As I’m sure many Alexander teachers are already aware, over the last decade or so polyvagal theory has revolutionised the way body-focussed practitioners conceptualise what they do, and has found a central place in many approaches to working with developmental trauma and PTSD. In this article I’ll be looking at how, as Alexander teachers, we can use this theory in a more general way to help clarify what do, to give us new approaches to old problems and — perhaps — to make some subtle (and not so subtle) shifts in how we approach working with pupils. For those who need it, I’ll begin with a — necessarily brief and simplified — overview of what polyvagal means, focussing on those aspects of the theory that are most helpful for practitioners of body-mind disciplines like our own. I'll then go on to discuss ways in which the theory can be related to Alexander practice.
The theory was developed by neuroscientist Stephen Porges (2011) from his explorations of the vagus nerve and of its place in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). As we know, the ANS regulates ‘low level’ bodily functions which need to work without conscious intervention, such as heart rate, digestion, breathing and (most relevant to the theory) overall levels of psycho-physical arousal. In the context of the ANS, arousal is regulated mostly by two complementary systems — the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which increases our arousal levels to orientate us towards activity and action, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which lowers our arousal level and orientates us towards quietness and more internally focussed states of mind. Where we are under threat our arousal system is responsible for evoking the ‘fight-flight’ and/or ‘freeze’ responses which are basic adaptions to help animals to escape from dangerous situations.
Porges’ research, which focussed on the vagus nerve and its role in the PNS, gives us a richer and more complex view of this arousal regulation system. He discovered that essentially the PNS is split into two very different parts, both controlled by different branches of the vagus nerve. The dorsal branch, which connects to the organs of the abdomen below the diagram (i.e. mostly those concerned with digestion, excretion etc.) is, evolutionarily speaking, a very early system which we have in common with reptiles. Among other things it’s responsible for the simple ‘freeze’ response to stress and danger. When a mouse being chased by a cat goes limp or freezes this is because of the action of the dorsal vagus.
Above this dorsal branch of the vagus there is the ventral branch which links to, and helps to regulate, many important functions above the diaphragm, including the heart and lungs (crucial to controlling our arousal level) but also to many of the systems designed to mediate social interaction. The ventral vagus is linked to muscles of the face used to create expression, and to systems used to focus attention, make and hold eye contact, speech and singing, and those used to focus and ‘tune’ our hearing to the sounds of the human voice — in other words it is part of our Social Engagement System (SES). In practice what this means is that the ventral vagus is stimulated to calm our nervous system and lower our level of arousal largely through positive social contact with others. For most people this makes intuitive sense: those who have not had this mechanism completely disrupted through traumatic experiences of socialisation know from experience that, if we are anxious, a soothing word, eye contact and caring expression from those around us will soon start to calm us down.
So to recap, the implications of these findings is that we have two systems for down-regulating our arousal levels — a relatively simple reptilian system, and a much more complex and refined mammalian system which is controlled and mediated to a large extent by social interaction. An important fact about these two systems are that they are arranged hierarchically. Generally speaking our ‘go to’ option in times of stress is to turn to other people for comfort and for help in regulating and calming painful or overwhelming emotions. If others are not available, or if they respond to our distress with subtle or obvious rejection or contempt, our system may resort to the lower-level dorsal branch of the vagus, and so initiate an overall freeze reaction in response to the perceived danger.
One advantage of this hierarchical structure is that the ventral vagus branch allows us (all being well) to use social interaction both to calm our nervous system and to come out of dorsal vagal shutdown. A key point here is that the ventral vagus can help us achieve a feeling of safety, but that its ability to do this depends on there being a certain level of actual social and physical safety. If we do not experience such safety for a prolonged period of time, particularly when we are young, then the ability of the system to operate will be impaired (Samsel, no date). This is especially true if a growing child has many unpleasant experiences around their attempts to make social contact. If her attempts to connect and be soothed are met with shaming or rejection she may increasingly reject the ventral vagal strategy to help herself regulate, and instead rely on the more global shutting down associated with dorsal vagus function.
It’s probably fair to say that, for most contemporary humans, this potentially exquisitely balance and refined system of co-and-self-regulation of arousal is not functioning particularly well. We live in environments and cultures which are very different to those which we evolved to deal with. For many people, their lives today feature constant challenges around factors such as earning a living (survival), competitive rather than communal ways of relating, the search for belonging to a group or ‘tribe’, and difficulty gaining real acceptance by others who are also struggling with the same problems themselves. For this reason many of us are stuck to a certain extent in one of three states:
ANS over-arousal, where the PNS is not adequately or effectively activated to calm the nervous system down from the stressors bombarding it,
ANS under-arousal and emotional shutdown, where the system has failed to regulate using the social engagement system and resorted to dorsal vagal calming strategies, or
Simultaneous over and under arousal where their system is stuck in a state where it is over-activated (SNS, muscular tension, fast heart-beat, high, shallow breathing) but the person is ‘frozen’ by dorsal vagal activation, and unable to act from or release the energy activated by the SNS.
Polyvagal Theory and the Alexander Technique
Having had a brief over-view of what polyvagal theory is, we can now look at various ways in which we can use what this theory tells us to help our pupils.
One way in which it is useful to know this theory is because it can help us to reflect more precisely on what is most effective in helping pupils to quieten their systems down to a point where putting into practice Alexander principles is actually possible. I think we’re all aware that the ability to say ‘no’ to a stimulus is difficult to access unless we are in a quiet state to begin with. There is a chicken and egg effect to this which makes learning AT tough for some people. The beginning pupil may find that they are being asked to focus most of their attention on inhibiting a response to a fairly random stimulus (say getting out of a chair). If the pupil’s nervous system tends towards an over-activated state this ability can take quite a while to develop, because we are asking them to use a function (inhibition) which is by definition difficult to access with an over-activated nervous system. Of course any good teacher is aware of this, and knows that it is essential if we want to help our pupil to change in a reasonable timescale, to break this vicious circle in some way in order to allow the pupil’s system to quieten down enough to do what we are asking, and this is part of the role of hands on work, particularly at the beginning.
We know intuitively that tone of voice, quality of touch etc. is an important part of how we go about quietening our pupils down. But what polyvagal theory gives is confirmation, if we need it, of how important the deep quality of connection and ‘meeting’ is in helping someone’s system to settle— and the clarity of knowing that this response is hard-wired into us at a very basic neurological level. In a broader sense this means that if we want peoples’ systems to quieten down we need to be principally and fundamentally concerned with creating emotional safety, and with allowing someone to feel secure. This sense of safety cannot be faked, and depends on the extent to which we feel comfortable and secure in ourselves, are able to be sensitive and responsive to the person, to allow them to be themselves, and to welcome and honour expressions of feeling. It also involves being willing to allow real rather than formal person-to person connection while neither backing off through fear of open-hearted connection, nor allowing ourself to slip into ‘over-connecting’ which can result in imposing, boundary-crossing, and using the pupil to fulfil our own needs.
Ends and Means
Two other key findings of polyvagal theory focus on the role of breathing and attention on our arousal levels and hence our overall functioning. Again this is hardly new knowledge in the AT community. Most recently, Ted Dimon (2015) and previously David Gorman (1995) have written persuasively on the importance of the attention system in helping to regulate the overall postural tone of the organism, and all teachers know in practice the importance of the quality of attentional focus. In fact the link between breathing and attention and calmness has been well known for centuries and is referred to in numerous spiritual and body-based traditions.
So polyvagal theory is not telling us something new in this regard, though it emphasises for us the role of our social responses in regulating both breath and attention. But having the fundamental importance of these two factors in ANS arousal understood helps to support a way into the work which (in the experience of myself and I’m sure many other teachers) may be more helpful for the majority of new pupils who are stuck in ANS over-arousal. This is to begin by using breathing and attention (rather than, say, getting in and out of the chair) as the absolutely fundamental focus for exploring inhibition. When we bring more attention to the breath (which of course includes the action of the entire torso and beyond) and to how our awareness system is operating, and use that as as the primary way into learning about how we interfere with our system, rather than concerning ourselves with the head/neck/back relationship (which can come later) the pupils is learning about how how they can stop interfering with their system in a way which much more directly effects the over-arousal which makes that exploration difficult. This sets up a virtuous cycle whereby they can more quickly bring their system to a state of calmness from where the principles we teach are easier to access in other activities.
Another use of polyvagal theory is that (if we are not too precious to do so!) it suggests various very effective self-help techniques we can give pupils to use on their own, which will help them calm their own nervous systems and keep their systems quieter between lessons. Again this can very much speed up the process by which they are able to helpfully access the Technique for themselves. Such procedures can be as simple as bringing consciousness to the out-breath, or using the hands to gently rub down the face. There are several techniques like this which can help activate the ventral vagus and while not a ‘cure’, can certainly help break the cycle of SNS over-activation which can make finding changes with the Technique unnecessarily slow for some people. An excellent book on this to recommend to pupils is Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve by Stanley Rosenberg (2017).
Eye Contact — ‘Hands on’ at a Distance
One limitation of teaching the Technique mostly with hands-on work in the traditional way is the problems that it brings simply in terms of coordinating two peoples’ activities. We have only two hands and with two people’s bodies interacting it is often simply not possible to follow more complicated activities in a way that is helpful, or to be everywhere we might want to be at once. Personally I feel that hands-on work is at the heart of what I do, not least because of it’s power in terms of addressing the relational aspects mentioned above. But wouldn’t it be great to have a way of working which gives us all the benefits of hands on work but also at a distance? Well there almost is, and polyvagal theory gives as a clue to how to go about it.
There are many ways that AT teachers use their hands, but probably the most important are to listen to what is going on in the pupil, to help to calm and settle the pupil’s nervous system, to make a human connection (which as we have seen also plays a role in calming and settling) and to guide the pupil’s activity or withholding of activity in one way or another. Certainly we can approximate two of these at a distance. We can listen with our eyes by watching the pupil, and we can guide by example, asking them to mirror our own actions — so long as the pupil is able to remain centred, quiet and receptive enough to ‘catch’ what we are really suggesting. This is where working at a distance can lack a little, because we don’t have that direct hands-on contact to encourage such a receptive state. However polyvagal theory suggests that a way round this is to bring conscious and considered eye contact into the equation. Eye contact is one of the most important ways that humans use to connect with each other, and to interpret what is going on in antother, and is meditated to a large extent by the ventral vagus — which as we have seen is deeply implicated in the calming action of the PNS. To be held in the gaze of a trusted person (if we are able to allow that) and to return that gaze is deeply relaxing and centring.
We can use this fact to help us work with people at a distance in a useful way that can replace some of what is missing when we work without hands. Here’s a story to illustrate what this can look like in practice [identifying details of the pupil have been changed]:
Sarah is a student pianist who came for lessons because she was experiencing pain in her shoulders, and also felt that, though she played beautifully on her own, she closed down emotionally whenever she had to perform in front of others. She is quite a nervous young woman, and quite stressed by college, so for the first few lessons we work mostly with just quietening down, being able to connect through to her feet and and access a quiet, balanced resting state in the relatively stress-free environment of the lesson. After a while we notice that she is now able to find a much more free and ‘up’ way of being while sitting and standing, and she enjoys how that feels. However we notice that whenever she moves her arms away from her body in any kind of opening gesture, she looses that connection and contact with the ground and pulls herself down, and she finds it impossible to stop herself doing this. The following dialogue shows how we approached working with this pattern:
Me: “would you be willing to try an experiment?”
Sarah: (a little nervous): “I guess!”
Me: “Would you be willing to give it a try and if it doesn’t feel comfortable we can stop?”
Sarah: “I think so”
Me: “OK, let’s stand at opposite ends of the room, facing each other and if at any point you feel uncomfortable will you say so immediately?”
We move away fromeach other and take up this position.
Me: “Try putting both hands on your heart like this”. I show her what I mean. “Now what I’m suggesting we do is that I’m going to slowly open my arms a little, and you copy me, and at the same time we make a little eye contact”. She looks a bit unsure. “The reason I’m suggesting this is because for humans eye contact is one of the ways we know that we are safe and can relax. It’s something that’s hard-wired into the nervous system at a really deep level — when we are able to make eye contact it tells the nervous system that it is safe and it can let go, does that make sense?”
Sarah: “Yes” She still looks a little unsure but also now more interested.
Me: “OK, well let’s do it a tiny a bit without any eye contact at all and see how that feels”.
We do so. She watches me move and copies. I’m modelling a coordination that, given the chance, can easily be done without holding or bracing. She follows, and falls into her usual habit of pulling down and pulling away from the ground.
Me: “OK, are you OK to try again but with just a little bit of intermittent eye contact?”
We do this, and the same thing happens, she pulls down.
Me: “How was that”
Sarah: “A bit weird, but OK”
Me: “So this time let’s open a little wider, and hold it there for a few seconds”
We do so. I’m aware that as we open our arms, I, too, strongly want to pull away from the ground and hold my breath — her uncertainty and nervousness around this perhaps triggering my own feelings of insecurity, and maybe vice-versa. So I consciously reconnect with the ground and allow myself to breathe and hold my arms open and hold her gaze.
Me: “Can you let your belly breathe with this?”
She nods and keeps eye contact
Me: “So really the invitation here is that our nervous systems will say to each other ‘Hi! We’re Safe, It’s OK!’”
I wiggle my fingers: “Hi!”
She gives a little grin. Suddenly her breath lets go in a series of judders and I see her connect straight through to the ground and up. We stay there a few seconds more and then I close arms again.
Me: “How was that?”
She’s breathing more deeply, and smiling.
Sarah: “Yes, I got it!”
Me: “Great! Well let’s say that’s enough of that for today and do something else now”.
We do a little more of this kind of work over the next couple of sessions, by the end of which she is able to be connected and ‘up’ with her arms open without much trouble. She notices the difference in her confidence and emotional expressiveness in her music, and in her life in general, and her shoulder pain reduces.
Cautions and Contraindications
I’m aware that some teachers might feel uncomfortable about working in the way I’ve just described, and they are right to raise concerns. The first one is probably that it is moving too close to ‘therapy’. My response would be that Alexander teachers are working therapeutically anyway, by the way we use our hands and the relational aspects of what we do, and both ourselves and our pupils can only be helped by us making this aspect of our activity more conscious and considered. N.B. for those who are interested, Brigitta Mowat (2006, 2008) has done some very useful work exploring these questions in an AT context.
I would also argue that the above example is still primarily educational. Sarah is learning about herself and her responses, and though some of this learning is at quite a visceral level, it is still learning. Any therapeutic effect (which there certainly was) is a by-product rather than the main focus. It is welcome but not 'chased', and it is not used as a starting point for further psychotherapeutic investigations. We might speculate — as AT teacher Sue Pepper (Rennie et al. 2015) does — that such a difficulty with opening the heart while staying connected may be linked, in Reichian terms, to a ‘psychopathic holding pattern’ or some other theoretical formulation. In such speculations we may be right or we may be wrong, but as Alexander Teachers we’re not going to go digging for the answer — we’re happy to let such things arise or not without seeking to make a story about the cause. The pupil may in fact tell us the cause, or they may not, and both are absolutely fine.
Another objection that could be raised here which, again, Brigitta Mowat (ibid.) has discussed in depth, is to do with boundaries and client safety. While it needn’t paralyse us this needs to be taken seriously. Making this kind of eye contact can be highly activating if a person has an early history of serious wounded-ness around connection with others. In general, people who are very seriously wounded in this way are unlikely to end up as pupils, because the whole setup of a typical lesson and hands on work would be overwhelming for them. Or they may come, and if we are flexible and sensitive enough we may have found a way of working with them with less or no contact, in which case it should be clear that this kind of eye-focussed work is going to be way too much for them to handle.
But whatever people’s history, it’s very important to bear in mind that with conscious eye contact we are dealing with an intimate kind of connection, and we need to be sensitive to that. In particular the mantra ‘less is more’ applies here. In the above example we probably had well less then half a minute of eye contact in the entire interaction and my feeling was that this was more than enough. Also note that I suggested we stand at opposite ends of the room, and that we had already had several lessons and were fairly relaxed with each other by this point. In working this way it’s also important to be clear about whether one has unmet and unresolved yearnings around eye contact oneself. The last thing the pupil needs in this case is for us to approach them with a grasping, needy quality that wants something from their eyes. If we do this then the most likely outcome is that we’ll ‘creep them out’ and we won’t see them again, but the results could, very exceptionally, be more serious.
Of course all the points mentioned above in relation to eye contact are every bit as much of a factor in hands-on work. It’s just as possible to impose, bully or manipulate with our hands as it is with our eyes. Fortunately our training, with it’s (hopeful) focus on being with peoples’ systems in a non-invasive way that doesn’t impose, makes the beginnings of a good grounding in what is helpful rather than harmful in terms of contact of any kind. But as always, vigilance is needed and at all times it’s important to seek not to operate beyond our level of skill, and to watch our own motivations for making contact with the pupil in whatever way that is — and to seek appropriate support or additional training if we detect that we have needs towards those who come to us which are unhelpful to them.
I hope that I’ve made some connections and suggested possibilities here in terms of the possible relation of polyvagal theory to Alexander work which at least some people will find fruitful. For some time there’s been a growing awareness in the Alexander community that, in order to avoid fading into irrelevance and to thrive in future, we need to be coming out of our walled garden (to the extent that we have been one) and to engage with and absorb the best of what other related fields have to teach us. This process is now thankfully well under way. I see this article in this context, as a very small contribution to that movement.
For those who are interested in finding out more about poly-vagal theory the best introductory resource (which is much more accessible than his very dense tour de force ‘The Polyvagal Theory’) is probably Stephen Porges book ‘The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe’, published by Norton.
Dimon, T. (2015) A New Model of Man’s Conscious Development. San Francisco: Day Street Press.
Gorman, David (1995) The rounder we go the Stucker we Get.http://www.learningmethods.com/the-rounder-we-go.htm. Retrieved 07/03/2018
Mowat, B. (2006) ‘The Impact of Psychotherapy and Counselling on the Alexander Technique’, The Alexander Journal, (issue 21, Spring).
Mowat, B. (2008) ‘The Use of Touch in an AT Context: A Developmental and Therapeutic Perspective.’, in. 8th International Alexander Congress, Lugano.
Porges, S. W. (2011) The polyvagal theory: neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton (The Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology).
Rennie, C., Shoop, T. and Thapen, K. (2015) Connected perspectives: the Alexander technique in context. London: HITE.
Rosenberg, S. (2017) Accessing the healing power of the vagus nerve: self-help exercises for anxiety, depression, trauma, and autism. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Samsel, Michael (no date) Shift Toward the Social Engagement System,
https://reichandlowentherapy.org/Content/Vegetative/ventral_shift.html. Retrieved 07/03/2018