God damn, this shit is so f**king cool (thanks for sharing in my enthusiasm Jay Fields, Somatic Coach extraordinaire ). So, I recently came across the work of Stanley Rosenberg. It’s kinda mind-blowing. His research over the past few decades is proposing how we might heal from common psychological and physical symptoms - anxiety, depression, migraines and back pain to name a few - by tapping into the healing power of the vagus nerve, AKA cranial nerve X.
We know that our health and well-being are dependent on an optimally functioning and resilient nervous system. At the root of this adaptability, especially to stress, is the vagus nerve. It plays a mega role in determining our psychological and emotional states...thereby affecting how we function socially. If this makes you go hmmm, check out Polyvagal Theory.
From my own experiences, and from what clients have shared with me, chronic stress and trauma can seriously impede our ability to engage socially (among other things). According to Rosenberg, this is indicative of an improperly functioning vagus nerve (ventral branch to be specific). A dysregulated vagus nerve as it were - which points to greater autonomic nervous system dysregulation.
I’ve known for a while that I’m not a fan of partner work, of any kind, especially in movement classes. Do you ever find it hard to work in partners? My tendency is to shut down, making it hard for me to attune to myself, let alone my partner. Sometimes I feel a lot of anxiety, unease and agitation. Other times I struggle with confusion and even tunnel vision. It’s kinda like I’m driving in a heavy fog with my high beams on. Ekkk. That doesn’t sound safe and really a metaphor for what I’m feeling in my body.
Last year I decided to take a deep dive and try to figure out why I was so affected when working in relation to other humans. Even humans I know well can ignite these feels (teachers and friends). I genuinely enjoy moving with other people - it's the mammal DNA in me. I’m fascinated by what can come out of these interactions - goosebump fascinated. I also love where my personal movement practice is taking me - which has included the challenge of more partnered work. Time to get down to brass tacks.
I’ve learned there are some pretty simple body based exercises that you can do to regulate the vagus nerve to restore/enhance social engagement. What?!
Here are the steps for Rosenbergs Basic Exercise, which takes about 5 mins to complete (pics below for reference):
I begin by assesses how much I can comfortably rotate my head to the right and left without moving the rest of my body. I’m interested in my range of motion and if I experience any pain, discomfort or stiffness. I’ll spend a few moments/breaths with my head in one direction, take a mental note of what I feel/experience, and then do the same on the opposite side. I will repeat this assessment again at the end to compare.
I interweave my fingers and place them behind my head. FYI, it's totally fine to use just one hand with the fingers and palm contacting both sides of the back of your head.
Now on my back (can be done in a seated position as well) I attune to the weight of my head on my fingers and try to feel the bones of my fingers on the back of my head. Gaze is straight up in this position (obviously, and to the horizon if you’re seated).
Keeping my head still, I move just my eyes to the right, as far as I can go comfortably. I keep looking right (just eyes!) for about 30-60 secs - or until I swallow, yawn or sigh (more on this magical experience below). Note - if you haven’t moved your eyes like this in a while it may feel challenging to keep them looking one direction (even nauseating). Just do you’re best. It will get easier with practice.
I then bring my eyes back through the centre position and then move them in the opposite direction. Again, just the eyes move, keep the head and neck still. Hold the eyes in that direction until you notice a sigh, yawn or swallow.
I finish by uprighting myself slowly (to avoid dizziness) and assess my neck rotations. Any changes? I compare my notes about how I was feeling before and after. Does my body feel different? After several days of practice, what else is changing?
PERSONAL OBSERVATION - In my experimentation sometimes the shift can feel pretty subtle. I didn’t always experience a sigh, swallow or bigger yawn. Sometimes it was just a deeper exhale. In any case, I suggest you don’t hang out longer than a minute waiting for the sigh or swallow. That may not be the thing your body wants to do.
NOTE - Like anything new take things slow and be gentle. I’d suggest connecting with a trusted health care practioner before engaging with this exercise, especially if you’ve experienced trauma or a concussion.
I was working though some neck pain and shot this video of the Basic Practice if you need to engage with it in a dfferent way.
So, more about this magical experience of yawning, sighing or swallowing (generally speaking):
This is a sign of improved regulation of my vagus nerve
Also a sign of improved homeostasis in my autonomic nervous system
Which translates to an increase of parasympathetic tone in my body
Equaling, more capacity for me to socially engage! Woot woot!
If this is new to you and maybe even sounds a little woohoo, consider some of the physiological benefits:
This deceptively simple exercise of controlled rotation of the head and eye movement engage the suboccipital muscles in the back of your head, drawing the first two vertebrae into alignment.
This repositioning of C1 and C2 increases mobility in the neck and the entire spine - it all connects.
Better movement of the neck will increase blood flow to the brainstem.
This acts to nourishing the 5 cranial nerves necessary for social engagement, which originate from the brainstem.
Which my friends, in turn, improves the function of the ventral branch of the vagus nerve.
Clients I have shared this exercise with are surprised to experience an improvement in mobility even after one practice session. They have also reported feeling calmer and cooler in their body, have better focus, and even feel more comfort and ease in simply liting their gaze up from the ground (and holding it there). I typically will have them walk around after a practice session for a minute or two to integrate all this new information that their body has learned.
Give it a try. I’d love to know how it goes.
Learn more about Stanley here - http://www.stanleyklinik.dk/