By Anne Bishop and Chantill Lopez
How Breath, Movement, and Awareness is the Connection for a Resilient Nervous System
“We can learn to regulate our nervous system through practices such as mindfulness, breathwork, and movement.” (Dana, 2018, p. 5) Although this is not the description of Pilates the overlap between Polyvagal Theory (PVT) and Pilates is not to be overlooked.
The exclamation from your clients saying they feel so “relaxed or energized” after Pilates isn’t just because they did leg circles on the reformer. Or if you see them yawn or sigh during their session it’s not just because they’re tired, it’s because they feel connected to you. These behaviors aren’t just stemming from muscular effort or the magic of Pilates, it’s signs that their nervous system is responding to you and the Pilates you are teaching them.
A Little Bit of Polyvagal History and Science
The PVT is a new understanding of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that has profound implications for health and well-being. The ANS is responsible for regulating involuntary functions, such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion. It also plays a key role in our emotional responses.
The PVT was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Porges’ research has shown that the ANS is divided into three branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the dorsal vagal complex (DVC). The SNS is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response, while the PNS is responsible for the “rest-and-digest” response (2011, Porges). For many years people thought that these were the two primary functions of the ANS. The DVC is responsible for the “freeze” response which is expressed as feigning in fawning.
Nervous systems can be defined as dysregulated or regulated according to PVT.
- A dysregulated state means that you cannot transition well between fight or flight, feign or fawn or rest and digest. You end up getting “stuck” in one of these states.
- A regulated nervous system is one that can move between nervous system states without getting trapped in one. For example not getting stuck in fawning or feigning by becoming “shut down” from overwhelm. Or not getting stuck in a low-grade fight or flight.
Just like the physiology of our heart health, we want our nervous system to rev up when necessary but we also want it to calm down quickly.
Co-regulation is another major concept within the PVT. It’s the idea that 2 nervous systems interact with each other. In fact, one cannot learn to self-regulate until we experience co-regulation. This is often first seen in infant care with a mother calming aka co-regulating her child.
The reality is we’re already co-regulating with our clients
If there’s one thing we want you to take away from this article is that you’re already co-regulating with everyone all the time. But you’re likely doing it with little consciousness or awareness. After a day of working deeply with clients and navigating their ups and downs both physically and energetically, a teacher can feel exhausted. This is because your own nervous system is getting taxed with all the co-regulation. We’ve all had clients who treat Pilates as therapy as either a form of physical, social, or emotional connection, meanwhile, we’re trained in the body. This lack of boundaries, from clients who don’t stay in their lane and ask for support beyond the scope of Pilates can overstress your nervous system and isn’t fair to Pilates teachers.
And yet good, no phenomenal teaching, is when you, the Pilates teacher lean into your intuition and voila something amazing happens beneath the surface of your conscious awareness. Your clients wonder how the heck you knew to give that cue, provide that stretch or give that combination. The reality is that your nervous system beneath your conscious awareness knew exactly what it was doing. It was co-regulating with that client to give them exactly what they needed at exactly the right time. You provided glimmers of focus, flow, and play while your client was challenged and simultaneously feeling safe to take risks. Phew! So if you are providing these experiences for your clients or have experienced these experiences with a Pilates teacher, your nervous systems are co-regulating in sync.
Benefits of a resilient nervous system
The benefits of a resilient nervous system are rather similar to the benefits of Pilates.
These benefits include:
- Increased self-awareness
- Improved emotional regulation
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Enhanced social connection
- Increased resilience
- Improved physical health
Most Pilates practitioners and or teachers are practicing Pilates for some of the same benefits that PVT provides. Therefore adding PVT practices into Pilates in addition to the framework of healthy co-regulation can support your students in getting the best results possible.
PVT applications within your Pilates practice
There are four major avenues to apply PVT practices to Pilates either in person, in groups, or online with pre-recorded or live-streaming options. You can also share audio recordings or pamphlets or other educational material.
- Diaphragmatic breathing involves slow, deep breaths that use the diaphragm, the main muscle involved in breathing. This type of breathing can help to calm the nervous system and promote relaxation. You could practice this in contrast to Pilates breath which emphasizes posterior lateral rib cage breathing. Therefore you and your clients can understand and practice both types of breath.
- Box breathing involves inhaling for four counts, holding your breath for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding your breath for four counts. This type of breathing can help to focus the mind and reduce stress.
Pro-Tip: Box Breathing can be integrated as an opener or closer to a session or could be integrated into 4 part choreography series like Advanced Frog with legs in straps on Reformer or Cadillac.
Awareness of Tone of Voice: Invite your client to pay attention to their tone of voice at the beginning of a session versus at the end. Notice if the tone of their voice changes and which tone of voice indicates a greater sense of safety or less safety.
Pro-Tip: If you notice your client’s voice shift to a sense of danger ask them to see if they were aware of it and try some breathing or movement to bring them back to safety.
Movement + Imagination: “Movement practices are a form of autonomic exercise that shapes the system. Both the actual physical act of moving and bringing the movement to life in your imagination activate the autonomic nervous system” (Dana, 2020).
Pro-Tip: If you see your clients coming in revved up from the day in a low or high-grade fight or flight invite them into movements that express that energy. Summon them into fidgeting, flicking the fingers, or faster movements before inviting them to slow down and breathe. This allows your client’s nervous systems to feel seen and heard and therefore safe.
PB: This section has been retracted from the article based on the comments that we received. Any Pilates teachers who are licensed to perform bodywork can reach out directly to the authors of the article to learn specific self-massage techniques.
Now that you have this menu of options to begin practicing PVT on its own or integrating it into your Pilates teaching you’ll find that some resonate with you more than others.
As with Pilates much of the breadth and depth of the PVT practice comes from honing your awareness. You’ll begin to notice changes almost immediately, and like layers of an onion, you’ll continue to grow your awareness of your resilient nervous system with practice and time.
The Embodied Business Institute is running the most popular 28-Day Nervous System Reset beginning Sep 1st, 2023. The goal is to Transform your nervous system from unpredictable, overwhelmed + tired to smooth, robust, and able to quickly recover from life and work’s most demanding challenges and painful experiences. Click here to learn more and sign up.
About the Authors
Anne Bishop opened her Pilates studio in 2002. Her love of movement education led her to pursue a graduate degree from Harvard University with a Master’s Degree in Mind, Brain, and Education. She co-created the Embodied Course Creators Program with Chantill Lopez because she wanted to teach others what she felt was missing in mind-body education: brain science, educational best practices, and solid pedagogy. When you combine this with a killer business model you can leverage your talents as a Pilates teacher to bring your ideas to life. Now Anne’s focus is on supporting other movement teachers to create 6-figure incomes through body + behavior transformation.
Chantill Lopez started her professional life as a journalist and quickly moved into the realm of movement where she has stayed for more than 20 years as a solopreneur and studio owner. She is an innovator, international educator and presenter, mentor, and coach whose passion is supporting teachers in optimizing their value and charging their worth. Her creative partnership as a founder in The Master’s Program has been a dream come true, allowing her to support teaching from the whole-person and whole-body perspective, drawing from brain-based learning frameworks, motivation and communication science, somatic and humanistic psychology, and other emerging models such as the Polyvagal Theory.
- Dana, D. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Action: Practical Applications in Psychotherapy. W W Norton & Company.
- Dana, D., & Porges, S. W. (2020). Polyvagal exercises for safety and connection: 50 client-centered practices. W.W. Norton & Company.
- Lopez, C., & Minty, T. The Embodied Business Institute. (2023). 28-days Our Most Beloved Vagal Toning Tools.pdf. Vimeo. Retrieved August 15, 2023.
- Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, personality, and social behavior. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.