Neuroscience of Somatic Attention

A bunch of times last week, I lost my mind.

Once I was attempting (yet again) to do Crow Pose (Bakasana). I planted my hands on the floor, bent my elbows, put my shins on my upper arm bones, sucked my belly in annnnnd… nope, my feet simply would not come up off the floor. My face got flushed, my heart pounding. I felt frustrated and annoyed that my teacher called this damn pose that stumps me every time.

Another time, I was on Facebook and a friend I haven’t seen since high school made a nasty, personal comment annnnnd… my face flushes, my heart pounds. I fire with fury and dash off a tart retort in which I wonder if maybe he’s donated his heart to science since I’ve seen him.

In these situations (and more!), I lost my mind. More precisely, I lost my prefrontal cortex.

When I get upset and impulsive with my thoughts or actions, it’s a sure sign that I’m at the mercy of the less-evolved parts of my brain. The brain stem and the limbic areas of our brains evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. This lower brain keeps heart beating and breath breathing and when under stress it puts us into the fight / flight / freeze / collapse mode. The limbic area is emotion and memory center and is the home of the survivalist (and oft alarmist) amygdala.

I don’t behave well when my brain stem and limbic area are in charge.

The frontal cortex on the other hand (the outside “bark of the brain”), allows me to think, reflect, manage emotion, regulate information flow, and communicate. These are handy skills when I’m struggling with a difficult posture, a snarky email, or an upsetting conversation. And right in the middle of the frontal cortex, behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex connects it all. This latest-to-evolve part of the brain takes in what’s going on around you, what’s going in your body, in your brain stem, in your limbic area, in your cortex and integrates it all. Note that it doesn’t turn off the lower brain, the prefrontal cortex integrates it.

An integrated brain is a healthy brain. And it’s one that’s less likely to dash off a surly email or curse a yoga teacher even when under stress.

The question, then, is how do I function from the integration and skillfulness of my prefrontal cortex instead of from my reactive lower brain?

My yoga teacher, Kelly Stine says, “directed, precise awareness in this moment gives access to a broader perspective.” In other words, mindfulness turns on the wisdom, regulation and integration of the prefrontal cortex. By paying attention to the details of what is arising right now – my heart is pounding, my jaw feels tight, my face is hot — I am able to manage my responses and choose more wisely. From a brain development point of view, when I reflect on my inner experience, identify emotions, and pay attention, I literally stimulate the integrative fibers of the brain.

How do I function from the healthy integration of my prefrontal cortex instead of my impulsive lower brain? The answer lies at the intersection of ancient meditation practices and modern neuroscience.

This from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist

When you breathe in, you bring all yourself together, body and mind; you become one. And equipped with that energy of mindfulness and concentration, you may take a step. You have the insight that this is your true home—you are alive, you are fully present, you are touching life as a reality.

Breathe deep. Pay attention. Get integrated.

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Watch More about the connections between mindfulness and brain science with Dr. Dan Seigel whose work inspired this post.

Mindfulness. Brain Hand Model. Dan Siegel. Empathy and Cognition.

Mindfulness and Neural Integration: Daniel Siegel, MD at TEDxStudioCityED

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If you enjoyed this post, great! Please share it!
And you might also like this one from April 2013: Integration is Health, Part 1

keep relaxing standingTension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” ~ Chinese Proverb

We’re moving house. Every day, we pack more things into boxes. Little by little, Frank trucks our belongings into storage. Every day, as I thread my way through echo-y rooms full of boxes and packing paper, I say to myself, “Keep relaxing.” Sometimes, when I feel really stirred up, I imagine myself leaning back into a soft bed or dissolving into the earth. “Keep relaxing. Keep relaxing.”

So far, it seems to be working. I haven’t yelled or growled at anybody yet. I’ve hardly even snapped at a hard-working, well-meaning husband.


Stress is everywhere. No news flash there. We all know all about it.

Even if you aren’t in the middle of a stressy mess, we all have ongoing situations that get us twisted up. For you it might be raising children or caring for an aging parent or managing a team of co-workers (and/or a difficult boss). On top of those daily things, we’re also confronted with immediate, short-term anxieties like being stuck in traffic or waiting for the doctor to call back or languishing on hold listening to loud static-y Musak.

We all know the situations and we all know the sensations, too.

When I’m stressed, I get a familiar tightening in my eyes and jaw, my heart throbs and either I breathe faster or I hold it. {CURLY BRACKET NOTE: We have the breath-holding reaction so our lungs can pull as much oxygen as possible to the muscles so they can leap into action.} When I’m under pressure, I feel a tightening, a narrowing of my perspective and a laser focus on whatever I think will make the stress go away.

Stress puts the lizard brain in action: flight, fight or freeze. Neurologically speaking, these sensations are my Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) turning on in the presence of a threat. Neuroscientist and Buddhist teacher, Rick Hanson, explains

Danger, pain, upsetting feelings, low blood sugar, excitement – and stress in general – all activate the sympathetic nervous system. And so does the anticipation of something bad (or really wonderful) . . . even if that anticipation is exaggerated or flat wrong. (from Wise Brain Bulletin, Vol 1, #5)

Fascinating, right? It doesn’t matter to the brain if the danger is a real or perceived. Either way, for the SNS, it’s game on.

[RESOURCE NOTE: Dr. Hanson’s prolific work is a brilliant resource for understanding neurological biology of the brain and body and for practical approaches for developing inner skills that promote balance and well-being. In particular, I highly recommend his book Just One Thing and in particular from that, I recommend the section called Relax on pp. 26-28.]

The good news is that I have a choice. We all do. We have the ability to consciously unhook the grip of the SNS when it isn’t helping us.

“You cannot relax too often.” ~ Tara Brach

The SNS helps me kick into high gear when I need to but often (and habitually) I spend entirely too much time there: over-scheduling, focusing on what isn’t working, rushing from one (apparently) urgent thing to another. If I let it, my modern life feeds on the edgy rush of stress. The problem is, I tend to be a big cranky pants when my SNS is over-active. Just ask the people who helped me move 5 years ago. It’s a wonder I have a single friend (or family member) left.

{CURLY BRACKET NOTE: An over-achieving SNS isn’t just bad for relationships, it’s bad for your body. Rick Hanson explains that,

Bottom-line, lighting up your SNS is not just a fleeting experience, but something that has a real stickiness to it, a lasting impact. For example, chronic activation of the SNS burdens five major systems of your body: gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, and nervous. (from Wise Brain Bulletin Vol 1, #6)}

My unskillful behavior and general tendency toward irritability are main reasons I dance, do yoga, meditate and write. Mindfulness, it turns out, is one of the activities that turns on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): the part that is calming and relaxing and that which allows us to digest (both food and experiences), reason, and recover.

In a recent guided meditation, Tara Brach offers the instruction, “You cannot relax often enough.” More and more, if I don’t know what to do, I do something to help myself relax. Especially these days, when I’m routinely looking for something that is snugly packed away in storage, I keep saying it to myself over and over. You cannot relax often enough.

[RESOURCE NOTE: Tara Brach is also an incredible source of great writing — her book, Radical Acceptance, was a breakthrough for me – and Tara Brach meditation teaching]

“The more relaxed you are, the better you are at everything.” ~ Bill Murray

New Nia teachers sometimes ask me what I recommend they do to get ready for teaching. The first thing, I always say it that their relaxation is the greatest gift they can give their students. No matter what I’m doing, the more I can relax, the more skillful I will be. That’s because relaxation, the PNS, is who we are. Amazingly, if you were to disconnect your SNS, you would live just fine (although a bit lethargically) but if you disconnected the PNS, you would die almost immediately.

The key is knowing that you have the ability to turn on your PNS and then practicing doing it. Simple things like deep breathing (particularly emphasizing the exhalation), mindfulness on the body, meditation and even yawning will slow your heart rate and get your PNS on line.

It’s not difficult to trigger relaxation, we only have to remember to do it (especially when we’re caught up in the swirl of SNS). So while it’s a brilliant move to relax when something tense is happening, it’s also a great idea to practice when things are chill and the stakes aren’t so high.

Practicing relaxation is essential for our health and well-being — and it helps us do everything better. Turning on the PNS is actually bringing us into our true nature. Again, Rick Hanson explains that

The PNS is wallpaper, sky, taken for granted, undramatic, in the background. Human culture, and definitely the modern media of television and movies, are largely about the SNS. Action, conflict, sex, million dollar moments, death, crisis, fairy-tale endings, etc. are different and dramatic. It’s therefore easy to start thinking that chronic stress and living awash in the SNS are what’s really natural, the bedrock of existence. But in reality, cooperation, relaxation, and equilibrium are the hub of the great wheel of life.

So keep relaxing. As the Chinese proverb says, “relaxation is who you are.”

In February, meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-Day Meditation Challenge. Everybody is invited to commit to meditating every day for the month and join the mindfulness community. As part of the challenge, I’ll be blogging throughout the month (along with other meditator/bloggers) about the experience. You can find the posts on Sharon’s site and I’ll share mine on Focus Pocus.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day -2
Friday, January 30, 2015

28 Day Challenge aspen leaf pub dom

Why do I meditate? I’m reading the introduction to Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness, and she tells all these great stories of people with powerful reasons to sit. But why do I?

The neuroscience of somatic attention fascinates me and there is more and more science indicating the benefits of planting my butt on my cushion every day. Cool as it is, I don’t think it’s the health of my neurons and synapses that motivates me to meditate.

I’ve been a regular exerciser since my early twenties. I’m no athlete. I’m not particularly proficient at the activities I do nor do I thrive in competitive arenas. But for (um, wow) more than 25 years, I have moved myself on the pavement, a hiking trail, a bicycle path, a yoga mat, or a dance floor almost daily.

For most of that quarter century of exercise, I did it because I wanted to be thin. Shallow, superficial twenty-something, thirty-something, forty-something me exercised because I thought it would make me look good. I usually didn’t do it because I loved it or because I had a goal to run a marathon or for anything more lofty than I wanted to look good in jeans. I worked out with the hope that it would make me beautiful.

Gradually, over the years of regular exercise, the dream of slender beauty faded. Instead, I exercise every day because it helps me do the things I love to do…better. Teaching mindful movement classes, hiking and biking with my husband, even writing and creating, I do better when I move my body every day.

I started meditating in 2007 mostly because I had noticed that I was often anxious, crabby, impatient and unkind to people around me ~ particularly my (super-lucky!) family. I thought if I sat, I would be a better person and that maybe I would feel less shitty about myself. Like an exercise program for my personality, I thought meditating would make me a more beautiful person.

My hope for becoming the sainted second coming of the Dalai Lama is not happening anytime soon. It is true that when I meditate regularly, I do what I love to do…better. My teaching and writing, my friendships and relationships, and my interactions with strangers and my inner experience are all more easeful and spacious. I think I’m somewhat less likely to throw bread at people. But still, that’s not the reason.

In August I turned 50 — which still shocks the hell out of me. My precious life is moving along, as John Prine says “like a broken down dam.” I want to be here for all of it. I want a direct experience of it all.

The real reason I meditate is to show up for my life and to be present for whatever happens to be happening. That is reason enough.

What about you? Why do you sit?

Principle 5: Awareness … short, sweet & superpowery

p5 baby aware in mirror
Body awareness is like having a superpower.

Don’t know what to do?  Overwhelmed, frightened, stressed, excited or anxious?  Sense your body.

Neurologically, awareness turns on your high-level thinking brain (your prefrontal cortex that’s in charge of language, reasoning, communication) and gets you out of the lizardy fight-flight-freeze brain.

Awareness opens the door to self-healing. Sense pain in your body, stimulate it with movement, then sense if you feel better. No story, just sensation: feeling (even a little) better is self-healing.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s awareness: a mindful relationship to self-healing!

keep calm and qe2It’s a good thing, now and again, to be reminded that even if we plan like crazy, we never really truly know what is going to happen next. Every once in a while, it’s a helpful thing for me to intentionally set up my day so that I’m surprised by what happens.

This is why, once a season, I dip into the river of the unknown and draw routines out of my polka dotted bag instead of planning them. It takes me out of my habit, stretches my muscle memory and creative imagination, and invites the class to come along for the ride. Over and over this week, I found myself fretting about what routine would get pulled out of the bag. Would I know it? Would it fit our focus? Would it fit for the class? Over and over, I kept reminding myself to trust that the right thing would happen. And it did. Or I think it did, anyway.

Experiment with this for yourself. Leave space for chance. Let the unplanned and the unknown to be part of your day. For someone like me, this takes some courage, but the more I do it, the more I breathe into the sensation of the unknown, the more it feels like play. So go out and breathe, sense your body, and be a big boat (or a big ship, rather).

Dance on. Shine on.


Monday, December 2, 2013, 1045am ~ Keep Calm and Be a Big Boat (Music, Movement & Magic routine pulled by Diana)

North – 6:49 – Afro Celt Sound System
North, Pt. 2 – 3:01 – Afro Celt Sound System
When You’re Falling [Featuring Peter Gabriel] – 5:14 – Afro Celt Sound System
Ma’ Africa – 4:49 – Mahotella Queens/Ulali
Braided Hair – 4:03 – Neneh Cherry/Speech
Ta Moko – 5:10 – Mako Black
Passion – 5:46 – Michael Franti
Daphne – 7:03 – Eddi Reader/Mahotella Queens/Revetti Sakalar
Persistence of Memory – 4:29 – Afro Celt Sound System
Inion/Daughter – 4:15 – Afro Celt Sound System
Devorzhum – 6:13 – Dead Can Dance

Tuesday, December 3, 2013, 9am ~ Keep Calm and Be a Big Boat (Universal Mind routine pulled by Zan ~ who, incidentally, was in the original video for this routine when it was taught by Carlos in 1999 ~ how tremendous is that?)

Life Love And Unity – 5:43 – Dreadzone
Little Britain – 5:15 – Dreadzone
A Canterbury Tale – 8:41 – Dreadzone
Captain Dread – 5:16 – Dreadzone
Cave Of Angels – 6:37 – Dreadzone
Zion Youth – 5:39 – Dreadzone
One Way – 6:00 – Dreadzone
Shining Path – 7:23 – Dreadzone
Out Of Heaven – 5:56 – Dreadzone
Cristofori’s Dream – 6:07 – David Lanz

Wednesday, December 4, 2013, 1055am ~ Keep Calm and Be a Big Boat (Clarity routine pulled by JuJu ~ welcome home!)

Clarity (melting snow mix) – 11:12 – Makyo
Dubuasca (with Michael Kang) – 6:55 – Bassnectar
Nostalgia Worship – 6:46 – Bassnectar
Freek – 7:16 – Shakatura
Jogando Capoeira – 6:20 – Beatfanatic
Red Alert – 4:17 – Basement Jaxx
Long Bone – 5:16 – Sofa Surfers
Yu – 9:59 – Ishq

Wednesday, December 4, 2013, 545pm ~ Keep Calm and Be a Big Boat (TranceVision routine pulled by Lori)

On The Forest Floor – 5:05 – Bob Holroyd
Alhambra Pt 1 – 1:21 – Natacha Atlas
Duden – 6:41 – Natacha Atlas
Vision – 6:08 – Heldegard von Bingen
Desert Wind – 7:48 – Banco de Gaia
Amor Real – 7:26 – Jon Anderson
Fun Does Not Exist – 6:21 – Natacha Atlas
Through Cinemas – 5:55 – Loop Guru
Ho Doi – 13:40 – Yulara

Thursday, December 5, 2013, 9am ~ Keep Calm and Be a Big Boat (Firedance routine pulled by Pat ~ John Regan, where were you??)

Reel Around the Sun – 8:42 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance
The Heart’s Cry – 2:28 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance
Countess Cathleen/Women of the Sidhe – 5:42 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance
Shivna – 3:38 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance
A Mhuirnín Ó – 5:01 – Clannad
Firedance – 6:04 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance
Slip into Spring – 3:46 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance
Siamsa – 4:28 – Ronan Hardiman /Riverdance II
Riverdance – 5:45 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance
American Wake [The Nova Scotia Set] – 3:09 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance
Lift The Wings – 5:00 – Ronan Hardiman / Riverdance II
Bonny Portmore – 4:20 – Loreena McKennitt
Caoineadh Cu Chulainn (Lament) – 4:11 – Bill Whalen / Riverdance

keepcalm make it soJean-Luc Picard is a big boat. Even in stormy intergalactic seas, he moves through with power and ease. Me? I’m often a little boat: tossed and tumbled by small waves. But I’m starting to be a big(ger) boat. Two things that calm my shaken-snow-globe brain: breathing and sensing my body. A breath slows me down, gives me even just a sliver of time to adjust. Sensing my body brings my more evolved prefrontal cortex online, ready to help me reason, get creative, and communicate. Practice choosing a little stress (Camel Pose, say), then breathe and stay calm. Make it so.

????????????In the mid-1990s, I had a love affair with Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Just divorced, living in Boston, I was bumbling around in chaos. Money had me squeezed tight and I was up to my eyelashes in debt. Then one afternoon, a whole division of our publishing company (more than fifty of us), got laid off. With no job prospects in Boston, this life-long New Englander was considering a move to Charlottesville (wait, what state is that in, again?). I felt like I had no solid ground under me – like I was reeling in space.

It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Captain Picard, the lead character on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jean-Luc, with his strapping red uniform and his sage baritone, would gaze serenely from the bridge into the abyss of space. I waited expectantly for every episode, ready to soak up his self-possession. I craved his wisdom, his kindness, and his calm. Especially that down-to-the-core calm.

Just about everything can get me bundled into a bunch, and it was especially so then. If my boss asked me to take on an extra project, if I didn’t sleep well, if someone didn’t like me, or if the store didn’t carry that goat cheese I wanted, I got my undies all in a twist.

Jean-Luc, on the other hand, could be considering inter-galactic warfare, single-handedly saving an entire society, or (most terrifying to me) be trapped in an airshaft with a gaggle of 7-year-olds, and he always kept cool. I wanted some of that.

I don’t know if Captain Picard had any practices that kept him so steady, but two things help me keep calm(er) these days: breathing and sensing my body. When I’m flipping out about something, my lowest, lizard brain is narrowing my perspective to fight, flight, or freeze. Instead of reacting from this primitive brain, I’d rather respond from the larger, more evolved prefrontal cortex, the part that allows reasoning, language, and communication. Neuroscience demonstrates that the best way to get my prefrontal cortex on-line is to sense my body.

Not coincidentally, breath and body mindfulness are essential parts of yoga and Nia: put the body and brain under stress and then breathe and sense what’s happening. In yoga, my teachers repeatedly remind me to keep breathing calmly while I’m in the poses, even if that breath is not deep. Nia teachers say, “Everybody sense your (body part)” with the intent of bringing participants into their bodies and their higher brains. You can do it right now, sense your breath and your body and immediately you are tapping into the prefrontal cortex!

Recently, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, the phrase from the 1939 the British Government’s morale-boosting poster has been rediscovered. You can’t turn around these days without bumping into a reproduction (or some clever variation) on everything from t-shirts and tea cups, to pillows and aprons. Those clever variations run the gamut from inspirational (Keep Calm and Dream On) to silly (Keep Calm and Eat a Banana) to inexplicable (Keep Calm and Make Bacon Pancakes). My version, to inspire a bit of Jean-Luc-ness, might be “Keep Calm and Breathe On,” or “Keep Calm and Sense Your Feet,” or “Keep Calm and Wiggle With Awareness.”

I’m glad it’s Jean-Luc who’s in charge of keeping peace in the universe. If it was me on the bridge of the Enterprise and some alien aggressor approached with phasers a-blazin’, I’m guessing I would get worked up in a hurry. But presented with the more basic stresses of life (bills and relationships and climate change and sequesters), I am grateful for my breath and awareness that help me make skillful choices and enjoy the ride.

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