August 16, 2011

Yoga, Bodywork, Healing & The Brain {Bonus VIDEO}

Weaving The Strands

In my recent Touch, Energy & Healing seminar, the pertinent question was raised as to what we mean by the word “healing” and if indeed the sometimes dramatic and powerful experiences that people can have on the massage table or yoga mat can be designated as “healing.” We didn’t have time on the day to really get into this important and juicy conversation, so I wanted to take a little time right now to share some of my thoughts on the matter.

There is also considerable tie-in here with the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training that I offer with Hala Khouri, as we share a passion with the relationships between yoga, psychology and brain science.

There are three schools of thought I want to reference in pointing out what I think are substantive claims of healing:

1. The work of biologist Peter Levine in creating his Somatic Experiencing approach.
2. The broader understanding of the post-Reichian body-based psychologists. (That’s Reich, not Reiki in case you’re wondering!)
3. The rapidly advancing discipline of Neuroscience.

As we will see these three converging areas of inquiry have significant overlap with one-another as well as with yoga and bodywork.


The Physiological Self (Nervous System)

Peter Levine created his physiology-based trauma healing model because as a biologist he observed that animals in the wild handled trauma differently than did contemporary humans. After surviving a life threatening interaction, like being hunted as prey, getting into a territorial fight or being scared by a helicopter that carried biologists who were tagging the animal for conservation research – they would allow a physiological discharge of the “energy” that had been mobilized via the secretion of adrenaline, autonomic nervous system activation, increased heart rate, blood rushing to the fight or flight muscles etc.

To do this, when safe again the creature would shake, tremble and if lying down, slowed-down videotape of their movements would reveal that their bodies were going through the motions of running, biting, clawing – in other words their systems would be enacting the instinctive responses to attack to complete the process begun by the activation. Even though we still have the same instinctive and physiological responses to stressful situations, for the most part human beings no longer allow this process – a kind of physiological re-set, to occur.

Levine’s Somatic Experiencing techniques are a meditative body-based way of accessing this physiological intelligence and allowing for the manageable discharge of this pent up energy. His observation of the physical process that animals go through is, as you will see as we continue, consistent with data from other fields and with some of what we are working with in Open Sky Bodywork.


The De-Armored Self (Musculature)

Wilhelm Reich was a student of Sigmund Freud. What many forget is that Freud was himself a “nerve doctor” – and that the foundations of his psychoanalytic approach came from his theorizing about how patients expressed their inner lives through their physical symptoms of anxiety, trauma, grief and so on. Rather than staying with the “talking cure,” Reich however became interested first in mirroring his patients physical postures back to them as they talked about their thoughts, feelings and experiences – and then in working with his hands on the muscles where he found “emotional knots.” Reich later also incorporated breathing exercises and physical movements into his hands-on approach to addressing the psyche through the body. Quite independent of input from any other traditions, he then observed something that we yogis/healers would discuss in terms of the words “prana,” “chi” or “energy.” (Of course we should note that in the current “spiritual” climate, most of what gets paid lip-service re: energy in a very vague way has very little to do with the kind of powerful, authentic and process-oriented reality I am describing.)

Reich found that when people released layers of muscular tension (which he called “body armoring”) in conjunction with deep feelings, they would experience “streaming” sensations – and that as they went still further they would go into something he called “the reflex.”

Reich observed that the more people processed through their emotional repression, got in touch with their bodies and released their armoring, the more available they would be to honest vulnerability, authentic intimacy and full-bodied sexual experience in their personal relations. Because of this powerful connection between embodied feeling and sexual surrender he sometimes also called the reflex – the “orgasm reflex.” It was a wave like motion that included the whole body in a powerful and pleasurable experience of flow. Of course this movement would be impeded by body-armoring and by one’s resistance to certain core emotions or the unprocessed significant life experience – or traumas.

This is of course related to what is often described or subscribed to (again in a lip-service kind of way) but rarely directly experienced, regarding the yogic idea of kundalini.



The Neuronal Self (Brain)

Neuroscience (brain research) has been the most exciting exploding field of inquiry for the last 20 years or so. New innovations in technology have allowed us to photograph the activity of the brain while it is working – and while people are having all manner of experiences, including emotions, learning and the profoundly heightened state experienced by long term meditators.

In addition the last 10 years has given us the science of neuroplasticity – a new understanding of the “plastic” nature of the brain. It was thought for much of the 20th century that much more of the brain was hard-wired than is actually the case. Neuroscience research has shown that the brain is a lot more fluid in it’s neural pathways than previously imagined. With regard to spiritual practice and experience of healing states this is particularly fascinating and pertinent.

Let’s not jump the gun here – neuroplasticity does not imply that everything is absolutely change-able, or change-able in the blink of an eye, that’s a fantasy. But it does tell us that for example the grieving process has to do with how we shed neural associative pathways and literally “let go” of old emotional investments. A key principle in this field is that “neurons that fire together wire together,” also that when the reward system is engaged the new wiring is that much stronger. The reward system is that combination of brain and endocrine (glandular) function that generates pleasurable feelings – elation, bliss, ecstasy etc…

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, if we think of transformational disciplines as being about rerouting brain activity, and breaking ingrained patterns – there is enough evidence now to be support the hypothesis that practices which take us into heightened states of consciousness, allow for release of physical/emotional tension and create feelings of well-being may deliver literal transformation and quantifiable healing. Also, that repeated entry into heightened states from the subtle to the ecstatic, may well be a means of positively transforming brain function.

Think of it this way – the negative experiences and traumas in our lives have created loops of association and left traces of un-integrated memories in our brains and nervous systems. Experiential practice, handled in the right way may be able to make us more conscious of those patterns and their meaning and allow for retraining of the neural pathways and hence our responses to and experience of life. This is not as simple as just magically “believing” the idea or doing some quick-fix ritual – it takes time and involves not only good guidance, but a lot of discipline, patience, compassion and courage. However, the implications are both encouraging and validating of experiences that I and many others have had of Open Sky Bodywork, yoga, meditation and other approaches like cranio-sacral therapy and holotropic breathwork.



To return to Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing work for a moment – one of the key dynamic principles in this model is the interplay between the “trauma vortex” and the feelings of being “resourced.” Training our physiology to have access to states of feeling resourced is one of the central aspects of this work. The question here is: What connects you to feeling safe, grounded, supported, in touch with beauty, love, gratitude, pleasure etc?

Sensations, images, places, people can all serve as resources – and the resources are the support system that allows for the manageable discharge of the pent up energy that gets “triggered” when we are confronted with situations that remind us unconsciously of the unresolved events or experiences.


Memory & Trauma

One last observation from neuroscience that is also significant has to do with how we encode memory in the brain. When we are under the extreme stress of traumatic experience a part of the brain called the hippocampus gets shut down by the stress chemicals. The hippocampus is associated with encoding details of the memory like time and place and the sense of self in midst of it. “I was 10 years old, it was on the way home from school and the bully threw a stone at me.”

Another part of the brain – the amygdala encodes memory at a more primitive level – perceptions, raw emotions, without any time, place or sense-of-self information. Usually (after 18 months of age) the two work together in our memory system, but in the face of unbearable or overwhelming experience the hippocampus is shut down and the memory is only encoded at this raw, primal amygdala level.

This means that when associations trigger the unresolved scary or painful memory we often feel as if it is happening in the present. Think of the Iraq veteran who hears a car backfire outside the house and goes into a classic PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) response in which he hides under the bed for hours holding the broomstick as if it were a rifle. Healing involves integrating hippocampus and amygdala function so that those memories and their feelings and instinctive responses can be experienced, discharged, and contextualized – as we will see in a moment.

Luckily most of us do not have trauma that severe, but all of us have unresolved experiences and feelings – its just part of being human. Does this make us “broken?” No, not at all, it just mean that part of any spiritual path should include ways of addressing this unresolved material so as to help us grow, heal and feel more integrated.

The third level of the memory system has to do with neo-cortex functioning that allows us to make sense of our experience and weave it into the narrative of our lives. At this level, we interpret meaning and the memory is integrated as part of our long term identity, understood as belonging to a certain time and place, playing a role in shaping who we are, and as something we are either relatively OK with or still working out.

So the idea here is of a three stage process of memory in the brain that can be derailed by unbearable experience that we do not have the resources to manage. Healing in this context has to do with integrating those three stages or levels – so that we can make sense of our life experiences and understand the narrative of our lives (using the neo-cortex), locate the memory of the experience in time and place with a sense of self (using the hippocampus) and discharge the intense activation/trigger response (caused by the amygdala.)

My sense is that this i what happens when any transformational experience is truly effective – be it a psychotherapy appointment, deep meditation, yoga class, breathwork, ecstatic dance experience or Open Sky Bodywork session. Of course all of these different ways-in will have their own variables and flavor, and healing/integration is not the only thing going on – there may also be moments that are filled with the light of joy, playfulness, pleasure, relaxation, beauty, love and peace. However, approaches that intelligently make space for the shadow-work of deep healing paradoxically also open up space for more light – and for that light to be more grounded in the reality of being human.


Getting Grounded In The Wild (Integration of East and) West

Given the above schools of thought I think we may now be ready to discuss what I mean when I refer to Open Sky Bodywork as an approach to healing.

Most often in more alternative/holistic/spiritual circles the word “healing” has one of two connotations, one pretty sublime and one fairly ridiculous! The sublime connotation has to do with entering a state of very deep relaxation, feeling cared for, safe – and by the end of the session, de-stressed. This is really nice. On the other hand, the ridiculous connotation runs the gamut from the “removal” of supposed alien implants to people claiming to heal traumas or “clear stuck energy” using everything from magic spells to supposed “quantum technologies” (don’t get me started on the ubiquitous and willful misinterpretation of quantum physics to back up nonsensical beliefs!) to “channeled spirit guides,” wood sprites, still more aliens, to – well you get the idea…

This is most often fairly innocuous, well-meaning silliness with perhaps some beneficial relaxation. The tricky part is that these more exotic healing varietals usually require buying into some pretty far-fetched beliefs about the nature of the body, mind, life, hell – the entire universe itself! This presents difficulties in terms of being a well-integrated, grounded, emotionally honest human being – something I think any effective healing or practice-oriented modality should have as it’s crucible.

I should quickly point out that the approach I am sharing in my yoga trainings, bodywork seminars and ongoing public workshops can be prone to it’s own confusion. Start throwing around words like “energy” and “healing,” and you are bound to run into some pretty wild and wooly associations and beliefs.

The experience is often of pretty fascinating heightened states of consciousness, our bodies go through spontaneous motions understood in various traditions as “somato-psychic release,” “unwinding,” “kriyas,” “kundalini,” or “the reflex” – for now let’s just call it energetic process. But that’s not enough – let’s define the term as referring to the release of pent up tension in the body. Why use the word “energy?” Because in the felt experience of this kind of process there is heat, tingling, trembling and often an outpouring of emotion – it’s a global experience of the body and mind that involves the nervous and endocrine systems and the brain in a very powerful innate response that is common to multiple cultures and traditions throughout human history.


Our Shared Biology, Psychology & Spirituality

The important question for a 21st century model is this: what is the common element in all of these methods/traditions? The answer of course is the human body and mind. It is not necessary to buy into any otherworldly supernatural or fanciful metaphysical beliefs to inquire into intellectually and embrace experientially the process I am describing and that we were exploring in the workshop. In fact those kinds of speculative, ungrounded beliefs can actually obstruct both the healing/awakening process and our understanding of it.

Myths, metaphors and symbols are by definition non-literal ways of representing experience and ideas. This is why poetry can so powerfully express what cannot otherwise be directly spoken. Think of the symbols I am about to reference as a kind of poetry that seeks to describe an innate human experience. The cultural context and style of the symbols will always be an expression of the given time and place, but the essential experience being represented is available to us now – and should not be confused with a superstitious literal “belief” in the cultural baggage that may also come with the poetry.

The caduceus symbol still used today by the American Medical Association, and seen in yogic, Egyptian, hermetic and alchemical iconography may be a remnant of this kind of experience being prevalent in esoteric traditions. The kundalini serpent goddess said to move through the spine of the yogic initiate, cleansing each chakra level of the body and mind as it moved is, like all mythic symbols, indicative of an actual (but not literal) experiential process. In other words the experience is real – but the serpent goddess is symbolic of the experience. How we then make sense of the experience is another question I will deal with in a moment.

The yogis chose serpents as the symbol of this energetic process because of their undulating motion – a motion me see mimicked in belly-dancing, echoed in love-making, a movement that has it’s genesis in the spermatozoan swimming toward the ovum and even deeper than that in the movement of subatomic particles.

The human body is a pulsating, undulating organism. Think heartbeat, blood flow, the peristalsis of digestion, the contractions of orgasm, the movement of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord. When we are “moved” by emotion we tremble, shudder, giggle, leap and sometimes fall over – sometimes we dance or run or engage in the precisely controlled movement of playing a musical instrument to express those feelings.

Indeed, the experience of emotion is a physical event in the body involving blood, hormones, neurotransmitters, nerves, muscles and the brain itself. A simple way of thinking about it is this: the more contraction around any given experience or feeling we have the more we restrict this free flowing, undulating process from doing what it needs to do.

Holy Trinity

The human brain can be divided into three portions, each a product of the evolutionary process. First the reptilian brain – responsible for instincts and impulses it is the oldest and most primitive part of the brain. Next comes the limbic brain, common only to mammals – it is what gives creatures like dogs, cats, monkeys, dolphins and humans our emotional intelligence. No mater how much you dote on your pet lizard she is quite simply never going to bond with you and be attuned to your moods in the ways exhibited by a Labrador. Next comes the neo-cortex – the most recently evolved brain structure, largest in humans and responsible for all the higher brain functions we associate with very intelligent mammals.

The neo-cortex makes possible poetry, architecture, music, this piece of writing, the computer you are reading it on, the fact that none of us died of smallpox, because a vacine was discovered – we could go on and on. But it has one interesting downside: the neo-cortex has the power to over-ride the limbic emotional responses (resulting in emotional repression) and the reptilian instinctive responses (resulting in the blocking of the discharge Peter Levine observed in other animals.)

Of course the ability to over-ride instinctive impulses and emotional reactions is not a bad thing! It is part of our evolving intelligence that has enabled us to live in peaceful societies, follow laws and consider the rational details of a situation or the perspective of another in situations where we might otherwise lash out violently or cling to a irrational emotional interpretation. So the way forward has to do with a healthy integration of our emotional, instinctive, rational and creative/imaginative faculties.

One of the central challenges lies in continuing to differentiate the inner and outer worlds so that we can understand more clearly the relationships between the two. This has not been done at all well by old world religion or new age spirituality – nor has narrow science done us any favors in this regard. But I will save that theme for a chapter I am currently working on for my book: The Scientist and The Sage.


Open Sky Bodywork

The approach I have developed over the last 14 years integrates the above information with several key elements:

1. Hands-on techniques that both generate energy in the system and evoke heightened states of consciousness.
2. An understanding of the structural anatomy of the body.
3. A deep respect for the vulnerability and complexity of holding space for deepening awareness and profound healing, that includes bringing cognitive awareness to the process and exploring meaning and biographical narrative via dialog.
4. Working with a set of specific “high-charge” muscles that tend to allow entry into mind-body energetic/emotional process.
5. Finding ways to weave the “resourcing” aspects of the experience – pleasure, beauty, safety, novelty etc into the aspects that have to do with integrating previously unresolved feelings and traumatic moments that may be very vulnerable.
6. Exploring mind-body relationships regarding chronic tension and pain syndromes.
7. Educating clients and students about the powerful and beautiful possibilities of an integrated and effective 21st century approach to spiritual practice and mind-body healing/personal growth.

Over the years I have been privileged to support and bear witness to:

a) The reduction or healing of chronic pain syndromes.
b) The healing of deep emotional trauma in ways that created improved well-being and enjoyment of life.
c) The healing of sexual traumas in ways that freed up a previously fearful or inhibited relationship to the body, pleasure and intimacy.
d) The return to healthy menstrual cycle and ensuing pregnancy after years of frustration.
e) The relinquishing of long-held defensive belief systems that perpetuated dissociation, emotional blunting, self-blame and an unrealistic relationship to both inner and outer life.
f) The beautiful initiation into the further possibilities of embodied ecstasy, self love and re-sacralizing of the real world and one’s actual life.

*How does this happen?

I am of course not 100% sure – and I am excited to do a more in-depth empirical study, but here is what I think:

By engaging in our own ongoing dedicated, substantive practices we experientially cover the territory of mind-body process in our own lives and continue developing discernment, compassion, insight and our own integration.

By creating sacred safe space for others and relating to their bodies and minds with respect, kindness and curiosity, we open up the possibility for healing.

By enacting a grounded context with regard to the reality of suffering, the importance of authentic emotions and the healthy raised eyebrow toward dissociated beliefs we encourage healthy integration, grown-up spirituality, and genuine self-compassion.

By using asana, breath, touch, music, and any other environmental elements we start to activate energy and create a shift into heightened states of consciousness. Innate mechanisms in the brain, nervous and myo-fascial systems then emerge as we enter into mind-body process. We can guide this process by working with the high charge points and see how it relates to the structure of the body and places where chronic tension is causing pain – often there are underlying emotions and/or traumas implicated in these relationships. We can also respond in the moment to the process in a myriad of ways that generate feelings of well-being, safety, support etc. This helps smooth out the process and makes what was unmanageable before, manageable now. Which in a way might be a definition of “healing.”

Of course, how I do this on a daily basis may take a while to share, but hopefully this overview gives a sense of what the territory I am excited to share with you looks like!

Here’s some video from my recent bodywork training:

Coming upin 2012!:

Jan 29 Yoga & the Chakras Workshop Series Begins!!
Feb 11 & 12 Touch, Energy & Healing Workshop
April 12 – 15  Transformation Retreat to Ojai
Aug 27th Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Teacher Training Begins!
***Dates TBA Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind  Retreat at Esalen 


Recommended reading:
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Bioenergetics by Alexander Lowen
The Neurobiology of We by Dan Siegel
The Stormy Search for the Self by Stan and Christina Grof
The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
Quantum Questions by Ken Wilber

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