambles south all the way to our gut, connecting to various organs on the way. It’s the Mississippi of nerves — majestic, long, large and more complex than any river with its plethora of filament-like tributaries.
And if our vagal activity is weak, we can get disoriented, anxious, depressed, suffer from headaches and neck pain. It can even worsen the symptoms of arthritis, inflammations, epilepsy. Since it also plays a role in regulating our heart beat, it can cause tachycardia too — where the heart begins to beat speedily yet irregularly.
That’s why, many health experts say, that when you look after your vagus nerve, you look after your body-mind health. Yes, indeed, it’s a very human, very emotional nerve. If you take interest in its well-being, you’ll find your health, your disposition improving in various subtle ways. You’ll be less prone to sudden spurts of irritation and more relaxed in your responses, more comfortable with people and situations that upset you earlier, more flexible where you were rigid.
A nice neck massage. The thing is to take charge of your overall being in simple, easy ways. When you massage your neck, you feel good because the vagus nerve feels good. Sure, a massage improves the blood circulation to the region, relaxes tense muscles in the neck and shoulders, but it’s the responsive vagus nerve that sends the sweet, healing tingle through the back of your head as if to say, ‘Thank you. That feels good, please continue.’
A selfie neck-and-shoulder massage is very relaxing. I recommend it. In tense moments, keep massaging these regions, you will feel better, balanced, more able to manage things. It doesn’t end here because that flash of inspiration, that genius of an idea comes when you are completely relaxed. It could be attributed to the vagus nerve but more research needs to be done before we can come to this conclusion. Having said that, researchers do submit that ‘the vagus is about rest and digest.’
A selfie neck-and-shoulder massage is very relaxing. In tense moments, keep massaging these regions, you will feel better, balanced, and more able to manage things.
It is said that in 494 BC, Rome was brought to the brink of a civil war between the common people and the ruling aristocrats. The general resentful feeling was that the aristocrats did nothing. Peace was restored when the consul narrated a teaching tale to the citizens. It goes: There came a time when the members of the body collectively grew annoyed with the stomach. There it sat, doing nothing, while the rest of them toiled to bring food to it, the stomach did no work to procure food for itself. So, the other members of the body decided that they would no longer bring food to the stomach. The hands would not lift it to the mouth, the teeth would not chew it, the throat would not swallow it and this would teach that lazy stomach a lesson.
The whole body began to weaken and, the members learned that digestion and utilising food for energy and health of the body was as important as procuring it. The rulers had their place in society as did the stomach in the body. A dangerous situation was averted.
Digestive messages of the vagus. In this context, the vagus nerve could certainly create a mini war in us if we give our stomach food it cannot digest. Remember, this nerve runs from brain to gut and its messages are a two-way transmission. So always eat in calm, conducive conditions. Switch on soothing instrumental music while dining. The stomach cells and digestive system cannot literally hear, but the ears take the music in, send it to the brain and the vagus carries it to the stomach and back to the brain.Also, have food that your system can digest easily. Stick to small or moderate portions.
Foods that stimulate the vagus nerve in a positive way, say nutritionists, are flaxseed, fish with omega-3, polyphenols in tea, milk and yoghurt. Avoid foods that give you any form of adverse reactions such as bloating, skin rash, throbbing in the head, indigestion, dizziness or nausea.
Ensure sweet meets. How many of us bond human to human? It’s key to our health. And the vagus nerve insists: whenever we socialise, we must do our sincere best to ensure it’s a pleasant encounter. As friend Jai, on a long pilgrimage, recently said, ‘The sweetest moment in life comes not from a polite smiling hello, but from the feeling that someone truly wishes from his or her heart the best for you.’
Make every meeting a goodwill meeting today and may it stay as a pleasing memory for tomorrow. Meanwhile, Ken Keyes Jr’s rider is, ‘You add to the suffering in the world when you take offence, just as much as you do when you give offence.’ Anything positive, loving, cheerful, pleasing relaxes the vagus nerve. It cannot take hostility of any kind.
Apparently, the vagus nerve is central to our well-being — our ability to love, relate, learn, enjoy beautiful music, be inspired — in short, all the higher functions of being human are via this great nerve. That’s why it rejoices and tones up when we think and do anything lovingly, willingly, wholeheartedly, when we feel a ‘wow!’ at learning something new, when we feel transported on a Beethoven track or a breathtaking sunrise, or are inspired by a beautiful piece of poetry, a rags-to-riches story… It’s our wow nerve!
Further, when we feel safe, are even-minded, when we laugh, love, when our mind becomes luminous in acceptance and joy, it too becomes blissful and subtly encourages our healing and creative processes. Without it, we’d be unable to engage with one another. But it needs us to feel safe, loving and positive to function optimally.
Exercising the vagus. A few simple exercises that stimulate it are: The torso twist, abdominal crunches, massaging the abdominal area in circles — 30 times each. Another lovely activity is: Press your palms together hard —
your elbows at shoulder level — until you feel them vibrating with the force. Simultaneously, hold your breath. When you can’t hold it any longer, stop pressing the palms and breathe out explosively like a diver coming up for air. It’s amazing!
Since the vagus nerve runs through the throat, tone it with a nice session of chanting, humming, singing, gargling — all or any. Splash cold water on your face. Stand under the shower and let it spray your neck with cool water. Whenever you feel hot and bothered, stand facing the air conditioner or an open refrigerator. An ice pack on the head and neck are also great nerve toners. The vagus loves the cold and responds favourably to it.
Finally, please stress less, breathe more. Another gem from pilgrim Jai: ‘Boss, it’s time to just be happy. Being angry, sad and overthinking isn’t worth it anymore. Just let life flow.’ Absolutely.
The writers are authors of Fitness for Life and Simply Spiritual – You Are Naturally Divine and teachers of the Fitness for Life programme.