Biosphere & Beyond Making & Moving Somatic Support

Ecosomatics and Singing

Singing is healing; especially singing with others, especially outside! 

First, let’s get into some of the Polyvagal Theory explaining why singing is so regulating for the nervous system. Deb Dana in her book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy notes that humming and singing both increase ventral vagal tone. As a primer for those of you new to Polyvagal Theory, the ventral branch of the vagus nerve is the part that serves the social engagement system, meaning the part that responds to cues of connection, curiosity, play, and safety. The other areas of the vagus nerve, which serve the flight/fight and collapsed responses in our nervous systems, are important evolutionary parts of our survival too, but it is key for us to learn how to switch between these various states of shut down, activation, and safety. The more we tone our ventral branch of the vagus nerve, the easier it becomes for us to slide out of states of fear, stress, and depression and into a state of connection and safety.

Singing “exercises the larynx, lungs, heart, and facial muscles, and requires breath control and changes of postures, all of which tone the ventral vagal system,” says Dana, further adding that singing in a group has an added positive effect on vagal tone. Working intentionally with breath control and extended exhalation can block the release of stress hormones and increase immune function. 

An image that barely captures how large and wandering and connective the vagus nerve is

And then, of course, there is the added therapeutic layer of working with the sound of your own voice, exploring any struggles you might have with speaking your truth, being heard, taking up space, etc. I can certainly say that in exploring voice work with Cara Trezise, a Vermont-based singer/artist/educator extraordinaire, I’ve been able to make progress on my own challenges around judging or withholding my voice.  Cara and I have been meeting every so often to explore singing and vocal improvisation outdoors. We will often begin and end with toning together into the forest and being conscious of our intentions. Throughout the session, I become more aware of my capabilities of giving and receiving: paying attention to and letting in the world around me as well as not shying away from giving what I have to offer. At my request we have focused a lot on improvisation; Cara encourages us to do an exercise where we don’t run away from the sounds we make that we think are horrible. If something comes out that we really love or really hate, she invites us to linger there and see how it might transform. When I am frustrated because I am straining to sing higher notes, she encourages me to bend my knees, get closer to the ground, as well as visualize forward and backward into space, and suddenly there is less constriction in my throat as I focus on grounding downwards into the earth and connecting laterally and horizontally rather than trying so hard to reach higher. I let the sounds of the trees and the birds and the heat of the sun influence what might come out of my mouth, and sometimes I wonder if could sing for them, offer them something that might bring them joy of some kind. So I am building relationships with myself, with Cara and her voice, and with the environment as well; these embodied layers of connections make me feel like a real and healthy human being by the end of our meeting. Those who have experienced singing with folks around a fire at night, I’m sure you know the kind of fulfilling connection I am talking about. Resonating reciprocally with others and co-regulating with nature also light up that ventral vagal area in our nervous system.

Through singing we explore range, quality, and texture. What ranges and qualities do we feel most comfortable in? Which ones really stretch us, both in the listening of them and in the creating of them through our voice? Which rhythms can we most easily sink in to? Can we remember the polyrhythms that have enveloped us since our womb days? Singing, like all forms of communication, I think, is so shaped by context and the sounds and types of vibrations we grew up around or spent significant amounts of time around, from humans as well as other creatures and environmental elements. I would expect that climate and geographical biography would have just as much of an influence on one’s voice as does the rhythm of the language they are surrounded by and the melodies of their families’ voices. In my singing explorations, I come to understand my voice both as something uniquely “me” as well as something intertwined with and molded by environment, ancestry, culture. In saying all this, I sense an interesting push and pull between liberation and limitation: which influencing factors do we want/need to peel away in order to reveal deeper authenticity, and which factors are truly integral and helpful to who we are and what we sound like? Just how much choice do we have about our voice?

Singing gives us experiential manifestation of our desires for connection, harmony, beauty, flow, collaboration, play. We hear and are heard, we feel and are felt. It grounds us into our bodies and expands us into our landscape. It tones our vagus nerve so that we become more and more resilient, a quality in high demand for these times. 

My spin on Heather Houston’s spin on Molly Hartwell’s original song; I was first introduced to this song at the Groundnut Gathering, an earth skills event in Western Mass
Biosphere & Beyond Making & Moving Somatic Support

Moving Metta: A Simple Ritual to Connect

A simple gesture pattern came to me as I listened to the sound of howling wind and ice crashing against my yurt recently. I heard thuds and bangs in the distance; likely trees falling in the storm. Anxiety panged in my heart, as I hoped nobody was hurt from the falling trees. Sidling up to me quickly was also the realization that something could crash onto the yurt and possibly damage my home. Life is fragile (it is also resilient, but in these moments I felt the preciousness of it more acutely). 

From recognizing pain and sensing an inner desire to wish for wellbeing for all, I started to move as pictured below. 

Music: “Journeys” by h hunt

As I merged awareness, intention, and movement, the process began to feel like a ritual. I will note the basic progression of focus that emerged below, in case you are curious to incorporate some aspect of this into your own daily practices or maybe to use it as a warm-up into somatic dance improvisation. This ritual reconnects me to love and yearning for more life; I resonate with these words by Anita Barrows, as quoted by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown in Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work that Reconnects:

I would stand

next to you in the forest’s

final hour, in the wind

of the helicopter blades, police

sirens shrieking, the delicate

tremor of light between

leaves for the last

time Oh I would touch with this love each

wounded place

Anita Barrows. “Psalm.” We are the Hunger. Unpublished Manuscript, 1998.
A dance in a clear-cut electrical-line trail through dense forest; “touching with love” wounded places within and among

Metta Movement Progression

  1. Concentrate on the feeling of your hand connecting with your heart, perhaps also with the feeling of the other hand on the lower belly/ “sea of chi” (a phrase from Qi Gong practice). Feel the soles of your feet soften into the ground, knees slightly bent.
  2. As one of your feet steps in a particular direction, slowly begin to draw the hand away from the heart, in the same outward line as the foot stepped. I particularly resonate with the feeling of letting the back of the hand lead, while the fingertips are still curled in towards myself. 
  3. Ask yourself who or what you are reaching out to. Who do you connect to in this moment? Perhaps you start with what you easily see before you, your environment. Perhaps eventually you reach further to connect with those just beyond your immediate environment, or perhaps ancestors; perhaps loved ones who are far away; perhaps strangers; perhaps those you have a difficult time with; perhaps non-human companions; perhaps various beings and aspects of Nature and Life….see what resonates for you in this moment, or what spontaneously arises
  4. Focus on the sensation of space that your hand is traversing, feel this bridge between “self” and “other,” how do you feel your own ground but also feel a shift of some sort as you reach towards the “other?” 
  5. As the hand and arm reach their extension, let it begin to flow back towards yourself, perhaps with the heel of the hand drawing in first and letting the fingertips point in the outward direction as long as they can. The foot will draw back in as well. Feel, again, the space you are traversing and how you may be changed from your connection. 
  6. Moving in a counter clockwise circle, take a step just slightly in a new direction and repeat the movement pattern, drawing the foot and hand gently outward from the heart center. With this new change of direction, take in your new perspective of your environment. Contemplate giving and receiving as you move, and the somatic awareness of what your body is like when it gives and when it receives. Feel a sense of flow between the outward reach and the inward return (or notice any lack of flow or tension).
  7. Continue changing directions slightly with your steps until you’ve completed a full circle. Perhaps you continue shifting your focus of who the “other” is in each moment. Try wishing well towards whatever you are reaching toward. I often internally repeat part of the Metta meditation with each turn of direction. Such as “May you be happy,” or “May you be healthy,” or “May you be free from inner and outer harm,” per one cycle of reaching and coming back.
  8. Continue for a few rounds, perhaps changing which foot or hand reaches outward. Contemplate your awareness of togetherness and separateness as you continue. Can you still sense your own heart fully even when your hand is fully outstretched? 
  9. Begin to let the form alter in small ways: perhaps changing directions of the circle, perhaps reaching above and below instead of outward, perhaps changing which foot and hand extend. Perhaps you focus your awareness of the back of the heart center rather than the front.
  10. At some point, give permission for the form to morph even more, morphing organically into other shapes and patterns that emerge in the moment. Follow and observe your mind, heart, sensation, and perceptions as movements morph. How are you still connected to your environment, how can it become more of a duet/trio/etc. than a solo movement exploration?

May your growing care for all beings, especially wounded and marginalized people and places, guide you to take healing and just actions aligned with your values.