Contemplative practices, such as meditation and yoga, are increasingly popular among the general public and as topics of research. Beneficial effects associated with these practices have been found on physical health, mental health and cognitive performance. However, studies and theories that clarify the underlying mechanisms are lacking or scarce. This theoretical review aims to address and compensate this scarcity. We will show that various contemplative activities have in common that breathing is regulated or attentively guided. This respiratory discipline in turn could parsimoniously explain the physical and mental benefits of contemplative activities through changes in autonomic balance. We propose a neurophysiological model that explains how these specific respiration styles could operate, by phasically and tonically stimulating the vagal nerve: respiratory vagal nerve stimulation (rVNS). The vagal nerve, as a proponent of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), is the prime candidate in explaining the effects of contemplative practices on health, mental health and cognition. We will discuss implications and limitations of our model.
Keywords: cognition; heart rate variability; meditation; mind-body exercises; mindfulness; respiration; stress; vagus nerve.