Polyvagal Theory and the Tao

Sep 22, 2021

Polyvagal Theory and the Tao 

I studied with Dr Stephen Porges who developed Polyvagal Theory, and he described it as “the science of safety, trust and connection". I also studied with his colleague Deb Dana who expanded on its application in a clinical or therapeutic setting. She describes it as “The science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living”. 

Polyvagal theory has been described as the most useful research on the nervous system in the last 50 years. It’s a fascinating topic that really helps you to understand how and why you act the way you do. 

 

The autonomic nervous system is like a personal surveillance system - letting us know what’s happening in and around our bodies, the environment and how we relate to others. This type of internal listening is way below the level of awareness and conscious control and is called ‘neuroception’. It assesses safety and cues of risk, threat or danger, informing us of the need to protect. 

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches, with three main pathways. The symapthetic branch is in the middle part of the spinal cord and responds to cues of danger through mobilisation - this is the fight or flight response. 

The parasympathetic branch has two pathways, both of which are found in the vagus nerve - a long meandering nerve, which gets its name from the latin term ‘wanderer’!  It travels to the heart, lungs, diaphragm and stomach and also to the eyes, neck, throat and ears. 

The first pathway is the ventral vagal - it responds to cues of safety and connection. Some of this is through a social context and how we co-regulate to the nervous system of others. Think of how you start to feel calm in the presence of a calm person. From an evolutionary perspective this is the most recently developed pathway. 

The dorsal vagal pathway on the other hand responds to cues of extreme danger - it is the oldest of the three pathways and relates to our reptilian brain. This is when we go into a place of freeze or disassociate - think of how animals ‘play dead’ under attack - immobilising or shutting down to survive. 

 

How does Polyvagal Theory impact on our experience of intimacy? 

First of all we are wired to connect and we need to feel safe in our own bodies. If your nervous system is regularly firing off of a sympathetic response - feeling stressed and in fight or flight, then you’ll likely experience a loss of libido or not being relaxed enough for lubrication, full arousal and to surrender into orgasm. 

If you’re in dorsal vagal mode - feeling shutdown or numb, withdrawn - then its very difficult to connect through intimacy. People who have experienced sexual trauma may find they go into dorsal vagal when they connect with a partner. However, it’s important to know that this can be changed when you know that it’s a normal protective response and there are ways to move out of this response. 

The ideal mode for love-making and intimacy is being in a ventral vagal response - feeling safe and connected. Now that’s what I call safe sex! 

 

What Taoist practices improve vagal tone? 

These Taoist practices are wonderful tools to transform your inner state:

  •  Abdominal Breathing
  •  Inner Smile
  •  Six Healing Sounds

Remember it’s normal to move between these three states in your day and we need all three pathways - ventral vagal, sympathetic and dorsal vagal. That optimal, in love with life living is more available to you when you can easily access the ventral vagal so its worth exercising your nervous system to get there. 

In my Feminine Sexual Alchemy Programme I teach women how to map their nervous systems - life hacking neurology with Taoist practice for more love, sex and intimacy.