Every week or so I will be witness to phenomenon in sessions with my clients that defies everything that I have learned, in regards to how the body should function. It is times like this that I now abandon traditional answers of the relationships between muscle/postural function, etc. Most of the plausible explanations for what I see can only be found in neuroscience. Unfortunately, the gaps between the physiological rehabilitation of the body, and that of the neurological and psychological have become increasingly split in traditional practice.
When I look at a poorly firing muscle, I identify the specific sequencing behind it and address it with individualized programming. This is successful, and does address imbalances caused in the physical. But how often are we questioning if our extremely poor breathing habits altered our central nervous system response to stimulus, and therefore these poorly firing systems are partly an end result of an overstressed/amplified central nervous system? We look to answer the musculoskeletal issues, but we ignore the neurological and psychological systems that are intricately intertwined. The more deeply I look for answers, the more I am led to the doorstep of trying to understand the brain, and how the brain learns and adapts to certain stimuli. While my work is still deeply entrenched in the reprogramming of specific musculature, it is increasingly led in the direction of rebalancing the central nervous system as well. Several of my recent clients have had incredible breakthroughs when they were able to address a chronically short inhale. Not just physiologically, but personal breakthroughs in multiple areas of their personal lives. The picture below shows an intro to The Polyvagal Theory, which is important to understand as we move forward. There is plenty of information online about it, and I urge you to research it and the work of Dr. Stephen Hodges in regards to the Safe and Sound Principle. It can most certainly shift your perspective on your own life.
I pose a question. We are told to breathe deeply and through the belly and that will relax us and lead us to stimulating the vagus nerve (1), and therefore into more of a parasympathetic response. So we are communicating to our central nervous system via our breath that it is safe, and that the fight/flight response can shut off. So we lay down, we breathe, and we feel better. We alter our breathing patterns for 5-10 short minutes and our central nervous system tones down. Upon standing, we immediately leave this pattern and resume whatever was normal to us the moment before. Your brain will always resume the “main pattern” when there is a slight aberration to what is normal or patterned to it. What was the point of the exercise? How can the brain learn that it is indeed safe to shut off these alarm systems of the CNS (central nervous system) if it is not the main pattern of your breathing? The short answer? It can’t. The way you breathe right now, is the way you mostly breathe all the time. Under stress and duress, your breathing will even become worse than it is right now. The shorter and more shallow the breath, the closer you are to a fight/flight pattern. Breathing is a pattern. Any pattern can be changed with awareness, intention, and practice. But even if that pattern is changed, does the old pattern still exist somewhere in the brain? Does a part of the brain save patterns and their emotional/physiological associations? What happens if these save states of the brain are triggered? What if breathing could be linked to trauma, and even attempting to shift breathing could cause a reaction in the physiological state from the CNS?
I was working with a client a few weeks ago that had undergone a tremendous physical transformation. She had been told early on in life that there was nothing anyone could do for her spine and that she would need to live with pain/poor function. She had always lived with intense physical pain, so much so that it restricted her from exercise. She came in with inches of extension in her low back. We reprogrammed everything from her hips/glutes, to her entire abdominal/oblique system (which was neurologically connected to the muscles of her low back). Her posture became remarkably different. We worked on resetting muscles of the flexors of the forearms to address her arm pain. We worked on resetting the biceps to shut off over-firing/compensating deltoids. We worked to transform her gait, her feet, and the ground sense she felt from the foot to the hip. The main compensation she came in with had to do with her quadricep muscles. Being a truly naturally athletic young woman, her quads had somehow loaded to offset her other poorly firing muscular systems (More on this in future articles). Because of this, it had created multiple instabilities, leading to a very similar picture to what you see below.
When we addressed all of these systems, the quads finally were able to turn off/stop guarding and her legs/knees stopped hurting as well.
She came in the other day completely without pain, and feeling consistently strong and stable in her body for the first time in her life (So she told me). She was doing full workouts, bridges, planks, etc with zero pain. When we worked on testing the quads we learned that she had no conscious control over the muscles. As we worked on resetting and re-educating firing patterns of the quadriceps muscles, she was able to start firing them consciously. When we loaded the muscles however with a longer held contraction, there was a very strange phenomenon. The quads went into a spastic state on the right side (the main side of compensation) and would not release. Very quickly the client told me that her back began to hurt as well. When I checked her level of extension, it had remarkably returned. When I checked the state of her abdominals and obliques, we learned that they had completely shut off (had lost all muscle tone). Her connection/activation to her abdominals and obliques had been replaced by the old connectivity through her back. The glutes had shut off as well and were resistant to being activated. The only muscle that easily activated, and refused to de-activate, was the quads. Her breathing became extremely uneven as she started to enter a zone close to a panic attack.
We systematically went through the last 4 months of programming (Sessions that took her entire hours to learn) in 10 minutes. She was able to deactivate every overactive muscular system and get out of extension as well. Her brain still had all of the programming we had worked on, but it had somehow been overwritten via the trigger/trauma. Her breathing had shifted strongly as well, so strongly that it took us about 30 minutes itself just to revert it back to where it was in the beginning of the session. She had worked on her breathing tirelessly before, but somehow she felt as if she could not control it now. It took around 30 minutes of very careful coaching/guidance before she was able to tell me she felt neutral again.
So what happened? It is my belief that a “save state” was triggered, and her brain reverted to an earlier state of physiological, and neurological programming. We were able to quickly undo and rewrite these systems with all of the work we had done in the past, but it was traumatic and difficult for the client to go through. She told me that it was “scary”, and that she felt remarkably unsafe when she lost control of her quadriceps muscles. I have seen this type of phenomenon multiple times. It never ceases to amaze me.
When I was working on my own body, I found an incredibly strong associative pattern between my left abdominal area and my left SI joint. When I tried to stiffen this area, I could feel a strong pull on my SI joint. I had this pain for many years in this SI area, and was my main location of injury/trauma after the car accident. The abdominal area in question was only about one inch wide, the size of a quarter. The deeper I pushed into this area even when not flexing, the more I could “feel” the low back and the left SI joint. It started to pulse painfully. I realized I was starting to panic when I started to become lightheaded. My breathing had shifted. I had entered into a place where I did not feel safe, and I was strongly aware of the desire to stop pushing into this area. Using programming that would be the centerpiece for my future work on de-sensitization, I was able to completely break the association between the two areas. I spent about 30 minutes on the floor reprogramming it before it felt clear and stopped pulsing into the low back and SI joint. When I was done, I could stiffen the left abdominal area and my SI joint felt completely stable. The low back had completely shut off. I would repeat this process every day for a few weeks, and always at the beginning of the work feel the SI joint a small amount. The more I did it, the less I felt. One day I could no longer find the association. To this day it is gone, and all small occasional SI joint sensations I once had since the car accident have been eliminated.
There are many other areas our lives where we witness strong neurological associations to patterns. When an ex-smoker becomes stressed, they often crave a cigarette. When an ex-drug addict runs into family issues, they often turn to drugs. When someone who has used food to cope with life’s hardships runs into stress, they often resort to eating to comfort themselves. The brain creates extremely strong associations with whatever you have done to consistently soothe yourself. Understand that all of these people are simply looking for ways to calm their overactive central nervous system. They do not understand why they crave the things that they do, but that they simply do. Without awareness, we are powerless to shift these associations and patterns. Without awareness, we will never even know they existed in the first place. So if my client’s body/brain had used the quadriceps muscles to protect her, and guard her, there would be an extremely strong association in regards to the activation of that muscle and her safety. I believe that when the muscle was consciously activated in our session to the point of load, the message to the brain was clear. You are unsafe.
Her patterns were consistent with that concept. The moment her quad calmed back down, she started feeling safe again. This is a neurological association to a physiological trigger. This example is not an outlier. It is simply the way our brain/central nervous system operates. In the guarding/over-activation pattern of the quad, her brain reset multiple physiological patterns to a previous state of when she used to feel unsafe, undoing months of work (briefly before we could reset it) in the process. Did this occur only because of the quad, or did it occur because the breathing shifted after she felt unsafe because of the quad? Impossible to say. I venture to say it was a combination of the two.
Ultimately the most important thing is that we were able to reset her back to neutral in a very short time. This shows that while the brain may reboot to a previous state, it does not wipe information. It only fires an old neurological pathway. As long as we have the correct pathways to jump back into via the practice, awareness, and repetition that we have done, we can feel secure and safe working on addressing these types of issues. I will be revisiting the quad in future sessions with this client, and systematically de-sensitizing the trigger until there is no trigger to be found. How? The brain must be made aware that the activation of the quad is now safe, and the association reprogrammed. I have successfully done this exact thing with other physiological triggers of other clients, including the low back. This is completely new work, and I look forward to sharing it with you. The brain is truly remarkable. We are still only scratching the surface of its potential.
- Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859128/