Applying Polyvagal Theory to Enhancing Physical Performance

Applying Polyvagal Theory to Enhancing Physical Performance

polyvagal theory for dancersSo, what’s up with me lately?

I’ve become obsessed with the teachings of Dr. Stephen Porges and his brain-child, polyvagal theory. 

Polyvagal theory brings clarity to our understanding of the autonomic nervous system, and in the world of dance training, we so rarely appreciate the huge role autonomics play in both our mental and physical performance and keeping pain-free. 

Understanding autonomics through the lens of Porges’ polyvagal theory, beginning to notice where his teachings show up in our lives, and making time for strategies to optimize our autonomic nervous system, we can take our physical and mental performance, and quality of life, to new levels.

How dancers can use his theory to improve performance and well-being is particularly interesting to me, and that’s exactly what we’ll be getting into today.

In this post, we’re going to talk about the vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system (ANS) function, and how these systems relate our sense of safety to our physical and mental performance, as well as the muscles that control the face, breath, eyes, voice, and hearing.

Ready to rock this? Let’s do it…

Autonomics 101

Let’s take a very brief tour of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). First, let’s define “vagal”, in polyvagal.

Vagal refers to the vagus nerve, cranial nerve 10, which regulates the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system (ANS).

parasympathetic nervous system

This nerve comes out of your brain and connects to your organs.  It is 80% sensory, and 20% motor- It acts more as a feedback loop than a “mover of stuff”.

The vagus works “bottom up” (sensory) as well as “top down” (motor), meaning it both regulates, and receives information from your viscera. The vagus is 80% sensory, which means it works more “bottom up”, telling us how we’re doing, so we can see it’s important role is in providing information to the brain about the state of our internal organs. A beautiful surveillance system.

This is the pathway through which we can tune into visceral sensations, or “gut feelings”.

When the vagus nerve is activated, we enable the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to enjoy a state of health, growth, and restoration. When a parasympathetic state is enabled, sympathetic nervous system is inhibited. The sympathetic system is our mobilizing system, telling us to flee or fight in the presence of danger.

Dr. Porges refers to this inhibition as putting on a “vagal brake”.

vagal brake

Looks kind of like the nervous system…?

The vagus nerve is activated during exhalation (among other things you’ll read about farther down). If you tend to not exhale completely, and breath-hold to create a sense of stability, you might also be preventing yourself from getting to a state of health, growth and restoration.

In the face of stress, danger, or life-threat, real or perceived, your system may choose to recruit a strategy of mobilization (“get the hell out of here!” or “fight harder!”), to ensure your survival.

If we have trouble using our vagal circuit to get to a parasympathetic calm state, it is near impossible to learn, think creatively, and move optimally because our nervous system thinks it’s in danger, and survival is wayyy more important than creative movement and learning new things. Priorities..

This shows us the importance of practicing breathing exercises like pranayama yoga, blowing up a balloon PRI style, and being aware of breath-holding while we dance.

breathing exercise for vagal regulation

90/90 hip liftin’, PRI style

The vagal circuit is also regulates the striated muscles of the face (particularly around the eyes), the muscles of the middle ear, the voice, the heart, lungs, digestion, and other organs.

do you struggle to relax your face muscles when you dance?

Because this vagal circuit works both top down, and bottom up, both regulating and relaying information from organs, we can see the potential that our sense of safety- our psychology, has to influence our physiology, and that our physiology also has to influence our psychology (which I think this is the most fascinating thing ever).

“Change your body about your mind.”

~Thomas Myers

We can change our physiology, psychology and our experience of health through exercising this neural circuit. This can happen both consciously and unconsciously.

Isn’t that cool?

This shows us the inseparability functionality of our body and mind. The subtle cues we receive from our viscera and heart are very useful indicators of our neural state, and we can actively use neural exercise to influence the state of our viscera.

As Judith Anodea states in her book “Eastern Body, Western Mind”:

We are taught to control the body by way of the mind, which is considered far superior. But the body has an intelligence whose mysteries the mind has yet to fathom. We read in books how to eat, how to make love, how much sleep to get, and impose these practices on the body rather than listening from within.

What I’ve written above is what is most commonly known about the parasympathetic nervous system, what they teach us in school (unless you went to school for dance, like me, and you didn’t learn any of this..).

There is, however, another side of the parasympathetic system that has a completely different function from the rest and digest system we know it to be.

This ” however” is a great segue into polyvagal theory…

There is not ONE parasympathetic nervous system but TWO.

Hence, “poly”vagal.

The health, growth, restoration branch of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) described above is regulated by our newer, mammalian, myelinated, ventral (belly-side) vagus.

However there is a second, less commonly acknowledged branch of the PNS, regulated by our older, reptilian, unmyelinated, dorsal (back side) vagus. This is the parasympathetic system we inherited from our reptilian ancestors (which are speculated to be turtles).

did we inherit our nervous system from turtles?

Silly turtle. Strawberries isn’t human food!

While the newer vagus is designed to calm us down, the older reptilian vagus will immobilize us in the presence of life threat when we are unable to fight or flee.

This is characterized by fainting, freezing, blacking out, playing dead, and other immobilization strategies that, for our reptilian ancestors, worked very well in the presence of danger, because reptiles don’t need as much oxygen as we do.

Go unconscious and you won’t feel pain. Go unconscious and the predator might leave you alone.

When humans try to feign death, it doesn’t work as well, because we do need oxygen to live! And unless we’re under extreme conditions, death feigning isn’t the most useful strategy in modern society.

So we’re evolving out of this ancient, vagal circuit as it serves us less than it did in the past.

Recall that the old vagus is unmyelinated, making it less easy to recruit (myelin improves nerve conduction). Old man vagus is recruited as a last line of defense, not a first.

Dr. Porges teaches us that our autonomic nervous system is hierarchical in nature, one system inhibiting another.

polyvagal theory for dancers

To fulfill our needs, we move selectively through the different states of the ANS in this order:

1) Parasympathetic nervous system 1: New, mammalian, vagus control: Health, growth, restoration.

This is our preferred state for optimal function of pretty much everything.

Because this circuit is related to the muscles of the face, eyes, ears, and larynx, we can see it’s qualities expressed in peoples’ faces and tone of voice, as well as activate it when we listen.

This neural circuit is all about safety.

When we are in a safe state under myelinated vagal control, we can think more clearly and creatively, let go of physical tension, experience states of compassion, gratitude, contemplate important things (like “who am I??”), and enjoy play and movement without fear and hyper-vigilence.

Through this neural circuit we can become informed by our experiences, develop strategies that make our body feel safe and derive meaning from our lives more effortlessly.

We can can make the world better by making people feel safer.

2) Sympathetic nervous system: Mobilize, fight, or flight.

sympathetic nervous system This is our first line of defense when things feel unsafe.

In the absence of safety, or if we are unable to activate the myelinated vagus, our bodies will jump into action: To fight or flee.

We often look at the sympathetic nervous system as being the evil twin of the parasympathetic, but in reality, we need to get sympathetic sometimes in situations where there is REAL danger.

In dance and in other sports, this system is what helps us perform our best. We need that rush of adrenaline and increased glucose uptake into skeletal muscle to help us meet physical demands.

It can become problematic, however, to get stuck in this state through chronic, low level activation to deal with the mundane stresses of life due to chronic injury, fatigue, or to make up for a poor diet.

Being perpetually in a mobilizing state like this is exhausting and can’t be maintained forever. People eventually burn out and must rely on a less efficient neural circuit to deal with life…

3) Parasympathetic nervous system 2: Old, reptilian, vagus control: Immobilize, shut down, death feign.

Our last line of defense in the presence of perceived life threat.

If your body or brain perceives that you might actually die, and the first two systems above cannot be recruited, the older, unmyelinated vagus will signal you to immobilize- Faint, or freeze- whether it’s a good idea or not.

The root of the polyvagal theory is the recognition that in the absence of the ability to fight or flee, the body’s only effective defense is to immobilize and shut down

~Stephen Porges

This happens because some fibres of the old vagus are cardio-suppressant, meaning they can slow, or stop completely, your heart (immobilization).

This circuit is related to the sub-diaphragmatic (below diaphragm) organs: Liver, stomach, intestines, bladder, sexual organs, etc.

So if we are recruiting this old vagal system to deal with our stress, the neuroregulation of these organs will not be optimal either. We might have pain in our abdomen. Compromised organ function. Poor control of our bowels and bladder.

Ever feel like you have to pee uncontrollably before going on stage? Or get so nervous that your stomach hurts? That’s you coping with stress with an old vagus reaction.

why you feel like you need to pee before going on stage

Note that “perceived life threat” doesn’t necessarily mean your life is actually in danger. For example, some people say they would rather die than speak in front of a big audience. What they mean is that public speaking feels so terrifying for them that they feel like they might freeze up or pass out because it is too much for even their sympathetic nervous system to help them manage.

When we are in stressful or unpleasant situations, like confrontation, or getting on stage, what is your body telling you? Do you find yourself filled with energy to deal with it head on, or do you freeze up and find yourself unable to move or speak?

In either case, you’ve chosen a defensive strategy, potentially an ancient one that we rarely need today (in Canada, anyway, our likelihood of being in a life-threatening circumstance is fortunately quite low).

That said, if we’re burnt out and can’t use the newer vagal circuit OR a sympathetic strategy of mobilization, we will unconsciously recruit the old vagus to deal with relatively low-risk situations that we perceive to be life-threatening! We’re so silly… We dissociate from stressful situations rather than face them calmly with an open, curious mind.

This can explain why the earliest symptoms of over-training are psychological in nature, as we attempt to use our sympathetic nervous system to fight through stress, ignoring visceral sensations. The next phase in over-training is physiological, often showing up as illness or injury (a shut-down, immobilization response).

Can you see why it might be pretty important to become aware of the signals our bodies are sending to our brains? And what if you made a conscious choice to manipulate your ANS state and take your body to a “safe” place, helping you learn to react more appropriately in stressful situations?

Dr. Porges calls this “providing cues of safety”, and it’s one of the ways we can “choose” to activate our newer vagal circuit over our other survival circuits (unless we really, truly need them!).

Remember, your vagus is 80% sensory- Your brain is constantly being sent signals from your viscera. Are you paying attention to this unconscious “neuroceptive” process?

Neuroception: Listening to Your Guts

As a survival strategy, our bodies were hardwired to actively seek out cues of danger.

Dang.

 

This happens unconsciously through a process Dr. Porges refers to as “neuroception”.

Neuroception: Nervous system detection of safety and risk in the environment expressed through implicit bodily feelings; body responding outside the realm of awareness.

Implicit bodily feelings could be an increase in temperature, upset stomach, dizziness, and other feelings and emotions we often disregard as “random”, or “because I ate potatoes last night”.

A friend of mine who is prone to anxiety attacks, for example, wondered if her most recent episode was related to the potatoes she ate the night before. Sure, maybe they are related, but rather than blame the potatoes for your anxiety, it may be more useful to identify why your system is fragile to potatoes in the first place.

antifragile

Make like Taleb and become antifragile to the potato

When we experience these implicit feelings, we then cope with them by reacting explicitly, outwardly: Facial expressions, words, anxiety attacks, etc. We mobilize, immobilize, or dissociate to varying degrees.

Neuroception is different from “perception” because it is not under conscious control. Neuroception is not something we can intellectualize or use our rational mind to understand and requires tuning in to our unconscious mind.

Ever had a “gut feeling”? Felt nauseous in a frightening situation? Became light headed and fainted in response to stress? This is information being relayed from the organs to our brains via the vagal circuit, based on our body’s reaction to the environment around it.

Do yourself a favor: Pay attention to the neural circuit that delivers information from your organs to your brain!

What if we listened when we experience “random” pains, particularly in the abdomen.”What does this mean?”, “What in my environment is ‘unsafe’?”, “Is my gut signalling something my thinking-brain can’t or won’t see?”

In the case of stomach pain, many of us go to the doctor who, more often than not, will prescribe something for us to numb it, like pepto bismol, or in my case, back in university when I was suffering from regular stomach pains, “You’re just constipated, take these laxatives”. Looking at the organ in isolation, without considering that perhaps the organ isn’t the issue, but it’s neuroregulation (how the brain is using it). The organ isn’t the issue, it’s the indicator of something larger. And the same can be said of all our body pains

Cultivating a safe environment intrinsically and through the environment could be the most important thing we try to do with our lives: Make our bodies and our environment a safe place to live so we can react from a place of safety, not out of defense.

Can you begin to see how this is an important system in our bodies to learn to optimize both for life and for dance?

Why Should You Care About Vagal Regulation?

1) As a human, you only get the one body, the one set of organs, and I bet you don’t like the feeling of stress.

2) As a dancer, you rely on your body for you art.

3) As a dancer, you rely on your mind to enable your body to perform things that are outside your comfort zone, potentially “unsafe”, and “unnatural”.

And as it relates particularly to #3 above, remember, when your body senses that it is in an unsafe, unfamiliar place, it WILL look for danger (dat neuroception) and use a defense strategy that seems the most useful for you.

Do you ever feel like your body sabotages you? You know exactly what you should be doing, but it never seems to work out (pirouettes for me…).

If you do not have the ability to regulate your ANS well, your system will respond by a) Becoming hypervigilant and tensing up, or b) Freezing and shutting down.

N=Monika examples of both these scenarios:

a) Turns scare the crap out of me, and I am aware now how I tend recruit my sympathetic nervous system to cope with them: Using too much effort, overthinking, and tensing every muscle: A high threshold response. In fact, my last dance related injury was an adductor strain last summer, having to do with a turn that transitioned into a split… Ironically, when i stop thinking and use less effort, things seem to work better. Pirouettes are now something I can use as a barometer of neuroregulation. I know I am having a good day if I can turn. I’d bet a lot of you can relate.

b)  5 or 6 years ago, during a particularly challenging jazz class (and time in my life…), I recall feeling my brain shut down, completely overwhelmed and unable to focus, so I walked out of class, sat in the hallway, and cried. Trying harder (sympathetic system) was no longer an option. This was my reptilian parasympathetic system managing the situation, immobilizing me.

In both scenarios, the myelinated vagal circuit was bypassed in favor of a defensive strategy. 

your reptilian brain when you dance

Ask yourself: Are you dancing with your lizard brain, relying primarily on a survival strategy to get you through class? I’d reckon it’s a possibility… Ask yourself:

  • Have you ever taken pain-killers to get through a performance?
  • Do you dissociate from pain and work through injuries (mind over matter) to keep moving?
  • Do you hold your breath or clench your jaw to cope with the physical demands of class and choreo?
  • Do you have trouble relaxing your face and neck?
  • Do you find it difficult to interact with some dancers you train with, and does it interfere with your ability to perform?
  • Do you feel the constant strain of judgement, pressure, and competition, and question whether you’ll “make it”?

These may be indicators of your body’s unconscious perception (neuroception) that something isn’t quite safe. Remember, your nervous system is actively searching for danger, so unless you currently use strategies to optimize vagal tone or you somehow lead a completely stress-free, life (ha), dance can tend to make us

A few important terms:

Vagal regulation: Ability to recruit the myelinated vagal circuit to balance the autonomic nervous system and related function (homeostasis). This can be a conscious process if we train it. Vagal regulation is how well our system can live and cope with challenges and maintain homeostasis.

Vagal tone: Measure of ability to recruit vagal activity (which we think can be measured through heart rate and heart rate variability, HRV, but this relationship is not 100% clear). Our vagal tone increases as we perform a long exhalation, among other things that activate the myelinated vagal circuit..

Vagal brake: The inhibition of a defensive response (mobilization or immobilization) via the activation of the myelinated vagus, increasing it’s tone, in response to a stressful or dangerous situation.

So what you should understand is…

YES you have a degree of conscious control of your vagal tone. This is because the myelinated vagus also works top down, from brain to viscera, and is linked to the muscles that control our face, voice, hearing, heart, lungs and breath, which we can consciously train.

YES vagal tone is a real, physiological, measurable thing.  You can track it and hack it to change your psychology, help you feel safer in your body, and make better choices not influenced by a primitive survival strategy.

YES you were hard-wired to prefer a state of growth, health, and restoration. You came with a pre-installed “brake” that you can choose at any time to press in situations of stress to prevent you from reacting hypervigilently, or immobilizing. It is our natural state to have an active, healthy PNS predominantly at rest.

Isn’t that beautiful? You were hard-wired to succeed and be healthy. Everything you need to overcome challenge, mental and physical, in the most productive way possible, is already inside you. You just need to learn hit the vagal brake.

capemovement.com

Wensy Wong, my amazing friend, yoga lady, and partner in CAPE

Just as increasing muscle tone requires physical exercise, Dr. Porges explains that we can train to improve our vagal tone through neural exercise.

So what qualifies as a “neural exercise”? And what other strategies can we use to improve vagal tone so we can kick more ass?

Using Neural Exercise and Cues of Safety to Improve Vagal Tone

There are three primary ways you can improve vagal tone.

neuroception cues of danger1)  Removing cues of danger.

You can put a band-aid on a wound, but for it to stop bleeding you first need to stop stabbing yourself.

Cues of danger are what our bodies unconsciously perceive (neuroception) to be dangerous or stressful. These include:

  • Low frequency background noise (signals “predator” —>)
  • Monotone voices
  • Blank faces, lacking expressiveness around the eyes
  • Unwelcom social engagement
  • Other past trauma, injuries, etc.

Stop stabbing yourself. Give me the knife…

2) Seek cues of safety.

Cues of safety inhibit defensive responses of the sympathetic and reptilian vagus systems, and allow us to better use our newer vagal circuit to promote health, growth, and restoration (parasympathetics). These cues of safety include:

  • Hearing and using more prosodic vocal intonation (melodic, “mothery” voices)
  • Listening to others with genuine interest (compassion)
  • Seeing  upper facial muscles used in an expressive way (particularly around the eyes)
  • Touch
  • Face to face interaction
  • Long exhalations
  • Healthy socialization with happy, like-minded people who make you feel safe

Essentially, using our senses mindfully and deliberately to experience the world and interact, in real time, with ourselves and others.

vagus nerve

Use of prosodic voice: Lull someone into a safe place with the comforting rhythm of your voice

Interestingly, the one activity that allows us to blend all of these cues together is social engagement. Listening and speaking to other people who make us feel good uses all functions related to the vagus (eyes seeing the facial reaction of another, and ear muscles used to listen, exhaling and intonating as we speak).

The only caveat- Social engagement must be welcome or it will signal “danger”. So find your people.

3) Participating in neural exercise.

Things that use the breath, voice, body, and muscles of the face, Like:

  • Playing wind instruments
  • Singing
  • Pranayama yoga
  • Listening to prosodic music (like folk music)
  • Play
  • Social engagement
  • Chanting or prayer
  • Intentional shifts in posture
  • Body scanning
    Or, as Dr. Porges tells us is most important:
  • Feeling safe in the arms of another appropriate mammal

Not necessarily another person. A mammal will do.

heart rate variability dance

The vagal circuit is a highly integrated system maintained primarily by being social.

The people (or mammals) you choose to be around have a significant impact on your state of being.

Sometimes in the dance world, we don’t always get to be around the most compassionate human beings, judgement and jealousy are typical, and as artists (not every one of them, but we all know those people…), we often experience crippling self-doubt and feelings of low worth, which are often unwarranted and untrue.

This also means that if you struggle in your dancing with…

  • Keeping a calm facial expression
  • Difficulty focusing and retaining choreography
  • Breathing
  • Stage fright
  • Learning new, challenging moves without inhibition
  • Injuries
  • Chronic pain
  • Over-training

…you can regulate it to a certain degree through understanding this fascinating vagal circuit. It’s worth a try, and it doesn’t cost a thing.

How to start applying polyvagal theory, cues of safety, and neural exercise to improve your dancing.

How DOESN’T understanding polyvagal theory help you? (that goes for all the non-dancer humans reading this, too).

Can you see how feeling more safe in your body could enhance your dancing?

How useful is it that you’re hardwired with an intrinsic stress-management mechanism that you can use to improve your recovery and performance?

Isn’t it great to know that can train this inner system by engaging with people you love, and it makes you more resilient?

Increased vagal tone and better vagal regulation are related to some important things as it relates to being a performer:

  • Being able to become vulnerable
  • Breath control
  • Preventing injuries
  • Reducing chronic pain
  • Improving mental focus
  • Recovering more quickly from training
  • Managing stress
  • Creative thinking
  • Not peeing your pants before you step on stage

Here’s what you can do right now

To improve vagal regulation, increase vagal tone, and improve your physical performance, recovery, and think more creatively:

1) Understand that your autonomic nervous systems functions hierarchically. Your body functions best when it feels safe. By becoming aware of our body’s responses, and gut responses (sub-diaphragmatic, reptilian vagal cues), we can find cues of safety and react to life without having to defend ourselves.

2) Respect your body. It’s easy to feel helpless to our situations (pain, inability to perform as well as we’d like) but we need to understand that we are reacting to situations through neuroception, which is an unconscious process. We may not know yet what we are reacting to, but we can be aware that our body has responded, and try to move to a safer place. Honor the body’s responses.

3) Body-scanning. Starting a movement practice with a body-scan is a great way to tune into unconscious cues and reactions. There are so many ways of doing this and they are all great.  Pick a system, trust the process, and see how far you can take it.

4) Remove cues of danger (see the list earlier in this post). Because these are subconscious cues, it might not be entirely evident that a dance teacher or a particular class mate is signalling “predator!”. Be aware of facial expressions, tone of voice, and gut feelings, and how well you’re able to focus around these people. Depressed vagal activity can be represented by depressed neural regulation of striated muscles of face/head. This is how we can tell if someone is friendly just by looking at their faces.

5) Surround yourself with cues of safety (see the list earlier in this post). These cues in particular can be received through physical practices, listening to music, and social engagement, (if it’s welcome…).

5) Train your breath. Because long long exhalations activate the myelinated vagus, you can increase vagal tone by increasing the duration of exhalation compared to inhalation (I like to 3:1 ratio of exhale to inhale). Playing a wind instrument, blowing up balloons, singing, and chanting also extend exhalations and can serve as effective neural exercises. These also include the use of facial muscles which are also related to the vagus.

6) Mindful movement and shifts in posture. Yoga, religious or spiritual practices, and other mindful physical practices (even working out with weights) require conscious shifts in posture. Postural shifts influence carotid baroreceptors (related to blood pressure), so it seems that practices that require mindful postural shifts can influence the heart, which is under vagal control. Exercise isn’t just good for your body.

7) Welcome social engagement. Keyword being “welcome”. If you’re forced to interact all day with people sending you unconscious cues of danger or predator, social engagement is no longer improving this vagal pathway. On the other hand, we can use social engagement as an ultimate delivery system for neural exercise and cues of safety.

The nervous system of social engagement is the same nervous system of health, growth, and restoration.

~Dr. Stephen Porges

Going to a yoga class with a friend is the ultimate vagal toning experience: You can easily combine social engagement with breathing, body scanning, mindful postural shifts, chanting, prosodic tone of voice, and listening (to the teacher AND within).

Reminds me of this…

Most sympathetic yoga session ever. I’m crying.

I hope you can also see that the “how” is more important than the “what”.

Exercise is good, but is how you’re doing it helping you?

Social engagement can be am amazing therapeutic experience, or it can make you feel unsafe.

Same thing goes for your dance practice. How are you approaching it? Are you aware of how it makes you feel?

On a final note, I urge you to take an honest look inward. Are there any visceral sensations you’re dissociating from? What can you learn from these feeling? Are you surrounded by cues of safety or of danger? Do you participate in neural exercises? Do you have people in your life that you can genuinely and honestly connect with?

How you approach your dance training needs to respect this holistic view of wellness. Dance teachers are not life coaches. Nor are rehabilitation specialists. They don’t have time to give you advice, be your friend, and teach you to be mindful. Take the time to cultivate this practice yourself.

Understanding polyvagal theory gives you the information to expand your dance practice into a mindful movement practice that enhances vagal regulation if you allow it.

You CAN dance your way to health, growth, restoration.

If you’d like to start something right now to work on tuning into your body and your breath, you’ll probably enjoy the 30 Day Challenge. What would happen if you make the choice to deliberately practice one exercise everyday, for 30 days? That’s what the challenge is about. Forming the habit to take a few moments for YOU everyday, to work from the inside out. Sign up for free and check it out.

To learn more about the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, check out these amazing talks and interviews (worth the time, I promise!)