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 Somatic Support

What is Ecosomatics?

A meandering and non-definite definition of Ecosomatics

Ecosomatics is…

A word that points to inseparability. Just like we may use the word “mindbody” to illustrate that the duality is an illusion, we use “ecosomatics” to illustrate that ecology, environment, and the lived experience of the body are inseparable (see this ISMETA article for some definitions of somatics, this article offering a healthy critique of somatic discourse and history, and my previous article on Nature & the Nervous System for more on bodies in/as environments)

Becoming more conscious of biology, anatomy, and our organic dependencies (how our makeup and needs intersect with all of life on tiny and macro scales)

Moving from a sphere of personal practice into social/communal practice, including the more-than-human

Restoring sovereignty to the land and indigenous people

Perceiving yourself as a bodyworker for the earth and the earth as a bodyworker for you

Being moved by energy from the environment; allowing land to lead

Understanding the cultural contexts of places where you live and understanding that places hold deep meaning, living history, and knowledge. Asking, “What happened here?” and “Which indigenous people belong to this land, how can I understand their total embodiment of this land, and what are their names for these places?” and “What is it like for me to inhabit this place now; what is my sense of belonging or not belonging? What role do I play?”

Also asking: “What are my ancestral homelands? Where do I come from? How does my body remember that land connection through the generations? How might this influence what my body longs for, and when I notice myself feeling most at home?”

Also asking: “How has my body-knowing and bodyfreedom been co-opted and/or manipulated by corporate, colonial, capitalist systems?”and “How do I participate in that or resist that?” and “What can I do right now to drop into my body as it’s relating to the immediate environment? What are the ways my body participates in my immediate environment—what routines, gestures, feelings do I inhabit? What agency do I have over that? What do I receive from where I am, what do I give back to where I am? From whom and to whom?”

Waiting and listening to the elements around you, recognizing these elements within you (i.e. Earth/Air/Fire/Water, or another system of noting natural elements); covering yourself in water, or stone, or…

Listening for all the sounds around you; hearing the overlaps of ecological diversity (or lack thereof); feeling sound in your body

Noting the texture, smell, etc. of plants nearby; making respectful contact with animals and noticing how that relationship feels

Resonating with compost and the life-death-life cycle

Participating in embodied rituals that honor place and connect you to cycles of seasons and nature (being conscious not to harmfully appropriate, giving credit to lineages that have taught you…ideally, connecting with rituals from your own ancestral culture)

Becoming. Butoh. Allowing your humanness to be permeated by other life forms, being moved by animal, plant, mineral, spirit 

Feeling kinship with human and more-than-human, exploring what kinship feels like in your body. How do you know when you are in a kinship relationship, or another kind of framework (such as extractive)?

Planting a seed

Noticing how you feel-think-sense-intuit-perceive differently in different places (in particular types of buildings, outside, inside, around certain smells, dampness, landscape, shape, colors, temperatures, spaciousness)

Being and moving consciously through webs of relationship; understanding what impact your actions have on your ecosystem 

Finding resilience in diversity

Feeling grounded, literally 

Learning the history of plants around you, noticing subtle and big ways the learning changes you and the way you move in the world

Dancing, or singing, as a gift to earth; letting the earth teach you a dance or song

Noticing the suchness and presence of the river, the soil; merging with that surety of existence

Being a rose and embracing your thorn

Respecting places that you are not welcome to enter

Lying down in moss, if the moss consents 

Contemplating the idea that what is good for the earth is good for us humans; our bodies are connected 

Sometimes putting down the books and intellectual inquiry to go outside. Chop wood. Gather herbs. Carry buckets of water. Swim. To move, and sometimes, to be still. 

Recognizing that this is not a new field; our naming it as a field of study illustrates the ways we have moved away from it (as a result of capitalism, colonization, patriarchy, whiteness), and the ways we recognize the need and yearning to re-inhabit right relationship, accountability, and reciprocity

Some references/the books & trainings that most immediately and recently influenced this writing:

EastWest Somatics “Moving Consciously” workshop, taught by Sondra Fraleigh, Michele Ikle, Kelly Ferris Lester, and Amy Bush

“Rituals of Alignment & Balance” class taught by Ananya Chatterjea, especially, but also nearly all of the other lectures that were part of the 2021 Embodied Social Justice Summit

The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology by Theodore Roszak

Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache by Keith H. Basso