RYAN ALTMAN

🧠 The Spiritual Science of Polyvagel Theory

Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated by the question “Who am I?”

One of the earliest memories I have of questioning who or what I was, happened while playing basketball in elementary school when I was 9.

I was a short, dorky kid at the time, and was defending my friend who was the best player in class.

As I was guarding him, a series of thoughts flashed in my mind:

“What if I were in my friend’s body right now?”

“Would I have his memories?”

“Would I be able to play as well as he does?”

I obviously didn’t get answers in that moment, but the questioning would continue throughout my youth and teenage years.

Eventually, my pondering lead me to understand that consciousness was fundamental to who I am.

I went on to study philosophy in university and focused on studying philosophy of mind and cognitive science to quench my thirst for answers.

What I learned from scientific study of consciousness

It was through my studies that I saw the value and limitation of objective scientific study of consciousness.

Eventually, I saw that consciousness is fundamentally a subjective phenomenon, and therefore had to be studied in a direct way.

You can’t know the flavor of strawberry from a chemical analysis–you have to taste it for yourself.

Likewise with the truth of consciousness.

I learned the subjective is the domain of the spiritual.

It was from this place of the subjective that I left science behind and found spirituality, diving into spiritual practices like meditation to study the mystery of consciousness directly.

The most useful scientific theory for spiritual practice

Although I’ve focused most of my energy over the last 15 years on inner practice and spiritual study, I’ve still found tremendous value in scientific knowledge.

Science and spirituality both have the same motive: inquiry into truth.

Spirituality taking the inner road, science taking the outer.

Both support and compliment each other.

My teachings often blend the scientific and the spiritual, and there are a few really important theories I share in my work.

These include attachment theory, the triune brain model, and concepts on brain lateralization.

However, there is one theory in particular that I’ve found extremely helpful for complimenting spiritual practice and developing self-knowledge.

It’s called polyvagal theory.

If you’re into the new wellness trends, you may have heard of it.

I want to share with you what the theory is, and illuminate why it’s so helpful in meditation practice.

Even if you know about polyvagal theory, you probably don’t know how it relates to going deeper in meditation, so stick around.

Also as a quick shout out: credit for much of this newsletter’s content goes to meditation teacher, Forrest Knutson.

Let’s get into it!

What is polyvagal theory?

Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, polyvagal theory is an increasingly popular way of understanding the relationship between the body, emotions, nervous system, and brain.

The theory highlights the psychosomatic nature of emotions, where the physical state of our nervous system directly affects our emotional state, and vice versa.

The vagus nerve

Many people are aware of the two main parts of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic (fight or flight ) and parasympathetic (rest and digest).

Polyvagal theory refines our understanding of the parasympathetic by splitting its most important component, the vagus nerve, into two parts: older and newer.

  1. The older portion of the vagus nerve, called the dorsal vagal nerve, runs along the spine and is responsible for basic bodily functions like heart-rate, breathing and digestion.
  2. The newer portion, called the ventral vagal nerve, runs along the front of the body, and is responsible for social functions like facial expressions and tone of voice.

Regulating the theory’s three states

Polyvagal explains how our nervous system shifts between three general states of functioning:

  • SAFE: Safe, open for social engagement (ventral vagus)
  • MOBILIZED: Unsafe, ready for fight or flight (sympathetic)
  • IMMOBILIZED: Shutdown, in response to extreme threat (dorsal vagus)


The information provided by polyvagal theory becomes extremely valuable for helping people regulate their emotional state.

If we’re feeling withdrawn and immobilized from depression, one of the best ways to get out of this state is to get into mobilization: to run, move, and trigger the sympathetic response through cardiovascular exercise.

For those stuck in the sympathetic network of ‘fight or flight’, slow breathing, touch, or talking with a friend can engage the ventral vagus system to get us back into feeling safe.

While these methods of regulation may seem fairly obvious to some, the ability to consciously regulate the state of our nervous system has been relatively unexplained until now.

Polyvagal theory offers new and exciting ways of explaining the mind/body connection, and leveraging that knowledge to improve mental health, self-control, and overall quality of life.

How polyvagal theory informs meditation

Regulating our emotions is an essential tool to have in our toolkit, but if you’re reading this newsletter, then you know I’m not just about ‘regulating emotions.’

I’m about transformative spiritual growth and awakening.

In this case, the immobilized dorsal vagal state is particularly relevant for meditation and spiritual practice.

We’ve all seen a gecko go from scampering across the wall to dead still the moment we come into a room.

This ‘freeze’ response is related to dorsal vagal nerve activation in the gecko.

So, why is this important to meditation?

Well, first of all, it helps explain what happens to the body as we enter into deeper states of consciousness.

As experienced meditators know, after awhile meditating the body becomes extremely still, moving feels difficult.

The body begins to ‘disappear’, and the senses withdraw.

This is not normal for most people!

Most people are moving and engaged with their senses and the world.

So, what’s the difference between the nervous system of the meditator and the average person?

The answer, is that the meditator triggers the dorsal vagal ‘shutdown’ response consciously through their meditation practice.

Going deeper in your meditation with polyvagal theory

If we know we want to trigger the dorsal vagal nerve and the ‘shutdown’ response to go deeper in meditation, then we can leverage practices that trigger it.

Such practices are exactly what ancient yogis discovered thousands of years ago, even though they didn’t have the scientific knowledge of what exactly was happening biologically to back it up.

In scientific terms, they were activating their dorsal vagal nerve, and withdrawing energy from their body and nervous system into deeper centers of the brain.

As they practiced withdrawing energy away from the body, mind and senses, yogis could investigate purer, transcendent states of consciousness beyond the mind.

From the synthesis of spiritual transcendence and scientific knowledge comes practices like heart-rate variability resonance breathing: a scientifically-backed technique that helps us go deeper in meditation.

By using longer exhales and creating smooth transitions between the in and out breath, the natural resonance between the heart rate and breath rate is leveraged to consciously activate the dorsal vagal freeze response.

Anyone who works with me, knows that HRV resonance breathing is one of my bread and butter practices.

It’s extremely effective in helping people to calm down and remain still.

This opens up their meditation practice, and creates the opportunity for deeper spiritual insights to emerge.

Polyvagal theory also provides valuable insight in the form of biofeedback.

We can recognize certain bodily responses like tingling in the skin, or parts of the body ‘disappearing’ or feeling out of place, to inform us we’re getting into the freeze response and accessing deeper states of meditation.

Such experiences can be scary or disorienting for a lot of meditators when they first happen (a big reason why having a meditation teacher is so important).

However, with the knowledge provided by polyvagel theory and an experienced guide, we can learn exactly what’s going on in the body and use that biofeedback to help deepen our meditation practice.

Conclusion

OK, that’s all for week.

It got kind of long, but I find such value in polyvagal theory, and I hope you do too.

Believe it or not, there’s more to share, but that’s enough for today.

Lots of appreciation to you if you read the whole thing.

It shows you’re really committed to your spiritual growth and deepening your meditation practice.

Here’s some more resources if you’re interested:

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