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Cultivating Somatic Heart and Mind Connections through the Feldenkrais Method® and Polyvagal Theory


Introduction

The SomaticWell Center focuses on providing specialized therapies directed at stimulating neuroplasticity and regulating the autonomic nervous system. Two individual therapies promoted include the Feldenkrais Method® and the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) – a remote listening therapeutic intervention developed by Dr. Stephen Porges arising from his influential Polyvagal Theory (See, https://www.somaticwell.com/ssp). The Polyvagal Theory provides an elegant framework for understanding the neuro-physiological processes through which the vagus or tenth cranial nerve effects the autonomic nervous system regulating cardiac, respiratory and digestive function. For some time now, I have been exploring the connections between the Polyvagal Theory and practical movement applications. Core Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM®) lessons have been demonstrated to influence Heart Rate Variability (HRV), a key health indicator. This blogpost provides some theoretical and practical insight into these connections.


The Polyvagal Theory

The Polyvagal Theory proposes that three basic neural circuits underpin the overall state of the autonomic nervous system. These three neural circuits include the dorsal branch of the vagal nerve, the sympathetic nervous system, and the ventral branch of the vagal nerve. Each of these three neural circuits represent a different phylogenetic stage of the vertebrate autonomic nervous system and underpin an organism’s emergent behaviors, emotions, and perceptions.[1]

The dorsal-vagal system originates in evolutionary development about 600 million years ago among early vertebrate fish species. Its function is primarily immobilization, metabolic conservation, and overall shutdown. Its target is the internal, visceral organs. The sympathetic nervous system evolved from the reptilian period of about 400 million years ago. Its function is mobilization and enhanced action (as in fight or flight); its target in the body is the limbs. Finally, the ventral-vagal system is associated with mammalian development about 200 million years ago. The ventral vagal nervous system is myelinated enabling faster and more precise neural communication. It is linked neuroanatomically to the cranial nerves that mediate acoustic tuning, vocalization, and facial expression. [2]

Psychotherapist Deb Dana has posited the image of the autonomic nervous system as a ladder: the bottom of the ladder is characterized by dorsal-vagal predominance; a state of shutdown, collapse, and disassociation. The middle of the ladder is characterized by predominance of the sympathetic nervous system; which may be associated with anxiety, panic attacks, anger, inability to focus or follow through, and distress in relationships. Health consequences can include heart disease; high blood pressure; high cholesterol; sleep problems; weight gain; memory impairment; headache; chronic neck, shoulder, and back tension; stomach problems; and increased vulnerability to illness. The ventral vagal system is placed at the top of the autonomic nervous system ladder. This rung is associated with a feeling of social ease and physical wellbeing – slow regular heart rate, full breathing, tuning out of distracting noises.[3] In a fluid state of wellbeing one should be able to move effortlessly between these three points on the ladder comprising the autonomic nervous system.

The conceptualization of the autonomic nervous system in terms of three bridging components, as opposed to a more simplistic binary opposition between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, has provided a powerful explanatory model for polyvagal informed embodied therapies. The Polyvagal Theory has been taken up by the community of trauma therapists, such as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk and the founder of Somatic Experiencing. Individuals suffering from overwhelming trauma may experience a resultant predominance of their freeze and/or fight-flight response; in turn blocking their social engagement system regulated by the ventral vagal nerve. Oscillating between opposing forces of contraction and expansion via the Somatic Experiencing technique of pendulation provides a means of safely entering and exiting immobility and thereby navigating the ladder of the autonomic nervous system to a place of safety and social interaction.[3]


The Feldenkrais Method and Polyvagal Theory

The Feldenkrais Method® developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais provides an influential somatic practice that can help regulate the autonomic nervous system, and be integrated in therapies directed at helping individuals heal from trauma and anxiety. The Feldenkrais Method® practice emphasizes moving with awareness as a key means of accessing and influencing neural function. The two basic applications of the Feldenkrais Method – group Awareness through Movement (ATM)® group lessons and individual Functional Integration (FI)® sessions. These two applications operate in parallel and provide choreographed developmental movement patterns, which are improvisational in practice – responding for example, to the functional organization of the individual client, the character of the practitioner, and the particular environmental context.

I have argued that the Feldenkrais Method® is a form of practical psycho-physiology in terms of influencing or affecting the individual psyche through moving with awareness.[4] This is, perhaps, especially true in regard to the effects of the Feldenkrais Method® in regulating the autonomic nervous system. In Body & Mature Behavior – arguably Feldenkrais’ most important study deriving from his method – Feldenkrais refers explicitly to the autonomic nervous system and vagus nerve. For example, Feldenkrais notes that the irradiation of nervous excitations is greatest in the autonomic nervous system. This explains how particular stimuli, such as compressing the eyeball can slow down heart rate (oculocardiac reflex) and how heart-rate variation is linked to respiration.[5]

Feldenkrais, like Porges after him, builds on the work of neurologist John Hughlings Jackson (1834-1911), who first articulated the concept of an evolutionary hierarchy in neural function, organized in terms of newer and older structures of the brain.[6] (This work was developed further by Paul MacLean in terms of his triune theory of brain function, which has more explicitly informed the development of Polyvagal Theory.) [7] At the time of his writing, neuroscientific research into the autonomic nervous system was still in his infancy, particularly in terms of the neural connections between higher and lower brain centers. Today neuroscientists are increasingly aware of these connections, which are tied together through our sense of interoception, i.e., the body-to-brain axis of signals originating from the internal body and visceral organs which plays an important role in ensuring homeostasis. The central autonomic network (CAN), comprising a number of forebrain areas, including the insular cortex, cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, as well as caudal cell groups in the midbrain, periaqueductal gray, pons, cerebellum, and medulla, overlaps and interacts with systems implicated in complex cognitive, skelemotor, and affective processes.[8] Feldenkrais intuited these connections via first-person experiential research before they became apparent through third-person neuroscientific research. In focusing on the relation between movement and awareness, Feldenkrais developed a method which emphasized both bottom-up and top-down neurophysiological processes.

It is fair to say in summary that many of Feldenkrais’ ideas linking the autonomic nervous system with other activities of the nervous system border on contemporary research in psycho-physiology in general and in Polyvagal Theory in particular. A small number of Feldenkrais practitioners, including myself, are continuing to mine the riches of the Feldenkrais Method® in terms of autonomic nerve function and polyvagal theory. Key questions, for example, how is the autonomic nervous system connected with other aspects of the brain and nervous system; and how do particular movement patterns and sequences affect autonomic nervous system function?

I posit here several principles intrinsic to conducting Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM)® lessons which are vital for regulating the autonomic nervous system and may be explained according to the Polyvagal Theory in terms of ventral vagal nerve stimulation.

1. Prosody. The sound, rhythm and intonation of the human voice is important in calming the nervous system. Porges has defined the optimal human frequency band of perceptual advantage from approximately 500Hz to 4,000 Hz., which corresponds to the range of the human voice. Porges notes that modulating prosody, like music, will recruit and modulate the neural regulation of the middle ear muscles, functionally calm the behavioral and physiological state by increasing vagal regulation of the heart, and promote more spontaneous social engagement behaviors. [9] Speaking clearly, slowly, and softly characterizes the teaching of most ATM® lessons. Even though in a typical ATM® session individuals focus on their own movements and inner processes, the prosodic effects of the voice of the instructor conducted in a group lesson context may also help in reduce social distance between people.

2. Awareness of movement. Awareness of kinesthetic sensations and proprioception are core component of ATM® sessions. Each session typically begins with a body scan which focuses attention on sensations of weightedness in lying on the floor, relation of limbs and body parts, and awareness of self in space. Awareness of sensations of touch, exteroception, and the previously mentioned interoception, for example in terms of sensing one’s respiration, has profound effects on calming the self and regulating the autonomic nervous system. Simply beginning your attention to the sense of weight of your body in contact with the floor is often sufficient to return the nervous system to a sense of stability and safety.

3. Slowing down. Slowing down the movement and moving within a comfortable range is key to helping focus awareness and attention on the components of a movement, improving the efficacy of the movement, and calming the nervous system. For example, enactment of slow movements in tai-chi has been demonstrated to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.[10] Slowing down the rate of the movement is perhaps the closest means we have of entering into evolutionary time, in the sense that we become aware of individual components of brain function laid down through hierarchical phylogenetic development. In terms of the evolutionarily conceptualized vagal ladder, fast movements may be associated with the sympathetic system, slow movements with ventral vagal, and immobility with the dorsal vagal components of the parasympathetic system.

4. Head-pelvis connection. This principle is perhaps the most obvious in terms of its phylogenetic foundation. Porges has noted how regulation of the vagus nerve has become intertwined with areas regulating the striated muscles of the face and head. [1; 9] The resulting dynamic social engagement system, as mentioned previously, incorporates social communication features, including facial expression, head movements, vocalization and listening. Not only does the vagal system serve to regulate parasympathetic function, the corollary of this concept, is that head movements together with other social communication features, may themselves impact autonomic regulation. Stanley Rosenberg – a structural integration and cranio-sacral practitioner – has described a series of movement exercises to stimulate the ventral branch of the vagus nerve and thereby restore social engagement. A core movement that Rosenberg describes is the Salamander exercise, involving tilting one’s head to the Lt and Rt in relation with movements of one’s eyes while standing on all-fours.

It is interesting to note the resemblance of this exercise with classical Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM)® lessons involving paired movements of the head and eyes, as well as with infant development patterns rooted in evolutionary development, which also characterizes the Feldenkrais Method®. Based on these insights, I have developed a unique therapeutic approach for infants and children with autism entitled the SomaticWell Genesis Protocol for Autism. The core Genesis Protocol consists of 20 sessions – conducted over a period of 5-weeks. The program integrates anFeldenkrais and play and applies particular therapeutic movement sequences based on evolutionary development, infant neuro-development and mammalian social interaction. These neuro-developmental patterns are applied incrementally and sequentially during the course of the therapeutic intervention. Specifically, the Genesis Protocol replicates the "warm-up" behavioral recovery sequence demonstrated to be universal among vertebrates as they move out of a state of extended immobility, and that is exhibited among mammals during interactional play.[12] (https://www.somaticwell.com/the-genesis-program)

5. Oscillations. This last principle refers to the back-and-forth rhythmic movements of body parts occurring in a typical Feldenkrais session – whether group Awareness Through Movement or individual Functional Integration (FI)® lesson. Each body component, indeed every cell in the body, has its particular natural oscillating frequency. When two cells or parts of the body are oscillating simultaneously, they are said to be in physics terminology in frequency. Some Feldenkrais ATM lessons specifically utilize this component of oscillation. However, every backwards and forward movement of every kind of movement has an oscillatory dimension. As master Feldenkrais teacher, Yochanan Rywerant noted, the ability to bring a body into oscillation by applying the smallest possible pushes is dependent upon sensing the natural frequency of that body for a particular kind of oscillation. [13, p. 113]

In using minute force to cause oscillations, Rywerant is also implicitly referring to the Weber-Fechner principle of psycho-physics, which states that human perception follows a logarithmic rather than linear response.[14] In simple terms, the smaller the weight one is holding, the smaller is the added or subtracted portion that one will be able to notice.[5, p. 108] The Weber-Fechner principle is a key psycho-physics concept that informs Feldenkrais practitioners application of minimum pressure in a therapeutic session to effect psycho-physiological changes. A practitioner stimulating the emergent phenomenon of neuromuscular oscillations in a client must, necessarily, be aware of both his/her own neurophysiological organization as well as that of his/her client.

Fascinatingly, in his study Rhythms of the Brain, György Buzsáki has highlighted how the functional architecture of the cerebral possesses a 1/f type structure analogous with the Weber-Fechner principle supporting widespread oscillations at multiple temporal scales – a key function in terms of explaining consciousness as a self-organizing emergent phenomenon. Intuitively, there must be a deep visceral connection between the brain centers regulating homeostasis and awareness modulated via somatic oscillations.


Conclusion

The list of principles briefly described above could be analyzed further and undoubtedly the list could be expanded. The Feldenkrais Method® provides an infinitely rich substrate for somatic exploration. One’s intentionality in experiencing a lesson, how and where one directs the focus of intention, will also affect the information elicited. Feldenkrais lessons are at once both intimately personal, yet universal in reflecting the human condition. I invite you to dive into the depths of yourself in exploring your own somatic heart and mind connections.


References

  1. Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London.

  2. Levine, P.A. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books.

  3. Dana, D. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. W.W. Norton & Company.

  4. https://feldsci.net/2022/02/10/the-feldenkrais-method-as-practical-physiological-psychology/

  5. Feldenkrais, M. (1949) Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation, & Learning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  6. Jackson, J.H. (1958). Evolution and Dissolution of the Nervous System. In J. Taylor (Ed.), Selected Writings of John Hughlings Jackson. London: Stapes Press: 45-118.

  7. MacLean, P.D. (1990). The Triune Brain in Evolution. Role in Paleocerebral Functions. Plenum, New York.

  8. Bernston, G.G., Gianaros, P.J., Tsakiris, M. (2019). “Interoception and the Autonomic Nervous System: Bottom-Up Meets Top-Down.” In, The Interoceptive Mind: From Homeostasis to Awareness. Oxford University Press: pp. 3-26.

  9. Porges, S.W. & Lewis, G.F. (2010). The Polyvagal Hypothesis: Common Mechanisms Mediating Autonomic Regulation, Vocalizations and Listening. In, Handbook of Mammalian Vocalization: An Integrative Neuroscience Approach, Edited by S.M. Brudzynski. Elsevier: 243-254.

  10. Hsu-Chih, T., et al. (2018). “Effect of Tai Chi Synergy T1 Exercise on Autonomic Function, Metabolism, and Physical Fitness of Healthy Individuals.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/6351938.

  11. Rosenberg, S. (2016). Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve. North Atlantic Books.

  12. Golani, I. “A Mobility Gradient in the Organization of Vertebrate Movement: The Perception of Movement through Symbolic Language.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15: 249-308.

  13. Rywerant, Y. (1983). The Feldenkrais Method: Teaching by Handling. Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco.

  14. Fechner’s Law states that the intensity of a sensation increases as the log of the stimulus (S = k log R) to characterize outer psychophysical relations. See, Leri. D. Fechner Makes a Difference. SemioPhysics – The Risk of Serious Inquiry, Part Three. http://semiophysics.com/SemioPhysics_Articles_risk_3.html. Accessed, 12.09.2022.

  15. Buzsáki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the Brain. Oxford University Press.

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