Welcome to Week One

Understanding the States of the ANS and the Vagal Brake

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(To listen to the audio recording of this introduction click here.) 

We're getting started with the meat of our program now. To prepare for this first live session you can listen to 25-minute section of Deb’s interview where she describes three different states of our autonomic nervous system.  You’re always welcome to ask any questions, and respect that your understanding about these states will get clearer with time.

In her interview, Deb explains the anatomy of the vagus nerve and its location, and both states of the parasympathetic branch and the sympathetic branch of the fight or flight response. These three states make up our autonomic nervous system.

It helps to recognize that our nervous system is rhythmic, designed to flow from one state to another. When we face challenging situations without the support we need, our nervous system can become rigidly patterned in response. The really good news is that we can turn toward our patterns with kindness and care and reshape our nervous system with skillful practice, patience and support.

In Deb's article, The Beginner's Guide to Polyvagal Theory, she describes the three states of the autonomic nervous system and the hierarchical perspective of how they interact with each other. It’s fascinating. Understanding this experientially, is truly transformative. It's worth becoming curious about how these ideas relate to you in your life. We’ll explore this as our course unfolds. This learning will continue beyond this course.

Here’s a brief overview of the ANS

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) has three states and two branches. It functions to give us life and keep us safe.

The fight or flight response, our sympathetic nervous system, is one branch of our autonomic nervous system. When we experience danger whether perceived or present, our system mobilizes and pumps adrenaline, so that we can getaway fast or stand our ground.

Yet sometimes this response of fight or flight isn’t successful. In those situations, our autonomic nervous system automatically shifts into the dorsal vagal immobilization response. This is the most primitive response of our nervous system. An example of this response is found in many species of lizards that become completely immobilized as a defense. They “freeze” to blend in and appear invisible. Some functions shut down as protection. For example, their breathing slows way down.

In human experience we can relate to this state by reflecting on times when we feel we’ve shut down inside, maybe because we didn't feel appreciated by someone we cared about. Or maybe we rallied when we perceived danger, like facing a chronic illness, but couldn’t make a difference in the outcome.

A key to understanding why our nervous system responds this way, is recognizing that these states are attempts of our nervous system to protect us, keep us safe, give us a way to survive. These responses are common to all of us. Becoming self-aware, starting to Notice and Name, a practice Deb shares, is how we begin to reshape our system.

When not in a protective response, the sympathetic branch is involved in maintaining vital aspects of homeostasis, for example heartbeat and breathing. When not in a protective response, the dorsal vagal branch is involved in experiences of deep stillness and it supports good digestive functioning.

Our human/mammalian nervous system evolved the need to be safely connected.  This is the ventral vagal state. It is at the other end of the vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of the bonding between an attentive mother and her baby. Her warmth, soothing considerate touch, the sound of her voice, and her gaze all communicate that she is a safe presence that the baby can trust.

The ventral vagal state contributes to the optimal functioning of the other two states. This process might be described as blending states. For example, when the ventral vagal state, the feeling of knowing that you are safe and connected, blends with the sympathetic state of perceiving danger, you can experience energy to take action without being overwhelmed by worry or anger.

This is the vagal brake, slowing down the sympathetic response before it manifests in its extreme protective fight or flight survival response.

When the ventral vagal state of feeling safely connected blends with the dorsal vagal immobilization response, it gives us the experience of being safely still. You’ll explore this in the yoga practices of relaxation. This is the vagal brake, allowing us to reorient before shifting into protective defensive immobilization.

We tone our nervous system’s responses to become more flexible by gently practicing moving out of our familiar rhythms and explore the safety that comes with connection.

As you practice, enter into your practices with this new understanding and begin to get curious about how your system is responding, what those signals might be that you’re getting from your body. Take a few minutes to journal about your experiences. The mapping exercise that you’ll learn about in Week Two, can be really useful and interesting to begin to notice and track the shifts of your nervous system.

@2018, Charlotte Nuessle


Preparation, Daily Practice and Reflection

I. Preparation for our Session

Watch Deb’s Interview, from 8:15 - 27:00.

  • If you have any questions about how to access this part of the video, reach out.
  • If you have time, listen again. Consider how each state has something to offer.


II. Daily Practices: (4x this week)

1. Practice first 5 minutes (or all) of Getting Out of the Box! A Practice to Warm Up Your Fascia and Extend the Exhale (video)

2. Before and After Practice: Breath and Oxytocin Release 

Homework: (1x)

Listen to Feeling Strength on Your Healing Journey (audio).  Mini-Journal (2 mins) re: your body’s experience

Optional: Watch this short video of Dacher Kelter, Ph.D., talk about the Vagal Nerve. Click his name for the You Tube link.


III. Readings and Reflection Questions

Read: Steady and Relaxed; Fascia and our Nervous System

Share reflections with your partner. Discuss:

  • How might you benefit to create more spaciousness, more acceptance around what each state has to offer in your daily life?

  • Describe one or two of your ANS states in a few sentences. Do your best, make mistakes, go for it. This is about learning, about practice. Let go of getting it right, as part of your practice.





@2018, Charlotte Nuessle

Before and After Practice: Breath + Oxytocin Release


Before - Tune in and Mini-Journal (1 mins.)

  • Tune in,  quick check in. How's your body? Any places of tension? Rumblings?

  • How's your breathing? Smooth and flowing? Or shallow?

  • Notice any sensations.

  • Mini-Journal: Jot down one or two words, a phrase - or a few sentences.


Practice Ujjayi Breath/Oxytocin Release - alternate

  1. Ex: Day One: Take 1 minute for full, relaxed breathing, about 6 or 8 deeper than normal breaths. (ujjayi)

  2. Day Two: Practice Oxytocin Release for 1+ minute. (See below)

  3. Option: Blend these practices together.


After - Tune in and mini-Journal

  • Tune in again to your inner world.

  • Become aware of any shifts you perceived from your practice.

  • Mini-Journal again: jot down words, phrases or a few sentences.


Bring this practice ALIVE (neuroception) 

  • Choose several times to pause for about two minutes. Maybe link this with something you already do - before mealtime, or driving. 

  • It’s optional to journal OR simply observe BEFORE AND AFTER sensations as they shift inside.

  • Take in the good feeling of the shifts that come with 1 minute of conscious practice. Let them linger.


@ 2018, Charlotte Nuessle

Oxytocin Release Practice


This is adapted from the book Bouncing Back, by Linda Graham, MFT.

The hormone oxytocin, is the neurotransmitter of a calm and connect response and it's the brain’s most direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone, cortisol.

The fastest way to regulate the body’s stress response and return to a sense of calm is to activate the release of oxytocin in the brain.

Begin by placing your own hand on your heart.

Feel the warmth of your own touch.

Alternately you could place your hand on the side of your face, side of your neck, or your arm. Anywhere that feels soothing. Gentle touch is part of the social engagement system of the ventral vagal state.

Breathe gently and deeply. Relaxed, attentive breathing has been shown to shift the autonomic nervous system toward the ventral vagal state.

Whether your hand is on your heart or some other area of your body, breathe and take in the caring of your own touch, taking in a sense of calm, peace, goodness and safety. This simple practice focuses and strengthen attention.

Breathe in a sense of contentment and well-being, kindness for yourself, gratitude for others, self- care and self-love. Experience being safely connected, ventral vagal state

You can place your hand on your heart whenever you need to, if you hear bad news on the phone, or you're about to open up an envelope from the IRS, if you're stuck in traffic, or just realized you left your keys at the office.

Practice bringing this exercise into your daily life and just notice what happens.

@2018, Charlotte Nuessle

Steady and Relaxed

Creating Space Inside: Sthira and Sukha


Classic yogic philosophy was passed down in an oral tradition. Teachings were given in a pithy form, one or two lines at most, in sutra form. Sutras are intentionally short so that they could be memorized.

Training in the ancient yogic tradition meant developing an ability to listen closely to hear the words of the sutras, and repeat them carefully. The Vedic language of India conveys meaning in how the words are pronounced. Listening asks us to be present.

As a sutra was taught its meaning was also explained. In learning to memorize it, one practiced the meaning along with the pronunciation. Profound teachings were studied in this way. The practitioner soaked up a bit of the wisdom teaching each time it was recited.

Sutra II:46


“Briefly, the posture is to be firmly established in a happy space.”

- Bernard Bouanchaud

Yoga practice involves the body and yet influences every level of our human experience: physical, mental, emotional, physiological, spiritual. In this sutra, the word posture is a symbol.

We experience our whole life through form. The body understandably factors into practice, as the base, the structure, the place where we practice.

For example, when we feel unwell it is very difficult to have a clear mind. Our thoughts inevitably are drawn to the body’s experience, the sensations.

On the other hand, when the body is steady and relaxed, as this sutra suggests, it becomes a stable base for subtler integration of mind and body.

Contemporary Teachings

Leslie Kaminoff discussed this sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as it relates to our yoga, our life experience.

Sthira = We need enough stability to function.

Sukha = We need enough relaxation to restore.

Gary Kraftsow refers to this concept as a very practical guide to our yoga practice, in all its forms even and eventually especially, “off the yoga mat.”

Our structure performs best when there is enough support in our joints for healthy movement. This means we have enough stability in our tissues to engage in activity, yet enough flexibility to move. When we experience a combination of stability and flexibility there is more effortlessness in movement. We might feel lighter, more carried by inner strength rather than just by effort alone.

There are various conditions that affect our body’s ability to move freely, separate from these basic notions. For example, if someone has had surgery to stabilize the spine, there will be restriction of spinal movement, post-surgery. If someone has a condition like rheumatoid arthritis, the physiological component inhibits freedom of movement in the joints.

Our yoga practice or any kind of practice, exercise, movement, needs to be informed by and aim to address the specific needs of our body. We want to achieve a balance of being steady and relaxed given our unique circumstances.

For Our Purposes

This is an excellent reflection for any kind of physical practice, in other words, anything we do with an intention to become more self-aware.

  • Is the amount of effort we are engaging, balanced with an ease?
  • Are we forcing to achieve some goal and losing sight of our body’s signals in the present moment?
  • Is it more natural to experience relaxation or to exert effort? How can we bring balance to these qualities in daily life?
  • After we complete a practice do we feel a little lighter, freer inside?

This is eventually the direction we point toward. We might not feel brighter right away and that’s okay, for example, when we are managing a chronic condition.

We want to avoid aggravating any areas of concern. We do not want to harm the body.

Forms of Yogic Practice We’ll Explore

We’ll explore tools of the yoga tradition that have the capacity to shift our nervous system. Each of these tools is meant to be practiced in a way that does no harm to your body/mind/being. In a therapeutic sense and in a classic sense, each of these tools are correlated with this sutra, the capacity to experience a relaxed, attentive state as we practice them.

Movement        Asana

Relaxation        Savasana

Breath              Pranayama

Self-Study        Svadhyaya

Sound              Mantra

Meditation        Dharana (Concentration), and Dhyana (Deeper Meditation)


Please reach out if you have any questions.





@ 2018, Charlotte Nuessle

Fascia and Our Nervous System 


Tom Myers, (click on his name to read an article he wrote about fascia) gave a talk about how our brain/nervous system really pays attention to what’s happening in the space between our cells, in the fascia, the tiny interstitial spaces. These spaces are where nerve endings are woven into our connective tissue, fascia. Here are some understandings I gained from that talk.

So much happens in the fascia that Tom Myers is using a new phrase to describe it: Biomechanical Regulatory System. Keeping this network fluid keeps the communication systems flexible.

Twice as many

To give an idea about how much information our brain gets from our nerve endings: there are about twice as many signals coming to the brain from our nerve endings as from our sense of taste or our visual sense.

Think about how we are always responding to our taste buds - going for those tastes we enjoy (some kind of sweet taste attracts many of us) and avoiding (at least for me) castor oil.

Our brain gets twice as many signals from these nerve endings that are lead us into movement.

Six to ten times as many

Think about how much “sensation” or how much we feel in a stretch as muscle tone changes.

Muscle spindles communicate how a muscle stretches. For example, the hamstrings goes through a series of changing experiences: initially experiencing tightness, perhaps after exploring gentle warm ups the muscle releases some tightness, then we hold a stretch and feel the muscle lengthen, give up some of the tightness.

Our nerve endings communicate as much as 6 - 10 times as much information as the muscle spindles.


This is new territory for me and what follows is artistic license!

Consider how our bodies are engineered to move. We can begin to respect the volume of messages coming back from nerve endings in fascia to the brain. And how our brain and various pathways of our nervous systems are wired to instantly communicate through our nerves to muscles.

Perhaps this points to a new way we can embody movement. We can recognize that below the level of our conscious thought or control, our brain is listening very closely to input about what’s happening out there in the periphery, on the frontier so to speak. Out at the ends of our nerves.

Our brain is ready to shift into action, signalling movement to begin.

Embracing this built in intelligence in our body with awareness lets us tap into a direct means of communicating with our brain/nervous system.

Imagine how our brain/nervous system are registering so many cues. As we begin a practice we can acknowledge our body’s intelligence. Our practice can then nourish us at a subtler level, those things we value deeply like self-awareness, self-caring, kindness.

Our nervous system, above all else is seeking safety and to feel welcome. Let’s invite this awareness into how we move, breathe and reflect.



@2018, Charlotte Nuessle

Additional Resources




Week One

Main Practices + Bonuses


Getting Out of the Box! A Practice to Warm Up Your Fascia and Extend the Exhale



Tuning In - Feeling Strength on Your Healing Journey

This practice gently tunes you into how to engage your core, through directing your exhalation intentionally.


Warm Welcome to our Practice Group


Singing, Take One


One Way to Sing About Kindness