parasympathetic nervous system

Steve Haines: Body Maps and Interoception (LBP 015)


Steve Haines talks about Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, body maps and how they become strange or distorted, interoception and why there is more pain in areas that we have less interoception about- or are more poorly mapped, the huge role the vagal nerve plays in our bodies and our sense of well-being, and much more!

*Thanks to Danielle Rowarth for helping to make this interview happen!*




Show notes

Defining Biodynamic Craniosacral Work: The essence of cranial work is that you touch people and they change. It is really light, slow, gentle work. The understanding is that we're really interacting with the autonomic nervous system.

Another big theme of the work is the sense of a living organism. You're always touching a person, not body parts. And by appreciating wholeness it changes your touch and changes your focus.

There's a sense of a rhythmic body- so bodies pulse. We're never completely still. Rhythm- heart beating, cerebrospinal fluid moving, blood pumping- is an essential part of the body. Interacting with those rhythms is fundamental to Biodynamic Craniosacral.

The smartest thing in the room is the intelligence of the body, so less is more. We are trying to facilitate self-healing.

It's hard work being in a body, it's really not a given. Trying to get a clear sense of your body is difficult. It's a deep practice to be able to experience the nuances of sensation.

Our brain has whole series and layers of body maps. You use different maps at different times- skiing vs. sitting on the sofa for example. I have different ways of representing my body to myself.

A body schema is a sort of default map and that governs reflexes. and people have a limited view in these schemas of their bodies.

What does the word "dissociation" mean in relationship to the body? It is a word in some ways owned by psychotherapy. In cranial work we use it in a looser sense as a loss of relationship to the body. And it's a whole spectrum of things.

The sense of being outside of our body is a common theme actually. Or maybe people can't get a sense of the size and shape of their feet, or feel their belly. The belly commonly is a hollow, empty area that they can't feel really.

I mention that it's like the song "You Don't Know What You've Got Til It's Gone" but its inverse: "You Don't Know What Was Gone Til You've Got It Back". It's kind of an unknown unknown.

People don't know that there is this much richer experience of the body. It's really not a given.

People with pain commonly have more of this dissociation. Dissociation comes first likely due to the responses to being overwhelmed.

Dissociation is a last ditch survival strategy, and often the root cause of more pain.

Your brain is expecting you to have a body, so if we're beginning to cut ourselves off from that, if we're flooding bits of the spinal cord with endorphins to limit the incoming signals, then you've got a big absence. And the absence of something when your brain is expecting it to be there is a threat. It may be that we fill that absence with pain to say, "Do something about this."

Study on back pain counting receptors in fascia in the back on people with chronic back pain and the expectation was that they would find heightened activity or more activity in the slow receptors, and what they actually found was this paradox of people experiencing more pain who were receiving less information from the tissues.

Phantom limb pain tells us so much about how our brain works. After amputation 63% of people still experience themselves as having a limb, and usually it's painful. It's something the brain is expecting to be be there and is not there.

Proprioception is when you hold your arms out, close your eyes, and you can touch your nose. If you just hold your arm out and close your eyes, how do you know you have an arm? The internal subjective experience of an arm: that's interoception. It generally goes along slower pathways.

Interoception connects differently in the brain, it's much more associated with consciousness. Interstitial receptors carry far more information than for proprioception. Robert Schleip says 7 to 1 (in resources).

There are two big sources of interoceptive information: fascia and the vagal nerve.

What's the important information that the brain uses to let us know that we have a body? The fascia, the flow of information from your guts and your hearts and around oxygen control and the sense of metabolic activity in the body- and most of that is vagal. It's a huge source of information about your sense of self.

People who have high vagal tone are seen as happier and more trustworthy. They are the people who you would move towards in a social situation. So when your vagus is firing you love, you trust, you feel yourself being happier.

How does one have problems with vagal tone, or have low vagal tone? Trauma or anything that overwhelms- too much stimulation. Stephen Porges is an amazing theorist around seeking safety- it's his Polyvagal Theory (in resources). We're constantly scanning the environment for danger, and it often is an unconscious process.

Safety is the most important thing your brain is negotiating. If there's threat in the environment we go into fight or flight, and if that isn't successful we immobilize or dissociate.

As therapists we can mimic what creates safety as a mother would to a baby. There's great research around slow gentle touch activating interoceptive fibers in fascia.

I really believe that you don't change pain by giving pain. You can engage those deep receptors by slow gentle touch. We really don't need to use the deep stuff. I'm not saying it doesn't' work, but I am saying you can have an enormous change in physiology with gentle stroking to trigger that quality.

A simple movement practice to enhance vagal tone: when we're stressed we're checking our environment you have lots of activity in the neck muscles, the eyes are darting- there is a big surge of activity in the head. And your big flexors muscles are getting activated.

The opposite of that might be coming into the extensors, firing the back of the body. When we do that our throat is open, our heart is open, our belly is exposed. This can allow parasympathetic tone to be present.

And the counter-action to all this movement up in the head is to feel their feet and find their feet. I sometimes think what I do should be "feel your feet therapy". But switching on a downward firing coming into the ground you switch off all the business in the head.

Steve talks about your skin as this boundary between the inside and outside. Steve says he likes to have people even imagine walking in soft grass or imagining walking barefoot in a variety of environments. And he likes having people get their softest and fluffiest towel and really luxuriate in getting the receptors activated.

Steve is currently playing with: Trying to find ways to create safety and stimulate the vagus. It's quite hard to touch people's throats. I've enjoyed finding soft ways to tune into the carotid sheath. Often one feels radically different than the other. There's an awful lot of things you might be influencing by touching into that throat area. That might be feeding the vagal nerve and getting some good tone.

Home play!

I like Steve's very practical exercise for stimulating vagal tone by activating the extensors of the body. There are a number of ways you can do this, from simply lying on the ground and pressing your back body into that surface, or stretching and reaching, or my current favorite way of swinging and hanging on monkey bars. (I'm working on it!)


Cranial Intelligence the site

Cranial Intelligence the book

Body Intelligence

Summary of papers from the second Fascia Research Congress. I'm not sure if any of these include the study Steve Haines was referring to when he talked about people with chronic back pain actually having fewer receptors, but several of these studies talk about that.

Robert Schleip: Fascial Mechanoreceptors and their Potential Role in Deep Tissue Manipulation

Stephen Porges: The Polyvagal Perspective

Steve Haines: Vagus, Baby, Vagus! 

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Judith Hanson Lasater: The Power of Restoration (LBP 014)


Judith Hanson Lasater talks about being one of BKS Iyengar’s first students and, especially in light of his recent passing, some of his teachings that have stayed with her the most through the years. We discuss why she has become one of Restorative Yoga’s biggest proponents, what her take is on the explosion of yoga today and how it differs from the yoga she first studied, the how and the why of anger, anxiety, and depression being our most pervasive cultural issues, and, last but not least, why we all need to stop tucking our tailbones!




Show notes

Why Judith values Restorative yoga so highly- it's a practice of poses centered around resting. She became interested from what she learned from her teacher BKS Iyengar when her twin brother died at a young age and she found she couldn't do her normal sun salutation type practice- she needed to be still and to rest.

It has also become increasingly common that people simply do not understand nor have the ability to lie down on the floor and rest. We are agitated. That trend has gotten exacerbated incredibly over the last 5 to 7 years.

What is Restorative Yoga and why is that not a redundant term? It is the use of props to support the body in positions of comfort and ease to facilitate health and relaxation.

The feedback she hears on the effect this practice is having: it is stunning what the effects are. Everyone apparently has anxiety and insomnia. And this is being relieved. She read a history of a young girl who is ADD and on the drug Ritalin and she had never slept through the night. After a few sessions this young girl who couldn't lie still for 5 seconds could lie still for 20 minutes, and then she started sleeping through the night for the first time in her life.

This is a tool that has nothing but good side effects. This is going to change her [the girl with ADD] socially and emotionally, educationally and personally. She is finding herself.

Three things that Judith finds pervasive in our society: anxiety, anger, and depression. She believes that a lot of that stems from the fact that we completely reject the reality of loss. We are an under-grieved society and that comes from our fear of our feelings.

We all experience loss in tiny ways every day. And when people have a loss in their lives we try to fix that and say, "Don't be sad. Here take this drug, or let's go for a run..." depression follows from that. Depression is anger without enthusiasm. Depression is not feeling sad. People who can feel sadness are deeply alive. Because it's an intense feeling that balances joy.

There is something spiritually profound about being still and watching your mind.

Most of our unhappiness is not created by what happens to us but by what we tell ourselves about it. With Restorative you create a space to watch the rising and falling of thoughts. And then the most important thing we can do can happen- we can dis-identify with our thoughts, "I am having a thought of anger, a thought of sadness, but it's not who I am."

We distract ourselves with entertainment. We pay people in our culture the most amount of money who can distract us the best.

20 minutes a day to notice the thoughts that never end. The chatter that never ceases. And slowly over time we have space between our thoughts and our reaction or the words we choose.

Lying on the floor and letting go, everyday for 20 minutes, is life-changing.

Don't believe everything you think. It's just neurotransmitters locking into receptor sites. We have to not just think that thought, we have to do it. We have to embody it. So what we do in Restorative Yoga is we manipulate our nervous system, by putting ourselves in positions which make it go into parasympathetic dominance.

You watch television commercials and they are all about indigestion, digestive issues, anxiety, depression- and a lot of this stuff can go away if you manipulate your nervous system into this quiet state. It has physiological benefits. It's not all woo woo. It has profound benefits and it's so simple that people discount it.

She was listening to an NPR show where they were interviewing a man who wrote a book about how to get more done even though you're tired. You don't say that about thirst! You don't say you're really thirsty but you can't drink water until 10:30 at night because we don't have any moral idea about being thirsty. But if you're tired, maybe you need to just rest. Instead they go to Starbucks and get sugar and caffeine. And then they feel worse- it's a downward spiral.

Judith has a Spanish proverb hanging in her house that says, "How beautiful to do nothing and then rest afterwards." And we need a little bit of that in our culture.

My kids when they were high school age would say, "Mom you're acting like a brat, go upstairs and savas yourself." They turned savasana into a verb and if I did that I was a lot nicer to be around!

BKS Iyengar was an unusual teacher in many ways- he took an approach that was radical in India. He took an approach that was integral. There was a man in an early class I took with him who was wearing a turban and flowing robes and Mr.Iyengar said to him, "Do you want to know God? You don't even know your foot!" To him it was an embodiment of the teaching of the sutras. He'd say, "Practice your own religion" He wanted you to find wholeness in the moment, to create a habit of paying attention to your embodiment of the divine.

God is looking for you. Just listen. He was very much about that.

He was a questioner and he was always creating and adapting and integrating his life. He wanted to integrate this practice in the world.

He once did all the poses in his seminal work Light on Yoga at the UN. It took him over 3 hours.

He took the Hinduism out of yoga and left the practice.

He also had the most amazing sense of humor. One day I [Judith] was practicing and he had these amazing eyebrows and he looked at us and said, "God gave me these eyebrows to terrify you." and I don't know where I got the courage to say this but I said, "It's working!" and he laughed and I laughed in relief.

What he taught Judith was how to approach the practice. Not what is right, but what effect do I get when I try different things in the poses?

Probably the biggest thing Judith got from him was to live fiercely. He modeled that.

How does the current explosion of yoga differ from what she was learning in the early days? When we take something out of a culture- especially one like India that is so different from ours- and we transplant it's going to take on the trappings of the culture. We are in the process of creating an American yoga.

There's also a downside to that. When I started yoga it was a way to step out of my culture. It wasn't fast and furious, it was: "do a pose and lie down". But now we practice yoga the way we live, so it's not the antidote to our cultural problems. We're doing more of what we do all day long. We need something that is slower, that is paying attention.

All yoga has a place for different people at different times in their lives, but what I feel sad about is that there is not enough emphasis put on being, it's all about doing. And that's what our culture does! Our culture does not actively teach us that being is ok.

On becoming a physical therapist: She realized that she didn't know enough about the body to teach the way she was. So she woke up one day and told her husband that she wanted to become a physical therapist.

She went to PT school for the reason of being a better yoga teacher. She also did a PhD in East West Psychology. Both have been invaluable- she teaches teachers anatomy and kinesiology and wrote a book about it (in resources). It let's her do what she does more effectively.

Her Stop Tucking the Tailbone workshop and why she teaches it: the spine is like a river, it has curves. It's structure is such that it is most stable and it is most congruent when you are in those curves. Straight lines are intellectual concepts, there are no straight lines in the body.

Our culture is a sitting culture. In cultures where you carry on the head, you cannot do that if you tuck your tailbone. People are in lumbar flexion habitually. Then they come to yoga and they are told by many people to tuck their tailbone, or to flatten their lower back. If someone tells you to lengthen your tailbone, you tuck.

It is also philosophical to me that yoga is not about changing people. I want people to come back to what the natural body does.

When you stand with a normal lumbar curve, the viscera or organs.Jean Pierre Barral (in resources) has a theory about a visceral column and spinal column and they support one another. When we tuck the tailbone the organs fall down onto the prostate, the bladder, and the uterus which I think contributes to prolapse for women, and I have a theory that it affects prostate issues as well.

The cell membrane is the brain of the cell in many ways, and I believe when we deform that we open the body up to disease.

There are so many reasons that we need to stand in our normal curves. I cannot tell you how many people say it felt weird at first and then they come back with, "My sacroiliac joint hasn't' hurt for the first time in years, I'm not constipated for the first time in years!"

This work is not just anatomical to me [Judith], it's an expression of all of who we are.

Judith is thinking about non-violent communication founded by Marshall Rosenberg, and she wrote a book on it as well titled What We Say Matters. One of the main parts of that technique is understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy. I'm interested in what it means not just to give emapthy to others, but also how to give empathy to yourself. The deep and profound willingness to accept your humanness.

"How human of me." is a mantra she says to herself all the time. She is currently developing a workshop called Embodying Empathy- what would it feel like to practice with the intention of being deeply rooted in empathy for the self?

Judith very kindly offers me an appreciation and if I sound pretty quiet afterwards it's because I was choked up : )

Margaret Mead said, "Don't forget you're special, just like everyone else."

May we live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.

Home play!

Ready... set... let's rest! Whether it's for one day, once per day for this whole week, or something you want to integrate into your life more ongoing, let's try resting in a supported pose for 20 minutes. At the moment in the Liberated Body 30-Day Challenge (currently closed to new folks)  we are doing daily Constructive Rest. Here's a moldy oldy video of me demonstrating that (Soma Happy is my private practice name in case you were wondering...). Alternatively, grab Judith's book Relax and Renewand choose a favorite restorative pose for the day. Go for it. Don't discount it. It is powerful.


Judith Hanson Lasater's site including links to her books, workshops, and trainings

Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar

Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana by Judith Hanson Lasater

Barral Institute for Visceral Manipulation

Center for Non-Violent Communication

What We Say Matters by Judith Hanson Lasater

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