February 28, 2022

How Polyvagal Theory & “Chi for Two” Has Become a Powerful Trauma Healing Method.


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I started seeing a counselor when I was 19 years old, I got my masters in counselling when I was 36, and when I was 56, I fell in love with polyvagal theory.

Throughout it all, I was working on creating Chi for Two.

Scientist Stephen Porges created polyvagal theory based on his studies of the vagus nerve. In my first Elephant Journal contribution, The Science Behind Mindfulness (from a polyvagal junkie), I predicted that polyvagal theory would play an important role in mindfulness. Now, many mindful people are talking about the vagus nerve—the nerve that creates calm in the body.

I am a dance and movement therapist, lover of yoga, and all kinds of movement. I have taught ballroom dance and taken tai chi classes. I am interested in the dance of relationship. Polyvagal theory is all about the dance of relationship, I just see that dance differently than many of the current polyvagal theory enthusiasts.

Polyvagal theory helps us see that the vagus nerve creates two very different kinds of calm—two different kinds of parasympathetic response. One uses the ventral branch of the vagus, and the other used the dorsal branch.

The calm associated with the dorsal branch is called shutdown. The shutdown type of calm creates a temporary holding place to escape situations in which we sense danger. The key here is the word “temporary.” When we spend long periods of time in shutdown, we function in a dissociative, sometimes robotic, and even zombie-ish kind of way.

I grew up in shutdown. I took dance classes and learned to move in prescriptive ways, but I did not feel the joy of movement until I had a great deal of therapy under my belt. I discovered the path to free-flowing movement when I did my deep dive into polyvagal theory.

My first article in a peer-reviewed journal (a big deal for professional therapists) was called Polyvagal Theory and Peek-a-boo: How the Therapeutic Pas de Deux Heals Attachment Trauma. Attachment trauma describes the trauma patterning that comes as a result of poor connection to a caretaker in infancy. When I first submitted the article to Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, the editors said, “I don’t think you understand polyvagal theory; polyvagal theory is about creating calm.”

I felt a fight-or-flight response. Luckily, I understood polyvagal theory. I dug deeper into my research and I came upon an article by Lisa Diamond. Diamond is also interested in the dance of relationship and writes on sexual fluidity.

In the book Bases of Adult Attachment, Diamond spoke of “parasympathetically mediated patterns of cardiovascular reactivity.” “Parasympathetically mediated” describes what can happen with the ventral branch of the vagus nerve. It explains the fact that the ventral branch of the vagus brakes activation (like the brake on a car) and cardiovascular reactivity in a rhythmic way to create an active state that Porges calls play/dance. Eureka!

The editors responded, “Hmm, okay,” and published my article.

Then I wrote a bunch, including many articles on polyvagal theory, on Elephant Journal. I made videos and presented my perspective. Then also:

>> I co-wrote a book for using dating to improve relational dances: Naked Online: A Dozen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating.

>> I created the Lustier Life Skills videos that offer movements that are key in maintaining Play/Dance during romantic dances.

>> I co-wrote a peer-reviewed article: Couples Dance/Movement Therapy in which I talked about palm-to-palm mindfulness experiences I had been developing for years.

>> With my business partner and husband (John Cargile), I trademarked the name Chi for Two®

>> With my son who is a tai chi teacher (Stephen Wagner), mentees Caroline Gebhardt (counselor and yoga teacher), and Mary Lou Davidson (bodyworker and long-time massage teacher), I developed a Chi for Two embodiment coach training program.

Couples therapists have known for a long time that romantic dances stir unfinished infant/parent dances. This makes the romantic dance a perfect place to develop mindfulness of the movement expressions we have inhibited with shutdown. There are Chi for Two partner practices for clients to do with their therapists, for children with parents, and of course for lovers.

Chi for Two has become a multi-generational trauma healing method. Polyvagal theory pointed the way. As I write this for Elephant Journal today, I feel less like a polyvagal junkie—less like a polyvagal geek or nerd—and more like a polyvagal-informed elder, blessed to be the originator of Chi for Two—The Energetic Dance of Healthy Relationship.


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