Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True. And I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the Sounds True Foundation. The goal of the Sounds True Foundation is to provide access and eliminate financial barriers to transformational education and resources such as teachings and trainings on mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion. If you’d like to learn more and join with us in our efforts, please visit soundstruefoundation.org.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, my guest is Melissa Brown. Melissa is a somatic counselor and Hellerwork Structural Integration practitioner. She has a degree in medical anthropology and she studied various forms of healing at the Twin Lakes College of the Healing Arts. With Sounds True, Melissa Brown has partnered with Sharon Stanley, Andrea Larsen, and Mukti, to create a brand new audio course. It’s called Nourishing Your Nervous System: What You Need to Know to Care for Yourself in Stressful Times. Melissa gives us some very simple and very profound tips on how we can assess our nervous system state, and if we find we’re dysregulated, choose to return to regulation. Here’s my conversation, a very helpful conversation, practical conversation, with Melissa Brown:
Melissa, during this time of heightened stressors, whether it’s climate change or the fears of gun violence, everything that we’ve gone through collectively with the pandemic, people are more and more interested in understanding their nervous system and how to become an active operator of their nervous system. When you teach on the nervous system, how do you present it? How do you help people understand, OK, here’s a user-friendly guide to your nervous system?
Melissa Brown: I first like to teach people about their autonomic nervous system, the basic principles of the sympathetic and parasympathetic, which most people understand. And then I really like to bring in the Polyvagal theory by Dr. Steven Porges, because that has the most useful information as far as understanding your nervous system. And we all get into sympathetic arousal, which means heightened state of anxiety like you were just speaking about—feeling anxious, overwhelmed, fear. And we can all go into that lower parasympathetic, which can be a state of depression. And in Dr. Porges’s theory, we want to learn how to return to something called the ventral vagal, which is a branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. But it’s that branch where we can learn to feel more calm, more joy, and more vitality.
And so I try to teach my clients a form of embodiment to start to feel, what does sympathetic arousal feel like in your body? So when you’re anxious or when you’re upset, what’s going on in your body? Where do you feel constriction? Do you feel temperature changes?
And then I bring them into a sense of, what inspires you? Because inspiration can be a sense of ventral vagal. How can I return from feeling super anxious to my ventral vagal? And that’s the basic principles of where I start with my clients or even friends or people who are interested in learning about their nervous system.
TS: How would I self-identify, “I’m in a ventral vagal state right now, I know it for sure”?
MB: You would have that smile on your face a little bit. You would have a sense of groundedness in your body. You would have a sense of presence in yourself. And the opposite of that would be—you wouldn’t be so caught up in your mind thinking about, “I have to do this and I have to do that,” and all that rumination that can go on. You would feel connected to others, so you’d feel connected to the people that you’re speaking to, or your family members that you’re engaged with. You might have a sense of a light feeling in your body, you may not feel so constricted or heavy or tight. So I find that center of ventral vagal is a real sense of calm, more sense of joy, a sense of connection, and a sense of ease in your body.
TS: And then, do you have specific suggestions depending on if I’m in a state of sympathetic arousal, I’m all upset and freaked out about something? Or if I’m in a more depressed and low and “God, I don’t even want to get off the couch” day. Depending on which of those states I find myself in, the return to ventral vagal.
MB: Yes, that’s a really good question. The sympathetic is a lot more easily accessible to return to ventral vagal more than the dorsal vagal. The dorsal vagal takes a lot more energy for someone to get into. So when someone’s in sympathetic, the basic ones that I teach people is the longer exhale. Because if you’re in sympathetic while you’re driving, that’s something you can do where you breathe in for four, breathe out for seven, and that automatically starts to put the break on sympathetic arousal.
Another one would be to orient into your space. Often when we’re in a state of anxiety or dysregulation, in that way anxious, just to slowly turn our head and notice the color of the room, the space, any pictures on the walls that might bring your attention. Or if you’re outside, the color of the trees, noticing the sounds in your room, noticing the taste in your mouth. And what that really is, is awakening your limbic system into your five senses. Because when we’re in a state of anxiety and heightened arousal, again, we often go to our mind and we leave our bodies, we leave our present-moment experience. So to help bringing someone back into their present-moment experience can really dampen that sense of anxiety or “I can’t take it anymore” kind of arousal.
TS: OK. So that’s good when we’re all aroused. What about when we’re all dorsal depressed?
MB: Yes, that’s a tricky one. Because what really helps is being with another person. So all of this is great if you’re with someone else. If you’re in sympathetic, it’s easier to bring your nervous system back into regulation by yourself. When you’re in a really depressed dorsal vagal state, often it’s much easier if you have another to co-regulate with. Because that co-regulation, if my nervous system is regulated, then I can help to try and bring your nervous system into a state of a little bit less depression. It may not pull you out of that depression.
If I’m working with someone in my office, then I will be in that state of regulation for myself. And sometimes you want to get a person more into sympathetic when they’re in dorsal. So bringing up that sympathetic energy is really what somebody needs when they’re in that dorsal. So I guess an example would be more of a—instead of the calm breathing, more of the hyperventilated breathing, like [HYPERVENTILATING SOUNDS]. That kind of breathing can bring up that sympathetic energy. Because if someone’s really, really depressed, they need to bring up that sympathetic energy.
It sounds counterintuitive too, because you’re asking me about bringing up ventral vagal, but because dorsal vagal holds very little energy, you have to bring energy into that body, into that system before they can even reach that ventral vagal, if that makes sense.
TS: It does.
MB: So sometimes more rapid breathing can help, exercising. But it depends on the state of the person’s depression. How depressed are they? If they just can’t get out of bed, then that’s going to take a little bit more.
TS: Now, when I asked you, how do you know if you’re in this healthy nervous system state, the state that we’re calling ventral vagal using Polyvagal theory, you said, well, your mind isn’t necessarily super going over and over the same thoughts or ruminating. It’s not hyper. What’s the healthy function of the mind, the thinking function, in a ventral vagal state? And I say that as somebody who likes to think.
MB: [LAUGHS] Yes, I like to think too.
TS: Oh, you do? Oh my God!
MB: [LAUGHS] I do. I think the difference is if you’re thinking and it’s a productive thinking— you’re thinking about a book you’re going to write, you’re thinking about what you’re going to do for the day, you’re thinking about some inspiration that you have, you know what I mean? You’re thinking about something on purpose is different in a ventral vagal. “I’m excited to meet my friends today, I’m thinking about where we’re going to go to lunch and I’m thinking about having this great run with them,” or whatever it is.
Is different than you get an email, and you’re pissed off about it. And it’s just like, “I can’t believe you wrote that to me. I can’t believe they wrote that to me. I’m so upset about that.” And it just goes on and on. And even if you’ve talked about it with somebody or you’ve gone and tried to figure it out, just days and days, it just keeps going around and around in the mind, that’s where I’d find it’d be an unhealthy sense of mind activity. Because the mind’s always doing its thing. There’s always thoughts, it’s always coming and going. We really can’t put a stop to it. But to me, there’s a difference between that ruminating carousel and just productive mind usage.
TS: Yes. OK. So somebody says, “I think I’m understanding this idea of being regulated and this sense of presence, as you described it, and calm and groundedness, being in ventral vagal. But the truth is I get dysregulated many, many, many times during the day and night.” What’s your response to that? Is that just like what it means to be a human?
MB: Yes, totally. It’s what it means to be a human. It’s completely normal to get dysregulated. We all get dysregulated. And the important thing that we want to return to is to know the tools to become regulated, and how long am I dysregulated? Am I dysregulated for an hour and then I’m like, “OK, I am dysregulated, let me go for a walk?” Or “What helps me? Let me drink some water or let me take a nap or let me go outside with my bare feet or let me call my friend.” Or whatever it is that you know might regulate you, then you put that into practice.
But if I’m dysregulated the whole day and I wake up and I’m dysregulated, and then I’m dysregulated the next day and the next day—because some people who have the trauma or the life interruptions that happen might be stuck in that sympathetic arousal all the time. So that’s when you know, OK, I might need a little bit more help if I can’t not be in that state all the time, that state of hyper anxiety, worry, fear. If I notice I’m like that all the time, then that’s when there’s probably more of an issue. If you’re just like, I get upset and then I return and I get upset and I return, or I get agitated, I return, that’s normal. That’s being human. In my opinion, someone else might think differently.
TS: Sure. No, we’re here, Melissa, for your opinion. And I started by talking about how regulating our nervous system has become, I would say, one of the key issues of our time. And that I saw this arise, yes, gradually over the last few years, but then it exploded since the pandemic. And I think that many, many people just feel an underlying sense of unease. And they feel that underlying sense of unease based on what’s happening in the collective, and it’s affecting them, affecting them at the nervous system level. And it’s almost like we have to double down on these ventral vagal practices, or triple down or quadruple down. And I’m wondering how you see that.
MB: Yes, I agree. I believe that it has exploded and more and more people are interested in this whole notion of how to regulate and understanding their window of tolerance and understanding trauma. I do. Especially since the pandemic it’s become—and global warming, climate change, all of the different things that are, we’re under pressure for in the moments.
And I do believe there is more need, which is why I created the course, as I believe that it can change the world. The more people that can become and learn these tools, it’s super important. They should be teaching it in schools, and which they are. This is something that children should learn at a very young age so as they grow into adults and have more stress in their life, that they can become more regulated humans through adversity, through stress. As humans we’ve always had stress in our lives, it’s just changed and evolved.
TS: Now let’s go into a little more detail about the elongated breath that you suggested for those of us who find ourself in the state of sympathetic arousal. Why is it that breathing out longer for seven counts and then breathing in shorter just for four, how does that reset us and move us into a more calm place? What’s happening physiologically? How does it work?
MB: Well, the out-breath starts to tone the vagus nerve. So when we breathe in for four—and it doesn’t have to be four and seven, it’s just you want that longer exhale. So what it actually does is it starts to tone your vagus nerve. And when the vagus nerve is—if you want to look at it—
TS: Yes, can you help me understand what that means, toning the vagus nerve? Because sometimes I hear these things and then other people repeat them, but I realize I don’t actually understand it really.
MB: So that’s a really great question about what vagal tone is. But before I answer what vagal tone is, I’d like to give a little introduction of what is the vagus nerve and why it’s so important in the regulation of your nervous system. So the vagus nerve is your 10th cranial nerve, and it is a nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system. And it is really one of the most important nerves when looking at regulating your nervous system as well as working with this Polyvagal nervous system theory.
And like Dr. Steven Porges uses this Polyvagal nervous system, “poly” means “many” and “vagal” means “wander.” So this vagus nerve starts in your brain stem and it wanders up into your face. It innervates into your eyes, into your ears, coming down into your throat, wandering into your heart, into your lungs, down into your guts, and into the diaphragm as well. So we have the part of the ventral vagal, which really is your diaphragm up. And then we have something called the dorsal vagal, which is the diaphragm down into the guts.
So when working with the nervous system and regulation, people talk about vagal tone. So what vagal tone really means is the amount of activation in your system or your body when your body is at rest. For example, you can look at muscle tone in the body when resting. And when someone’s resting, you’d want to see them relaxed and having a certain sense of tone. They wouldn’t want to be completely flaccid, but you also wouldn’t want them to be totally stiff and hard. So there’s amount of tone that we have at when we’re resting in our body with our muscles. It’s the same that goes with nerves.
And a great image is to think of your spine as the neck of a guitar and your nerves as the strings of the guitar. So you’d want the right amount of tone with each string. If one string was too tight, then it may snap. And if the string was too loose, then you’d lose the sense of vibration in the string. And so essentially it’s the same for nerves. We want to have a healthy tone so that the nervous system can respond in the way that it’s meant to respond. If the body is too tight, then the muscles and the nerves will be too tight and not allow for optimal movement and nervous system regulation.
And so when the body has this sense of tone, then the body will be able to regulate more quickly. Or if there is too much plasticity, then that is a sign of lower vagal tone. And so having a healthy vagal tone allows your body to relax more quickly after life gives stressors or you have a trigger in your life, then you’re more easily able to regulate after stress, really. And someone with a low vagal tone is not going to be able to regulate and respond to life stressors as quickly as someone with a higher vagal tone.
And so people also ask, what does it mean to have a higher or low vagal tone? Or what does that look like? So if someone has a lower vagal tone, it’s going to look like anxiety or depression. And you’re also going to see some of the higher inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and other issues in the guts. You’ll also see people with cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Autism, they’ve also found a lower vagal tone. And so there’s a lot of different chronic issues that show up in people’s bodies and within their nervous systems when they have a lower vagal tone.
And this can be remedied, and we’re going to talk about that in a few minutes. How can we have a higher vagal tone? And often people even ask, how does this even happen? How am I a person with a low vagal tone or a high vagal tone? How did I have one or the other? And it really starts to happen in utero.
So when a mother is pregnant, if she is getting the nutrition she needs and she’s having a happy and healthy pregnancy and she can recover from stress more easily, then the baby is going to start to develop a healthy vagus nerve and a healthy vagal tone. If the mother is under high stress when she’s pregnant, or if she’s depressed or she’s not able to have access to the right nutrition, then that vagus nerve is going to start to develop a low vagal tone.
And then it continues after birth. So again, when the child is born, if the child’s caregivers are attuned emotionally and physically to this infant, such as eye gaze, smiling with the baby, laughing with the baby, understanding and responding to the baby’s needs of hunger or temperature, and is receiving that connection with their caregiver and that bond, then that vagus nerve is going to develop a higher tone. Because again, when you look at the Polyvagal theory, to be in that ventral vagal is that sense of connection, that sense of connection of looking in someone’s eyes, of hearing that person’s voice, of having an attunement.
And if the child or the baby is not receiving that attunement from their caregivers, not receiving that eye gaze, not receiving that smile or connection, the facial cues, if the baby’s left to cry and the caregiver is not able to respond to the child’s needs in the way that the child needs them to, then that vagus nerve is going to develop a low tone. And so this tone starts early in life, and as we develop into our teenage years, it keeps developing. I believe there’s also genetic disorders and other traumas that can happen in early life that can affect this vagal tone. So it’s surgeries or birth traumas, things like that. So a mother can have a healthy pregnancy and be attuned and not have as much stress, but if the birth itself is traumatic, then that can also affect the tone of the vagus nerve. So there’s other factors in there as well.
But the real amazing part is that we can heal and we can increase our vagal tone, and we can teach our body to have more resiliency in the face of stress. So even if someone has grown up with a lot of challenges and stress and neglect in their life, then they can use these different somatic practices that we teach in the Nourishing Your Nervous System course, to help regulate and to tone their vagus nerve. And some of the easiest ones is really with breathing.
And there’s a few other ones like meditation, cold water, singing. Because again, singing or chanting, when you’re using the vocal cords and you’re creating a vibration, that starts to awaken that ventral vagal. So singing, chanting, breathing, meditation, cold water. That’s a real popular one these days; people immersing themselves in cold water. And different somatic practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, those are all ways to start come into the parasympathetic nervous system and to start to tone the vagus nerve.
But I like the breathing because breathing we can do anytime, anywhere. We can do it even when we’re upset, as we speak to someone, or as we’re driving in the car. And the breathing is when we inhale for five, let’s say, and exhale for seven. So the idea is that we want to exhale for a longer period of time than we inhale. And what that exhale does is it puts a break on sympathetic arousal and allows our body to enter into a more parasympathetic state.
TS: In working with yourself, when you notice behind your ears and down your throat—I think of these kind of the chicken gizzard of me or whatever down my throat—getting tight and tense and the jaws getting tense, would you immediately go for lots of long exhales, and would you do that for a period of time? Is that your approach?
MB: That’s one of my approaches. And I would probably do it for three to five minutes. It depends. Another one of my approaches is really grounding; grounding my feet into the ground and connecting with nature. And that’s a big part of how I regulate my nervous system. And then the—
TS: Tell us how you do that what you actually do.
MB: What do I actually do? Because I’m able to, I go outside in bare feet. I don’t live in the middle of the city and I have lots of ground where I live. And I either sit or stand and I allow this energetic line to come up through the bottom of my feet. And I sense the earth and I sense gravity. And I do the orienting process that I spoke to you about where I’m connecting with my environment; I’m listening to the crickets, I’m hearing the wind in the trees, I’m seeing the colors outside, the blue sky or the rain falling. So for me, that’s what really regulates me, is to be in nature and to be barefoot on the earth.
If I can’t do that, if I’m driving, then I do the breathing. If I’m irritated or I find myself in a bit more of a state, let’s say, the breathing is really good because then you can do it right on the spot. But if I’m in a really bad state, it’s more the earth. I find the earth—it’s like she just holds everything, at least for me. And that’s how I come back into my ventral vagal and my own connection, is that connection with nature.
TS: OK. This is going to maybe be really obvious, but I have to ask it, which is it seems like a lot of times when people feel aroused and upset about something, the place they turn is not to standing barefoot on the earth and looking around them, but it’s looking directly at their iPhone or whatever their mobile phone is. What do you think that’s doing to our nervous system in that state? You know, I’m scrolling, doom scrolling, whatever.
MB: Well, to me that’s distraction, and some people might call it dissociation. Because when we feel agitated or upset or we are feeling not great, often sometimes we don’t want to go into it or we don’t want to feel it. So scrolling on our phone and looking at Facebook or looking at YouTube or whatever, binge-watching Netflix, is just a way to distract ourselves from returning to our body.
Even for myself. When I’m just like, “I don’t want to go into my body right now,” I’ll just jump on my phone. But I’m present and I know what I’m doing, it’s not disconnected. And sometimes that can be OK. I don’t condone that because sometimes we need to binge-watch the Netflix because maybe we’re not ready to really go in and look at our dysregulation or look at our trauma or look at our stress, and we just want to numb out for a little while. And so I think there’s a place for that.
TS: One of the things you teach on the Nourishing Your Nervous System series is how we can hold a state of vitality and a state of tension at the same time. And I wonder if you can speak some to that.
MB: Yes, it’s true. We have both of those that live within us all the time. So what happens when we’re in a state of distress, we often forget that we actually have that vitality. And some of the work that I do with people in the very beginning is to help them—actually in the series work that I do with Hellerwork, the very first session is about breath and inspiration. And the second session is about grounding and finding your own two feet.
So really to build the resources inside to be able to connect, like, what does inspire me? And when I find that, what does that feel like in my body? So if the nature inspires me or I ask someone, “What inspires you?” and they say, “Connection,” or “Art,” or “My children,” I’ll say, “Well, where do you notice that? Where do you feel that? And what does it feel like?” And so getting someone to start to embody their inspiration, embody their vitality.
And then when you practice that—and like anything, you have to practice it, and you have to start to engage with that, then when you start to feel dysregulated, you start to feel depressed or anxious, you can say, “Oh yes, well, what was that vitality?” Even if it’s just a little pinprick. Even if it’s just this little tiny piece of me that can feel “Oh yes, OK, I can feel that sense of ease in my body, even though I’m holding that tension as well. There is—my feet feel soft. Even though every part of me feels tight, I can feel the softness in my feet,” or “I can feel the lightness in my hands,” or something that we can start to recognize.
TS: Now, you’ve mentioned Hellerwork. For people who are unfamiliar with this, what type of modality is this?
MB: So Hellerwork is structural integration. And most people have heard the word Rolfing, so Hellerwork stems from Rolfing. And what it is, is Hellerwork is the Rolfing series added on with somatic psychology and movement awareness. So we really take our clients through the series with the added dialogue piece of inquiring into what inspires you. Or standing on your own two feet, how do you feel support? And then we inquire it in an embodied way. So, where do you notice that in your body when you connect with your inspiration?
And then we do a movement piece where we get our clients understanding what their pattern is in their body—how do they stand, and how do they sit, and how do they breathe, and how do they reach, and which is functioning and which is not functioning. So we do a lot of functional movement so that clients can start to re-pattern maybe patterns that aren’t helping them in the moment. So that’s what Hellerwork is.
TS: Now, you mentioned how you can work with finding this inspiration inside your body and holding a state of vitality and then holding distress at the same time. So I’m wondering if you can make it more real for people, how they do this. So for example, let’s say that it’s being grounded in nature that is inspiring to someone. They know that, and they’re going through a hard time—something’s happening, there’s something they’re grieving, maybe it’s the state of our ecological crisis at the time. How do they bring that together?
MB: In the moment. Yes. So let’s say I’m feeling distressed about our ecological climate and I notice that my mind is really busy with it, or I feel a lot of grief around that. I’d bring myself into what’s going on in my body. Because for me, the body piece is really important, is to feel where does that grief live in my body? OK, well my heart feels really heavy.
And I can just do it now. Like when I feel what’s happening in the world, I can feel this constriction start to really come into my heart. It’s almost as if someone’s putting a clamp around my heart space. And once I notice that, then I allow myself to feel it. Even if it’s—this is what I do—OK, what does that feel like?
And then if I’m not in a state of extreme disarray, let’s say. Let’s say I have enough senses in me to be able to say, “OK, where in the world is beautiful?” So I’m thinking about the earth and all the things that are happening, and what’s beautiful about the earth? And I might go to the ocean and to [INAUDIBLE] and the rolling waves, or the orcas. And then I might notice, “OK, well what’s happening in my body now as I go into these other pieces that I love, the orcas and the ocean and the sound of the waves?”
And I’m creating this in my mind, it’s not like I have to be there. It’s more because our mind—anytime we think something in our mind, it reflects into our body. So I’m holding my grief and my sadness and my constricted heart over here. And then on the right side and on the left side, once I feel into the orcas, the sound of the water, the taste of the salt in my mouth, then that constriction for me starts to ease a little bit in my chest. It doesn’t mean it’s gone, it just means that I’m able to feel both. I’m able to feel the beauty and the grief at the same time.
And something like that is a real practice as well. To be able to hold two states at once, it’s not something that—I find embodiment to be a language. It’s something you have to practice. So to learn to feel the felt sense of grief and then the felt sense of beauty or vitality, is something that someone has to practice. And then when they practice that, then they can use that as a resource when they’re feeling these things.
TS: You’ve been listening to Insights to the Edge. Love is universal, but how we know love and how we express it, well, that’s incredibly personal. What happens when you begin to know yourself as love? What changes when you see yourself and others through a loving gaze? Perhaps everything. With her new book, How to Be Loving, Danielle LaPorte brings us a guide on how to use the intelligence of your heart to create conditions for connection and healing. You can explore the book further at daniellelaporte.com/howtobeloving. And now, back to Insights at the Edge.
TS: And just to keep going, Melissa, with this, because I think it’s becoming quite tangible for me, I’m getting it, I get how this is a step that could potentially take you further than distraction when you’re feeling upset. But what’s the result, then, of holding this vital state and distressed state at the same time? What comes from that?
MB: A regulated nervous system. Because if I stay in that distressed state of grief for a long time, or fear—I’m afraid the world’s ending, I’m afraid we’re doomed—if I have all these fear thoughts without any sense of hope or beauty or love or grace, then I might stay in that real constricted state, which might spiral me further down. I might just keep going down that rabbit hole and get further and further and further into dysregulation.
But if I can bring myself out—and that’s why I really recommend to not abandon the grief and not abandon the felt sense of, “I’m sad about this or I’m pissed off about this.” I don’t want people to be like, “Everything’s great and I’m all good” and blah blah. It’s more like,” I feel this, and can I feel this too?” Because if I can allow myself to feel just a little bit of that ventral vagal, then I’m going to start to regulate my nervous system. I’m going to bring myself back into a state where I’m going to be more useful in the world.
TS: Beautiful. Now, one of the very interesting sections of this series on Nourishing Your Nervous System is a section that you taught on working with the psoas, with this muscle in the body, and understanding how the psoas is connected to nervous system activation. So let’s go there. Most people think the psoas, OK, if they’ve ever even heard of it, they think it’s a muscle. What does that have to do with nervous system activation, such that you devoted a whole teaching segment on it?
MB: Well, the psoas is a place where when you feel sympathetic arousal, or even dorsal vagal or freeze or immobility, that is all located in your psoas. And that psoas lives in your gut. So often when people are either depressed or really anxious, they might have digestive issues. You can have all kinds of issues in your guts, or just a state of a real constriction in your psoas.
So I dedicated a whole piece to this because I feel it comes back to the embodiment, again, to be able to start to feel what’s going on in this—one of the biggest muscles in our whole body, which is activated by the autonomic nervous system. And it really goes back far—I talk about this on my course. As evolving humans, we used to be under threat, real threat, like tigers chasing us, or falling from a tree, or conflicting with other tribes, or starving, or other things that we had to deal with as humans thousands and thousands of years ago. Where this—something called the Moro reflex or the startle reflex, it’s the grasping reflex. So that’s wired into us, which is all wired when we grasp, then I have to tighten my whole core in order to fully grasp. But if you really clench your fist, you’ll feel it clench into your belly as well. So there’s a sense of, I’m ready to fight or I’m ready to run or I’m ready to go, and that psoas gets engaged because when the autonomic nervous system gets activated, then that psoas has to get online and be engaged either to freeze, I can’t move, or I need to fight you or I need to run away.
But the problem in our society is we’re under so much stress for so many reasons. Like, I don’t need to run away if a car is honking their horn or I don’t need to engage my psoas if I’m mad at somebody, because whatever, I had a disagreement with a friend and now I’m irritated, my psoas is probably likely going to constrict. So what I try and teach people is to pay attention to what’s going on in their guts, what’s going on in their psoas. Because when we learn to start to relax this part of our body, that’s going to show up in our nervous system, which is going to show up in our minds. So I’m going to have a more relaxed body, a more relaxed breath, a more relaxed state of mind. So they all go together, really. You can’t separate one from the other.
TS: Describe for people where the psoas muscle is located so they can start to identify it. Let’s say right now I want to check in with my psoas, I’m not sure I would know how to do that.
MB: OK. So, the psoas is your deepest core hip flexor. So come under your rib cage and where your diaphragm is. So if you were to breathe out, you could push your diaphragm out, you’d feel that big muscle push out. So right under there, you’ll find the insertions—around your 12th rib too, so your lowest rib, and then coming around to the front of your core, that is where the psoas starts.
And then it comes down and it attaches to all of your lumbar spine. So, your lumbar spine are your five lumbar vertebrae. And then it comes through your iliums, which are your hip bones, and then that comes down and it actually connects into your legs or your femur, which is also called the lesser trochanter. So it’s really useful too, to get the full picture, is just to Google “psoas,” or look it up in an anatomy book. But it’s this really long, beautiful muscle that connects our trunk with our legs.
TS: Now, I think I would know, in terms of tuning into my body, I would know how to check my breathing in my belly. Like, I could go in and feel, is my belly expanding and contracting as I breathe deeply? But I don’t know how to check what’s happening in my psoas. Is it contracted and tense? How do you find out?
MB: How do you find out? I would say, again, it comes back to that embodiment piece of being able to feel what’s going on. And I’d have to say if you’re in a state of stress, most likely your psoas is contracted. If you have a lot of back pain, your psoas is contracted. Even if you’re an athlete, the psoas can be very tight. Anybody who sits all day is going to have a tight psoas. So that’s separate from the autonomic nervous system response.
But even if my psoas is tight, I might be sending my body signals that something’s wrong or I’m in danger. Because when that muscle’s tight, it’s sending symptoms to my physiology like, why is this tight? Because it’s meant to be toned. Again, muscles are toned just like nerves are toned. It’s meant to be toned and strong and lengthened, but it’s not meant to be super tight and constricted.
So to know would be to actually have the felt sense of it letting go. And in the Nourishing Your Nervous System, I do a whole meditation in the constructive rest pose where I get you to really tune in to the felt sense of your own psoas. And I lead a whole piece of walking with the psoas, getting to start to feel your own psoas. So again, it can take some time for someone to really start to feel their psoas, but it can happen. And I do go over that in the course as well.
TS: Now, you mentioned the constructive rest pose. What’s that?
MB: That’s when you lay on your back and your knees are up and your feet are on the floor. And what that does is that puts slack in your belly so that your psoas can rest.
TS: As a Hellerwork practitioner, do you notice a lot of people coming in and the actual fact of the matter is their psoas is contracted most of the time? Is that the condition many of us are in, actually?
MB: Yes. I find back pain, huge. And often people will want you to work on their back, but I work on their bellies.
TS: OK. And I realize that this is a deeper work that you cover in the course, but for the person who’s listening and has a sense, “I think I have a tight psoas, I just kind of sense it, give me something, help me with something. Melissa, help me, give me something.” What would you say? How can you help?
MB: Yes. To do the constructive rest pose could be really helpful. And that is laying on your back, knees up, feet on the floor, and you can put a few pillows under your knees so that you don’t—the thing is you don’t want to strain. You don’t want to use any force. You don’t want to have to hold your knees up or your legs up. So if that’s even causing you to constrict, then put some pillows under your knees.
And lay there—listen to something that you really love to listen to or have silence. And lay there for 20 minutes, 25 minutes, and breathe and relax. And when you notice that the thoughts are pulling you out to go wash the dishes or go check your email, just return back into the belly. So really focusing your attention and your mind into the belly with your breath and in this constructive rest pose will help your psoas start to relax. And when the psoas relaxes, then the lumbar spine also starts to relax and fall in back to its natural alignment and state.
TS: Thank you. And I think I’m going deep here into the psoas muscle, because in the program, when I heard that some people actually call the psoas the seat of the soul, I was like, “What? The psoas muscle is the seat of the soul?” Sure, if somebody said your heart center or something, or even your third eye through into the center of your brain, but how could some people refer to it as the seat of the soul?
MB: Well, it’s one of those places in the body that is hard to let go of. And I believe—because it’s your deepest core muscle, that a piece of that ego or that soul actually lives in the belly. There’s different places—there’s the heart, there’s the mind, and then there’s the gut. And so you may open and let go in the heart, or you may open and let go in the mind. And then to open and let go in the gut is to really open and let go in the psoas. And opening up to that connection with spirit to source to your own higher self is going to be a lot harder if we’re super constricted all the time, and our bellies are always holding on.
And one of my spiritual teachers who you know quite well, Adyashanti, he speaks about that being the last place to let go for people. Because it’s deeply wired into our nervous system to hold there, to really hang on.
TS: Yes. The other part about the psoas from your series that I learned was that we can store trauma and emotionally charged tension in the psoas, and I thought that was interesting. What’s the role of traumatic experiences impacting us and then being reflected in tension in the psoas?
MB: Yes, it’s a very good question. Well, it can start very early in life. So again, going back to childhood is where most of us start to incur some of these, what are called fixed action patterns. So, ways that we harden in our body. If I’m a child and I’m being yelled at all the time or I don’t have the best environment that I’m growing up in, then I start to protect myself. And to protect myself, I have to harden. Or if I’m in sympathetic arousal a lot because I’m in an unsafe environment, then my psoas is just naturally going to tighten. It just is. It’s almost like your belly can’t tighten. Because as a human body, we have our core. And once our core tightens, then it tightens all the way up to our neck and our head.
So this patterning of the psoas starts very young, and if I have traumatic experiences in my life, then I start to accumulate this tension in my psoas. It can come later in life too, I can have a traumatic experience where something happens and it gets stuck in my psoas. I’ve had car accidents that I’ve had to process later on where I could feel the energy stuck in my belly from [GRUNTS] the impact of being hit by another car, things like that.
But I find most of it starts or in early childhood. And we start these patterns in our body and we grow up to be adults and we’re functioning and we’re normal, but we have this chronic tension held in our guts, in our psoas. And then it comes up to our shoulders, and then it comes up to our jaw, and then it comes up to our head, and all of those things. So yes, if that answers your question.
TS: It does. One thing I’m curious about, when I first heard the title of your course, Nourishing the Nervous System, I thought, that’s a really interesting use of the word “nourishing.” And I wanted to make sure I understand what you mean by it.
MB: I wanted to bring a course together where people could learn how to give to their nervous system. How to give to their nervous system through embodiment practices, through foods, through different practices, movement practices. So for me, nourishing is bringing that vitality to our nervous system.
TS: How do we nourish our nervous system through food?
MB: Through food? Well, if I’m eating a ton of sugar and a ton of things that a lot of us know may not be good for our bodies—if I’m drinking soda every day, or even a lot of alcohol or just things that might not be great for my body, then it’s not probably going to be great for my body, which is all connected to my nervous system and my gut. So we have our enteric nervous system, which is the nervous system that lives in our guts. And if our guts aren’t functioning properly, then that’s going to affect our autonomic nervous system.
So nourishing foods would be like fruits and vegetables. What I think is nourishing is just natural food, fruits, vegetables, with the occasional junk food here and there, or potato chips or whatever. But it’s more just eating how we maybe used to eat a long time ago before we had all of these different food options and junk food.
And so that goes into the course. You can nourish your guts through fermented foods, through just eating whole foods, things like that. So that’s one of the pieces that gets brought in, is, how can you heal your digestive system?
TS: One of the interesting sections of Nourishing Your Nervous System for me had to do with the power of attuning to your heart and attuning to your heart as a gateway to return to the ventral vagal state. And I wonder if you can talk about that. How does that happen? We start paying attention to our heart center and our nervous system state changes?
MB: Oh yes, for sure. It’s the same with the guts. It’s like, how do you orient in your space? So if I walked into a space and I’m only orienting from my mind and I’m thinking, thinking, thinking, compared to the state of, if I really come into a connection, a heart connection with you right now, what’s the difference of the feeling in my nervous system?
So if I’m thinking all the time, that might bring me more into that heightened state or distracted state or dissociated state. Where if I really allow myself to start to feel in my space, in my heart space, then that is going to start to regulate my nervous system, as well as regulate everyone else’s nervous system.
The amazing thing is, if you have a regulated nervous system and heart space, I can be—I can’t quote the studies, but I know they did studies through HeartMath where they actually measured people’s heart coherence. They had one couple sitting at a table in total coherence with their heart, really being in their heart space, really attuning. They’ve probably practiced a lot. And then they measured the people sitting next to them, both before and after, and they also started to regulate with the people that were sitting next to them, because our heart has this huge magnetic field that resonates out and out and out and out. So the more I can tune into this heart space and start to use it as a tool to regulate my system, I’m also helping regulate everyone else around me.
And I think you asked, so how do I do that? It’s yes, you bring your attention into your heart space. You bring your awareness into your heart space.
TS: OK. Yes. So right now as we do this together, bringing attention and awareness into our chest, into our heart space, is it a question of breathing into the heart? Take us a little further. Because this seems to me just like the elongated out-breath, something that’s actually pretty accessible that people can do.
MB: Yes. What helps me to attune to my heart is actually to put my hand on my heart, to bring my awareness first by touching my heart space. So I’d be on the left side of the chest, so I’d bring my right hand to the left side and doing that breath. But also tuning in to my heartbeat, noticing if I can feel the boom, boom, boom, that natural rhythm that our heart gives us. And you’ll notice in a lot of different cultures, they use that mother beat to help. I believe because it’s that natural heartbeat, that natural boom, boom, boom, which has a regulating sense to it. So connecting into that.
And then you can go a little bit deeper and you can just imagine the energy from the heart. So you can start to imagine that not only do you have this physical heart, this organ that’s pumping blood, keeping you alive, but what about this energetic heart? And so feeling into that. What does that energetic heart feel like? And that’s going to going to be personal because that’s a real sense of energy.
And that’s how I would first guide people. Is to put their hand on their heart, to take a breath, to notice the sensation of the beating, and then to notice what happens when they tune in to their heart. So if I’m dysregulated and I choose to stop and I say, “OK, I’m going to put my hand on my heart, I’m going to breathe,” what happens for me? Is there a sense that I slow down? Already just talking to you and doing this, I notice I’m starting to talk slower. I’m starting to feel a little bit slower, a little bit more regulated, just by putting my hand here on my chest.
TS: Now, one of the things that you say in the program is that we can start to notice when we do this that our breathing and our heartbeat seem to become synchronized. And I thought to myself, what does that mean, exactly? I get what you’re saying here about the heartbeat and feeling it and that kind of drum beat and really the regulating power of attuning to that, I get that. But I’m not quite clear what breathing that synchronized with that would feel like, versus just I’m breathing while I’m doing it.
MB: Well, again, when we bring in that slower breath and we attune to our breath, then that’s going to deepen that experience of connecting with the heart. Again, it comes down to presence and embodiment. All of these are just really keys to bringing one home back home to their body. Because breath is probably the easiest thing. Breath is so automatic. Most people breathe very shallow. Most of the time you’re not paying attention to whether you’re breathing or not.
And when we start to practice this presence and awareness to even breath, or even to attuning to the beating of our heart, that just starts to slow everything down. And when we slow things down, then we come more into that ventral vagal, we come more into that grounded presence. Because if you look at the world, everything’s sped up. Everything’s so fast. Messages, emailing, texting, everything—we’re so fast that we move through the world in this very fast-paced way.
So just by noticing my breath and my heartbeat. So synchronized breathing, connecting with the heartbeat, slowing down, grounding through the feet are very quick and easy ways to start this regulating process, if you choose to. That’s the key, is like, am I going to choose to stop for three minutes and do this? Or am I going to just keep going through my day and just stay dysregulated?
TS: It’s interesting because these practices, they’re simple and they’re powerful. They’re effective, and they’re simple. Any one of us can do them. And so what occurred to me is exactly what you’re pointing to, if we choose to—and why don’t we choose to? And I thought, well, people don’t choose to because it hurts. There’s a quality—along with it feeling peaceful and like I can handle my life, there’s also this potential that we will encounter some kind of intensity that is painful. And that was part of the reason that I really wanted to talk with you about holding a state of vitality and holding a state of pain or tension at the same time.
But what would you say to that person who says, “Well, I can tell you why I don’t do this, Melissa. I don’t do it because I know I’m going to encounter old traumas, current traumas and things that really hurt, and I don’t want to do that.”
MB: Well, I would say to that person, I would invite them to do it with me. How about you take a moment to do this with me and we can hold it together? I can help hold your pain with you or help hold your joy with you. If somebody’s really afraid to do it alone because it seems too overwhelming or too intense, then I would first invite them to do it with another. And then maybe once they got support to do this with another, they might feel safe enough to do it by themselves in the moments where they feel dysregulated or that they could use a little bit more grounding.
But that’s the piece of—that’s the thing is, we need each other. We need the tribe. We need that support in our life. And we tend to go at it alone. I’m mostly talking about our Western culture, and of course, not everybody. But I lived in Africa and I know what tribalism looks like. I know what it looks like to live in a family of 25 people in a 200 square-foot house. I know what it looks like and feels like to witness five-year-olds having two-year-old babies on their back and running to the—it’s very different the way that we live, and we try to hold everything on our own.
So those of us who are afraid or have too much trauma, then that’s when you need somebody. You need that other person who’s regulated and can hold that space with you. That’s the most important piece, is to find somebody who can be with you and hold it with you, and not be overwhelmed by your intensity or by your state of anxiety or fear.
TS: Very beautiful answer. Now the last thing, Melissa, is you talked about how we can attune to our physical heart and also the energetic space and nature of our heart. And in the course, you attribute to Adyashanti this teaching that includes a third dimension, which is tuning into our spiritual heart. And I was wondering what that’s like for you, when you touch in with the spiritual heart?
MB: Yes, it’s pretty amazing. It’s one of those times in my life where it’s been very spontaneous or non-abiding, which Adyashanti—and for myself, it becomes where I am one with everything. There is no separation between myself and anything else. And every time it’s happened, I cry. And it’s almost as if—there’s a couple times there’s been a very visceral feeling in my heart as if my heart actually opened, a movement in my heart.
So I actually felt a movement in my heart, then the tears have come, and then I’m just connected to everything that is. And it’s the most beautiful experience in my life. And it’s happened in coffee shops. I’ve stood there and all of a sudden it’s just happened and I’m crying and I’m like, “And I’m connected to you, and I’m one with you and you and this and that.” And then it slowly fades. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m in that state all the time, but it’s happened many times. And it is. It reminds that we are all— everything is connected energetically. And from my own experience, it’s been through when my heart does a movement that allows me to feel this connection.
TS: Now, Melissa, just as a final question here, you mentioned we get to choose, there’s a choice involved in returning to regulation when we find ourselves either hyper aroused or depressed on the couch or under the couch or wherever it is—that there’s this possibility. What do you have to say to help people make that choice of using these simple practices to nourish their nervous system and choose regulation? How can you encourage us in this, make that choice?
MB: Yes, make that choice. Well, let me just feel into it because that is a big—for myself, I got to the point where I was so tired of suffering, I didn’t want to suffer anymore. I didn’t want to feel the way that I felt anymore. So sometimes for that choice, it takes your own internal life circumstances to say, “I want something different. I want change. I want to feel different. I am tired of suffering.”
And just knowing from working with a lot of people over the years, it’s not something you can force on somebody. So it’s kind of this big question. I can plant the seeds. I can say, “Hey, next time you feel anxious, try this breath work, or try going to stand on the grass.” But I can never force anybody to do that. And so it’s internal, it really is. It has to come from internal.
And for me it just came to like, I don’t want to suffer anymore, or I want to suffer less. So what can I do to suffer less? And in the moments that I suffer now there’s an awareness now that’s like, “OK, do you want to stay here and suffer and feel this? Or do you want to start to pull yourself a little bit out of that suffering?”
And so I would really recommend to people to keep reaching out, keep those connections alive. And even if there’s only one person, keep reaching out to that one person that you know cares about you and loves you. And that might be the catalyst to having that connection with another that might say, “Hey, I’m going to try that breath work today.” Or “Hey, I feel really bad today and I don’t want to get out of bed, but I’m going to call my friend or I’m going to try today.”
And there’s so many layers to this, Tami. Because I don’t want to sound degrading, because I know people can get really, really, really depressed and there is no motivation to get off the couch no matter what breath work or whatever you give them. And so that’s a whole ‘nother layer. That’s a whole ‘nother—do you know what I mean? And someone who’s having panic attacks. So there’s different layers to all of this. There’s the average person who dysregulates and and then there’s the extreme sides of things. So I don’t want to offend anybody who do the breath work, can’t come back because they just can’t. They’re unable to right now. And so that’s when you probably need more support and attention with another person, with a therapist or with somebody who’s going to help you attune to that. But for the regular person who’s just going day to day to day who might get anxious or depressed—
TS: The regular dysregulated person.
MB: Exactly. And I don’t mean that in a sense—I have to be careful with words. Just yes, the regular, dysregulated person. Any moment you can choose, do I really want to feel this right now? Is it necessary? Is it serving me to feel really anxious or really pissed off about this email right now? Or can I choose to take five minutes to re-regulate? What’s going to serve me better in the moment? And once I’m more regulated, then I’m going to be able to go talk to this person and have a better conversation with them about how I feel. Or, I might sleep better tonight if I choose to just kind of take a hot bath with some lavender oil and eat some chocolate and watch a movie and then—so there’s so many different ways that we can choose to regulate.
And sometimes the dysregulation becomes an addiction. So there is a sense of the anxiousness, that cortisol level, the cortisol that gets released an the adrenaline can be a real addiction. And it can even start early in childhood, that feeling anxiety means we feel something and otherwise we might not be able to feel anything. So then that’s a whole ‘nother topic. But tuning into that, too, for people. Is this something I’m kind of addicted to, this anxiety feeling? Or am I able to let it ease off a little bit?
TS: Well, you’ve created a beautiful resource for people. You’ve partnered with Sharon Stanley, Andrea Larsen, and Mukti, Adyashanti’s wife and teaching partner, to create a series called Nourishing Your Nervous System: What You Need to Know to Care for Yourself in Stressful Times. Thank you so much, Melissa, for your good work and for the depth of your responses. Thank you so much.
MB: Thank you for having me here today. It’s an honor to interview with you.
TS: Thanks for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at resources.soundstrue.com/podcast. That’s resources.soundstrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge of review. I absolutely love getting your feedback and being connected. Sounds True: waking up the world.