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Messing With the Basic Exercise (BE)
I am an avid collector of “nutrient dense” somatic practices that require only a few minutes and a body.
One such practice I have explored lately is Stanley Rosenberg’s Basic Exercise (BE) described in his book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve.
Rosenberg is a seasoned practitioner of my favorite kind of bodywork, Craniosacral therapy, which beautifully complements generative somatics.
While I am dismayed by Rosenberg’s misinformed pathologizing of autism, his Basic Exercise is a gem that I am excited to share with you.
The Purpose of the Basic Exercise
For Rosenberg, the purpose of the Basic Exercise is to support our ability to engage socially with others.
The BE increases the fluidity of the neck and spine by shifting the cervical vertebrae and easing the suboccipital muscles.
Rosenberg claims that this enhances blood flow to the brainstem and supports ventral vagus nerve function.
According to Polyvagal Theory, the ventral branch of the vagus nerve relaxes our breathing and heart rate, which in turn increases our sense of social safety and ease.
In researching this article, I found out that few neuroscientists accept the Polyvagal Theory.
Nevertheless, I find the Basic Exercise itself to be quite useful.
For me, the purpose of the BE is to give my clients DIY access to more resilient states, and the confidence that they can change their state from dis-regulated to regulated.
How to Do the Basic Exercise
The first few times it is best to do the Basic Exercise while lying down.
(Once it is familiar, you can do it while sitting or standing.)
Before you begin, lie down on your back and check the range of motion in your neck and head.
Gently turn your head as far as it will go in either direction.
Notice any stiffness or pain that is present.
Now it is time to practice the Basic Exercise.
Remaining on your back, interlace your fingers and place your hands underneath your skull so that your thumbs rest against the base of your skull where it meets your neck.
The slight pressure on your occipital nerve helps relax your suboccipital muscles.
Keep your head and nose facing directly upward, neither to the right nor the left.
Without moving your head, shift your gaze to the right, taking care not to stretch or strain your eyes.
Keep your eyes “parked” on the right, and wait 30-60 seconds, or until your body spontaneously yawns, sighs or swallows.
Once you have experienced this slight somatic shift, bring your eyes back to the center line.
Then repeat this practice on the other side:
Without moving your head, shift your gaze to the left without stretching or straining.
Park your eyes on the left for 30-60 seconds, or until your body spontaneously yawns, sighs or swallows.
Bring your eyes back to the center line and rest your arms at your sides.
That’s the entire practice.
Now, check the range of motion in your neck and head again to see if it has changed.
If there was pain or stiffness on one side or the other, how is it now?
Notice any changes to your mood, breathing or bodily experience.
I recommend that you avoid any sense of effort when you do the BE.
It is about allowing, not efforting.
Since this is easier said than done (!) it is helpful to repeat this practice over and over with an attitude of curiosity.
This will enable you to discern the sensory contrast between efforting and allowing.
A Note on Yawning, Sighing & Swallowing
Rosenberg describes these three physiological responses as signs that your nervous system is relaxing.
The science backs him up on this:
Yawning and sighing are associated with parasympathetic nervous system activity, and anxiety makes swallowing more difficult.
So yes, these somatic responses are accurate indicators of relaxation.
I have also noticed that yawning or sighing show up when the body is feeling safer and unwinding its armor or experiencing a realization.
Getting to Know the Basic Exercise
I practiced the Basic Exercise oodles of times before I introduced it to others.
It is a rich practice, because our bodies are rich.
I have found it fruitful to hang out with this practice and see where it takes me.
For instance, when I pay sustained attention to my right and left visual fields, subtle “ahas” and shifts become available.
With practice, I have learned to identify the precise interoceptive sensations in my eyes, throat and jaw that precede parasympathetic nervous system activation.
The space evoked by the BE has also given me a fresh way to work with my familiar patterns of trauma holding:
The left side of my body has always been complicated, cranky and armored.
One afternoon when I was doing the BE on the left side, I discovered that my left visual field was inviting me to linger and stay present with it without agenda.
When I did, I experienced a gradual sense of expansion, and emotional and physical ease.
This was very interesting!
Now when I can, I use the BE to inquire into the mystery that awaits on my left side.
Do you have a side where most of your chronic ailments gather? Are your eyes waiting for you to connect with them?
I invite you to set aside some time to explore the BE and notice what it opens up for you.
Adapting the Basic Exercise to Your Unique Body
Some folks take awhile to arrive at those somatic shift cues.
Others experience somatic responses which are different than sighs, swallows or yawns.
For these folks the response may be a gasp, or deeper breaths, or a strong sense of drowsiness.
Even if you cannot detect a change, you may notice a difference in your head and neck mobility once you have completed the BE on both sides.
If there is more ease in your range of motion, that evidence may motivate you to develop a relationship with the BE.
Persisting in this practice is worthwhile.
Repeated practice over time transforms us.
It may just be a matter of time before you can consciously feel the benefits of the Basic Exercise.
The BE can be tweaked for a variety of bodies.
I normally invite my clients to experiment until we discover their body’s way into the practice.
It is satisfying when someone finally gets that internal ‘aha’ and the yawn, sigh or swallow happens on its own.
Our bodies are intelligent and responsive.
Just a nudge or suggestion in the right direction, accompanied by a kind, curious patience can help the body find its path to more fluidity.
For folks who cannot hold both their arms comfortably in the interlaced fingers holding the skull position, Rosenberg suggests using just one hand to cradle your entire skull.
If holding one arm up doesn’t work for your body, I recommend holding onto your hip bones or collar bones instead.
While these hand positions do not activate the occipital nerve, connecting bone to bone (in this case, finger or hand bones on collar or hip bones) has a stabilizing effect.
My intuition and my clients’ subjective experiences of these variations suggest that these alternate hand placements can be equally grounding.
I trust this kind of direct body feedback.
People have been discovering new ways of healing for centuries through direct experience and intuition.
When we listen deeply to our bodies they become our teachers who show us healing possibilities long before science identifies them.
If your eye muscles are stiff or have scar tissue, you may want to experiment with the different eye movement variations described in the next section.
Practicing the Basic Exercise by myself and with clients has uncovered a few variations.
It is good to try on these different approaches to the BE until you find the ones that best suit your body:
Variation 1) Park or rest or “slouch” your eyes to the right or left side.
Variation 2) Softly roll your eyes from the lower right (left) to the upper right (left).
Variation 3) Let your eyes meander lazily, wander aimlessly on the right/left side.
Variation 4) Try the eye movements while your eyes are closed or covered with a light cloth.
Variation 5) Repeat one of these versions of the BE 2-6 times in a single session.
Making the Practice Your Own
Once you have identified:
- the version of the BE that works reliably for your particular body;
- which somatic responses (ie. yawns, sighs, etc.) accompany your body’s C1-C2/neck mobility/sympathetic nervous system shifts;
It’s time build a relationship with the practice and make it your own.
Repetition is key!
Doing the BE several times a week will enhance your familiarity and access.
Yawns may become wider, sighs may deepen, unwinding and resting may be more profound.
We live in a rigidly prescriptive culture, especially around how “healthy” bodies should look and behave.
We do not need more exercises that make people feel wrong or like a failure.
Instead, I like to model being curious and experimental with all healing practices.
I like to remind clients of the authority to modify any practice until it becomes a powerful tool in their hands, tailored just for them.
I believe that this approach builds inner somatic confidence.
It is part of what I mean when I use the expressions Befriend Your Body or Collaborate With Your Body.
I encourage you to let your wise body teach you how to support and heal yourself.