‘WTF is a Nervous System?’ with Jonny Miller

February 16, 2024
Joe speaks with Jonny Miller about the nervous system, the role it plays in our lives, and how we can work with it to access deeper joy and vitality. Jonny hosts the Curious Humans podcast and teaches Nervous System Mastery, an online course.

04:48 What a Healthy Nervous System Looks Like

12:49 Risks of Self-Regulation 

24:42 The Energetic & the Nervous Systems 

31:42 Johnny´s Path in the Work 

40:24 Breathwork: Types & Responses 

Episode Intro: Welcome back, everybody. On today's episode, we have another special guest, this time Johnny Miller. Johnny Miller runs the school called Nervous System Mastery and the Curious Humans Podcast, and he's coming on the podcast today to talk with Joe about what is a nervous system. I hope you like it. Hey, Johnny.

Johnny: Hey. How are you?

Joe: How are you?

Johnny: I am great. Really good.

Joe: Glad to hear it. So let's get started. What the fuck is a nervous system in your world, in your terminology?

Johnny: Yeah. I'm also really interested to hear your kind of map of this and perspective as well. The frame that I like to explore is that our nervous system is like the lens through which we view reality. When we're in different nervous system states, our experience of other people, our experience of ourselves, of the world shifts and being able to kind of map those states and knowing what our nervous system is doing at any point in time could be helpful. In this conversation, I'm super interested to hear how you think about the nervous system and the work you do and compare the maps that we have.

Joe: Yeah, OK. I'm happy to share, but I want to dig in a little deeper before I do. How would you make a distinction between, say, the nervous system and the emotional system and the intellectual system, or the prefrontal cortex or intellectual?

Johnny: Yeah. I tend to lump the nervous system in with the emotional system and a lot of my training is informed by breathwork and polyvagal theory, which I imagine you've come across, which we can get into if that's if that's relevant. I tend to see that there are certain emotions which are connected with safety with what's known as ventral, vagal. There's certain emotions which are connected with dorsal kind of collapse, freeze states. then there's other emotions like frustration or anger, which are more in the sympathetic realm. I kind of use that as a way of mapping different states.

Joe: OK. For the audience, can you give us a brief overview of the polyvagal theory?

Johnny: Yeah, sure. So it was developed by a guy called Dr. Stephen Pooch. He basically says that there are three main branches. There's the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic, which is rest and digest that has two branches. One is known as ventral and one is known as dorsal. The ventral is basically connection. It's like the place where we can play. We feel safe. We feel grounded. We can make eye contact. We are kind of in tune with ourselves. 

Dorsal is in a kind of low tone healthy state, rest and digest like when we're sleeping and when we're relaxing lying down. But it's also responsible for when we go into freeze or shut down, which is like a kind of adaptive survival response to stress. Some people, as I'm sure you know in your work, when they get stressed or triggered ,they go into either anger kind of sympathetic intensity or they go into collapse freeze kind of shame shut down and disconnect. That's generally how I think about it. With the sympathetic, it is also important to mention that these states can be online at the same time. Right now I'm probably in some degree of sympathetic and some degree of ventral because there's this activation. There's alertness. I'm talking to you. There's a sense of like, oh, I can feel my body, I can make eye contact with you. I can feel connected. So these states can be blended. It's not just like one on-and-off switch for each one.

Joe: And then you mentioned a third, but you didn't name it.

Johnny: So ventral, sympathetic and dorsal ventral.

Joe: So in the theory, ventral and dorsal aren't part of the same. It's an actual third branch because I believe that there's some theory out there about the social nervous system too, right? That part of the vagus nerve, and so how does that fit?

Johnny: So the social nervous system is another way of saying the ventral vagal, which is part of the part of the vagus nerve, the vagus break. Yeah, that's the kind of a tuning part where when we feel safe and grounded, that can be online for connection, for play, creativity, all those all those things.

00:04:48 Joe: OK. And then what does a healthy nervous system look like?

Johnny: So this is a really interesting question. I think some people have this view that we should be totally regulated and calm the entire time, which might work for some people. But I think it's certainly setting unrealistic expectations.

Joe: It might work for some people, but I've never seen anybody do it.

Johnny: Neither have I. So the two words that I think are helpful to use are capacity and resilience. Capacity is basically I'm able to hold intensity and I have a strong ventral vagal tone, meaning that I can be with intense experiences without going into shutdown or going into overwhelm. The other piece is resilience, which is basically how efficiently you can downshift your state of arousal after a stressful experience and find a kind of healthy relaxation without relying on substances, crutches or alcohol, whatever it is, which a lot of people do. A healthy nervous system is basically very dynamic. It responds adaptively to the situation.

Joe: Great. One more question for you around a theory. I'm trying to remember the name of the person, but basically I think it's in some of the emotional literature of Lowen, but maybe it's maybe it's the core energetics, there's core dynamics, core energetics. I always get it all confused. But basically there's a cycle of activity and part of that cycle of activity is activation and then part of the cycle of activity there are like four or five parts. But I always think about the last two, which is you're finished with something, then there's a release and then there's a rest. release and rest aren't the same thing. they're two different things. When I hear you talk about how quickly you can get back to a rested nervous system in your world, is there getting back to a rested nervous system? Is there a release and relax in it? Is it just a relax? If so, what's the difference between the two? For example, to get to that resilience of being able to get back to a restful state?

Johnny: Yeah. I think what you're referring to is the activation or the mobilization response, which typically has the kind of intensity which is the sympathetic. Then, like you say, there's usually the release and then there is the rest, digest, which is where whatever occurred integrates and actually gets rewired in the nervous system. In terms of how that maps onto polyvagal, the activation is the sympathetic, whether it's the intensity, then the ventral comes online usually during the release. then it's actually really important, as you say, to have a period, particularly if someone's doing a breathwork journey or going through an emotional process that there is that complete deep rest, which is where the actual kind of rewiring in from the point of view of the nervous system takes place. I believe there's like roughly a 5 hour window of neuroplasticity, in which if someone is able to rest deeply after an experience like that, then whatever emerged will kind of go from a state to a trait, it'll get rewired.

Joe: Yeah, this is just to make it practical for a second. Somebody goes into a meeting and they are activated because they get called out on performance and they go through the activity of the meeting and let's say it comes out well, they're like, oh, that was good, a successful meeting. What does the release look like? What would a variety of releases look like? What would the rest look like in a healthy nervous system?

Johnny: Yes. what I could imagine happening is let's say in the boardroom or in the meeting, they're unable to fully come into contact. But as they walk out, they realize, oh, I'm realizing there's actually a lot of anger in my system. So let's say they go home later that day or they find some private space, they're able to let that anger move. then usually there's a space where there's a feeling of whatever the tension is, whatever they were experiencing, shifts. After that, it's usually really helpful to have as much kind of rest or spaciousness as possible for that to to integrate.

Joe: Great. Yeah. Just to say it reminds me of a biathlon, the people who cross country ski and shoot or something like that from Norway. That's a thing. He was saying that like 7 hours a day he just sits and watches television. Not the best way to rest, but that resting was such an important part of him being a gold medalist. He said it is so underrated, and that I do really intense workouts, but I do a tremendous amount of resting so that I can be at top performance. I think that a lot of people underestimate that same capacity in doing any kind of self transformation, how important the rest and not doing is. Something that I notice is when somebody's critical voice in their head is constant, they never get the rest. So integration is harder. Oftentimes when people change the relationship with the negative voice in their head, their transformation happens quickly. I noticed that a lot of that happens because they're actually getting rest. They're not under attack all the time.

Johnny: So there's a phrase that Kevin Kelly says where he shares that most people think about having a good work ethic but very few people try and cultivate a good rest ethic. That's honestly one of the main pieces in the work that I do with nervous system mastery is helping people to strengthen that ventral, vagal tone, which is basically capacity for rest. It's how able we are to find safety and actually relax without needing substances. So practices like yoga, Nidra, NSDR, breathing practices are super helpful for kind of retraining that ability to find relaxation. What's interesting is if you change the body, if you change the physiology with a kind of a bottom up approach the thoughts spiraling tend to kind of diminish naturally. That's what I've noticed.

Joe: Yeah, I noticed it works both ways actually. you can directly address the voice in the head and then it creates more relaxation or you can use the breath. As I think somebody said, you can't control your emotions, but you can control your breath, which controls your emotions. I'm not a huge fan of controlling emotions because I think that that goes down a very dark, deep rabbit hole of misery. However, I think creating the fertile soil of healthy emotions is a really important thing, which is where I would put the breath work or the yoga. What I would say is I can create a soil for a healthy lifestyle, which is a really important piece. As soon as that turns to I'm going to control my emotions with breath, then it can be very destructive. Then it can be like very up and out and very overriding and denial. A whole bunch of other stuff can happen there.

12:49 Johnny: Yeah. I actually have a question for you around that. Let's say someone is experiencing a lot of anxiety. What is the line between beginning with some kind of self-regulation to allow them to feel grounded enough to even feel their experience and be with themselves versus you can obviously take that too far? For example, someone just uses a breathing practice to just calm down but then ignore the underlying emotion. Because I feel like there's risks in both. One side, someone could just get overwhelmed, shut down and then that's not helpful. But then like you say, if someone's always using a breathing practice to calm themselves down when they're feeling an emotion, they're likely never going to be able to experience the beauty of that emotion. So how do you think about guiding people through that?

Joe: Yeah. So I would add the intellect on it, which you've already actually said, which is like, oh the negative voice in the head is going to reduce if you're doing the breath work. So they're like on one level you have three systems, but on another level it's one system, it's us. So, but I think it's a good distinction to break them into the three. As anybody who's listening to my podcast knows, to me, the prefrontal cortex is the very human, it's the very rational, it's the thought centered area. The emotion is the mammalian part of the brain. then the nervous system is the part of the brain that's more reptilian. It is that immediate reaction area and it's a lot of that fight and flight area, and so anything that happens in any of them can affect all of them. to me it's you're addressing all three and so I'll take access points wherever I can get them with somebody.

So if the breath thing works to get enough access to the other two components, I'll take it. But I'll make sure that the work is done on all three levels as much as possible. all of our courses are thinking about it on all three levels. In general, most people in society are far more head oriented. If you can crack open the intellectual trap that they put themselves in, that's often the first step for people because that allows them to be able to pay attention to their emotion and or their nervous system. What I notice is unless they're fully committed, unless for some reason or another they're like I need to do breath work, and I have the kind of intellectual structure that allows me to have a disciplined approach to something, which is not a huge amount of Americans anyways, then I would rather work on the intellect, deconstruct that enough, deconstruct the stories enough for them to be able to start finding the enjoyment in the breath work or of the emotions, and then they'll do it naturally. But usually the intellect doesn't have enough space for it. However, there's definitely times when I'm working with people where the emotion has to be addressed first or the nervous system has to be addressed first. So if I see somebody who's very what I would call hysteric, not in a bad word, not hysterical, just that terminology is from the Rykien and Loewen work. If I see somebody in that hysteric, then that nervous system work is going to be really, really critical for them.

They're the people who seem a little more flighty. They seem like they are interacting with crystals and energy more. their emotions typically are bigger, that kind of human being. then nervous system work is a really good important first step for them because they're so in touch with it that they'll feel that breath and immediately react and know this is a good thing that I can enjoy and do. it's more a person by person situation in general. The idea is to give them all three tools and allow them to work on all three tools instead of just doing one. I think that's generally the issue with most work out there is that they're working on one or maybe two of the places, which is really effective for some people, but there's a missing component for others.

Johnny: Yeah, that makes sense.

Joe: I had a teacher. I can't remember who it was. They would say that they thought development was like a whole bunch of pencils with rubber bands and you could pull one of the pencils up, but there was like the tension of the other ones. on one level, you pull one pencil up and then everything else wants to come up. But if it's down, there's this tension so that there's a certain way in which development worked where you had to kind of work on all the pencils so that it wasn't creating this tension between them. I noticed if I'm working with somebody who's done a tremendous amount of intellectual work or a tremendous amount of emotional work, then the nervous system work when they find it, it just makes a huge difference really, really quickly because that tension has been built. They've got some really tense rubber bands and all of a sudden it can make a huge difference because it levels everything.

Johnny: How do you distinguish between the nervous system work and the emotional work? What's that line for you?

Joe: Yeah. So the way I think about it is it's a bit of causation. I'm not great at the terminology you're using. I apologize. I did read the theory book. But basically you were talking about how one of those things could have two different emotional outputs, right? Like the way I'd say it is like you could do freeze or fight or flight. For me those are different because there's three different emotional reactions to that instead of just one emotional reaction to that. That's how I kind of layer the cause and effect. So for instance, if you think about how they're built on top of each other, the nervous system is kind of the primary, quickest reaction. you know that from the studies that people can react without ever going into the intellect whatsoever. just have a snake jump at you and you know what your nervous system is because you'll be halfway across the room before you even realize there was a snake. And so to me, it's like a cause and effect chain.

So for instance, I could have the thought my boss loves me and I could have lots and lots of emotional reaction. There could be a plethora of emotional reactions to that. And so to me the primary level is the nervous system, the secondary level is the emotional system, and the third is the intellect. However, the dance goes both ways, meaning every time a certain thought hits my brain, a certain emotion is going to come up. every time I have a certain emotion, I can go oh that and I tie it to a thought. So both of them can come up like. You'll see people get a little agitated because they haven't had enough food and then they'll start a fight and everything will start looking binary in their world. It's just like so. But the way I would look at it is generally if I was to say what the nervous system was, I'd say the nervous system is as close to fight or flight or flight or freeze as you can get. then the emotional level is on a muscular level. You hold the emotions in the muscles and then the intellect is the world of thoughts and they're all dancing with each other.

Johnny: That reminds me of an experience I had when during a meditation retreat I was still enough that I could notice when a certain looping thought would arise, there was a corresponding tension in my body and kind of really mapping that connection and seeing those things colorizing was fascinating. I think that was another piece that I wanted to mention in this conversation is the idea of interception and building this somatic awareness. Because for certainly my teenage years and most of my 20s, I was fairly numb from the neck down. I had emotions, but I didn't have any kind of definition or attunement as to where they were or what I was actually feeling.

Joe: Me too.

Johnny: Right. A huge part of it was actually like realizing so many different flavors of sensation that are alive in the body. Increasing that capacity has made the emotional work just 50 times easier. Because for me at least if I'm feeling something, I may pay attention to the story. But more often than not, in life coaching, often you'll see when they go into the head and then you're like, OK, bring it back down into the body. What's the sensation? And that's, at least in my experience, usually what enables it to move by actually feeling this, the interceptive sensations that are associated with whatever the emotion is.

Joe: Yeah. For me, there's kind of a phase depending on where you are with the emotional work. There's the identification piece. To be able to identify it is really useful and then to be able to feel, have the somatic experiencing of it, is another really important piece. To actually have the movement and the expression of it is another really important piece, and then to see that it is not particularly cause and effect related is another really important piece. Like you were saying something to the fact of I realized every time I had a thought, I had a corresponding somatic experience. What I've also noticed is that's true. then that thought leaves, and then a replacement thought comes in and then creates that experience. For instance, I had a relationship with my father that for a long time, every time I thought about my dad, I had the somatic experience of like, oh, I'm not getting enough of his love somatically. I stopped living with my dad, and that got replaced with money. I'm not getting enough money. The same somatic experience occurred. So there's this just a really cool relationship between that so that it is like a dance between the three for me for sure. 

I have another question. This is a question I've never gotten a good answer from anybody. I don't have a good answer for it either. If I look at just even the research on it, for instance, it's like the intellectual cognitive development has like so much work, so much research behind it. then the emotional stuff is far thinner. It's starting to get popular now, but the emotional stuff is far thinner. The nervous system is pretty thin. The very worst is the energetic system. If you can create a distinction between the  energetic and a nervous system, if there is one, what is it? What's the distinction for you between an energetic system and a nervous system?

24:42 Johnny: Yeah. Wow. That is a tough question. Experientially I'll say that I only even became aware that the energetic system was a thing during the breathwork training where it became obvious that by moving breath or breathing in certain ways there was more aliveness sensation in certain parts of my body. And the more that I meditated and the more that I did the breath work, the more that that even became a thing and so I think I'll preface this by saying for most people they might not even know what feeling the energetic system might be like. I actually listened to a really interesting podcast recently with a guy called Doctor Jack Cruise and he's a very kind of contrarian type figure. But he talked about this theory that our cells, our mitochondria, actually produce light. They're kind of like light factories and that is in theory possible. I think this has been done in non-human cells to measure the very low bandwidth of light that is created by these cells. 

The working theory that I have and I have absolutely zero proof of this is that when cells are healthy, they are kind of releasing this low bandwidth of light. when we have trapped emotion, trauma, incomplete reflexes from childhood, that in some ways reduces that area's capacity to produce light, produce energy. by going through these somatic releases, these processes, we're kind of rejuvenating the cells in that way in terms of defining the energy system. Without going to Chinese medicine or any of the more esoteric literature, I don't think that modern science has a compelling definition, which is largely why it's mostly ignored. Most people get laughed out of the room if they start talking about the energy body in a neuroscientific way.

Joe: Yeah, it's amazing. So to me, when I look at anything, like someone's talking about science or emotion or dreams or energy work or they have a language that makes sense to them but it doesn't really make sense to potentially other people who are speaking other languages. you can look at something like the energy body. And like you said, there's not a really great definition. But you can see scientific research about how Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Tibetan medicine, or traditional Chinese medicine has really good results with things like ulcers. So there's a system that's completely based on the energetic body that has really good results. But we still don't particularly have a definition or know how to work with energy. it is the only thing that I could do in a session that would turn more people off than talking about your chakras is to say let's talk about God and wisdom. It's one of those things that creates so much defense in the system. I think for good reason, frankly. I think that there's been a lot of attacks. A lot of people have been attacked through the language of religion and a lot of people have been attacked through the language of energy. you just have bad energy. So I can't be around you. And it's like, what the fuck do I do with that? Do you know what I mean? It's like this thing that's undefined that somebody apparently understands that you don't understand that you're being condemned/judged for. There's no way to protect yourself. I feel like there's good reason why people get really defensive around that languaging.

Johnny: Yeah. The other two interesting directions that are, I think, pointing to this both the research with the heart where they will measure, I believe, the electromagnetic resonance of the heart. You can kind of track people's heart rate variability when they're singing together or dog owners and their dogs. Their HRV will also be in train when they're in kind of in sympathetic resonance with each other. I think that is one way in which it is measurable. Through charts you can see where these numbers become aligned. So I think that's one way. Then the other is that during these let's say practices like using breath work as an example that create these altered states of consciousness, there are both kinds of certain brain wave states and also changes in the blood chemistry which can be measured quite easily which correlate with these kinds of energetic experiences that people report. I think that there's adjacent things that we can measure and quantify which point to something being there. we're several years, maybe decades away, from being able to actually take a photo of it or measure it in a meaningful way as far as I'm aware.

Joe: Yeah, I mean the amazing thing is that you do certain breath work, then your nitrogen level and your blood goes up. It has a certain experience like you can feel like your body tingle. You can call that an energetic state or you can call that an increased nitrogen in my blood. on one level, it's like the energetic system or the people trying to describe the energetic system. To me it's like they are describing something that's happening, potentially happening, scientifically. But when science defines it, they're not going to define it as energetic. That's the thing that I think happens in all of the areas because we're one system, and language is learning to describe the whole system. The intellect describes a part of the system a lot better than the energetic system. But we'll describe something a lot better than the intellectual system. But over time, you can see that they're often pointing to very similar things with different language.

Johnny: Yeah, I totally agree. I think you're also right that the art of I guess the work that we do is kind of finding the language that resonates with each person. If they're doing a yoga teacher training, the energy stuff might resonate. If they're leading a company, it's probably going to be more on the intellect or the somatic realm.

31:42 Joe: That's right. So you've been pretty dedicated to this nervous system path for how long?

Johnny: I'd say kind of three to five years, depending on how you define it.

Joe: We'll define it as five years, and what has shifted in those years?

Johnny: What has shifted for me?

Joe: Yeah.

Johnny: Wow. I was a startup founder 11 to 12 years ago. I went through a burnout experience and then 6 1/2 years ago I lost my fiancé. She had an anxiety attack and ended up taking her own life. That kind of journey through grief really completely opened me up to my entire emotional experience and I realized how numb I'd basically been for the last five to 10 years. In the process of discovering meditation, breath work and then more recently how the nervous system kind of ties those together, I feel like a completely different human. I think my life has changed fundamentally and I actually find it in some ways difficult to relate to myself 10 to 15 years ago. But tangible pieces are the quality of connection in relationships is beyond anything that I think I even comprehended when I was younger. I think that's been a huge piece, the capacity for joy and honestly love as well and the kind of the way in which I think my body is constantly giving me feedback about any moment or experience.

As you guys teach with decision making and I used to be the guy that made a spreadsheet with ranking things with 1 to 10 and weighted variables and just really like doubling down on the intellect for everything. Now I just move through the world in a very different way. I think another piece as well is confidence in my capacity in new situations. I think if I was triggered I would like, especially in social situations, I'd shut down and I'd feel almost like a victim of my own body in ways and now having both kinds of toolkits to down regulate if needed or even better just feel the thing in the moment and then move through. That's been life changing as well. So, I mean there's so many areas that my life has shifted and I'd say also doing somewhere between 150 to 200 breathwork journeys with this guy in Bali, Ed Dangerfield, kind of coming into relationship and learning to love as you guys teach, loving these different emotions that previously I'd disowned. I think initially for me it was grief and then anger and then shame and then helplessness. I can kind of track my journey to exploring those emotions in a somatic way and learning to welcome them more fully.

Joe: How has your journey been of teaching it to others? For those who aren't who don't know, Johnny has a nervous system mastery class and the question is, how have you personally changed in that process?

Johnny: I would say it in a number of ways. One, I feel like I've kind of found work that I truly love in that it feels like the intersection between communicating complex kind of scientific ideas in ways that land and resonate with people by sharing some of my own story and kind of what has been important in my life and seeing the impact that that's had on other people and feeling the kind of, I guess like satisfaction and joy of other people having meaningful breakthroughs and experiences in their life. So that's been immensely rewarding and as with I think any business or work it's been its own arena of challenges, particularly in the early days. I remember the first time I did a workshop for like 100 people online and I was in Mexico at the time and the town had power cuts like once a week. There was a power cut and there were like 100 people on a Zoom call and some of them were like CEOs and leaders. I raced down to my friend's house to get this backup generator and just ran back and managed to get the power back on. But I was in a state. I was expanding my capacity in that experience and I think now I feel much more comfortable leading groups of that size and much more. I'd say if I had to pin it down to one thing, there's more trust in life and more trust in myself to show up in a way that things work out and flow.

Joe: One of the things that I really appreciate about you as a teacher that I don't see with a lot of teachers is that you're transparent about your learning process. When I see you on Twitter or when I see you out in the world, I would say you're far more interested in learning than teaching.

Johnny: For sure.

Joe: If I just look at the time spent, maybe it's because in the situations I see you but even on Twitter I see you more interested in learning almost than teaching and also very much happy to share what you're learning, even if it's not a part of your teaching, which is rare for teachers. A lot of times teachers get caught in the kind of the knowing aspect of things and not in the learning aspect of things. I think there's also a natural tendency that happens after years of doing something that you have to be really specific about who you learn from. Everybody wants to teach you and that can not always be a useful or fruitful thing. So the question behind that is, is that natural? Was that learning? Has there been a bit of a dance with that? What's been your experience and journey with being a learner and being a teacher and finding that balance?

Johnny: Yeah, it's a really great question. I think that the honest answer is I love learning. very selfishly, I think part of the reason that I'm doing what I'm doing is that it's a fantastic excuse to continue learning. It gives me a platform to invite people like yourself and other genuine specialists and experts in other fields that I can then learn in real time with them in front of a big group of people. I kind of view both the podcast that I have and the course as like a forcing function to continue my own learning. I think there's certainly a point where you can kind of or I can gain a certain level of, like, I feel like this topic makes sense to me now. Then for me it's like, what's the next experiment? What's the next thing I want to really learn about and go deep in? Recently I've been fascinated with neurodivergence. There's a number of students that come in with ADHD, a constellation of different symptoms.

I find it fascinating talking to them, figuring out how their experience maps onto what I know. I honestly would hate to one day become an expert and stop learning. that actually terrifies me a little bit and I think something that I heard on your podcast. You guys were speaking about how that kind of teacher-student dynamic can create disconnection in a way and whilst I think it's it's obviously important to present with a level of professionalism and expertise, the more that I'm able to view my students as people that I learned from as well, the less that disconnection happens.

40:24 Joe: Yeah, you spoke a little bit about the breath work you did. You kind of offhandedly said I did X amount of journeys, and I think I  did breath work every week if not every other week depending on my travel schedule for like 7 years, hour long sessions. I didn't notice that much. She was the last person who was doing kind of the pure breath work and that hadn't taken the breath work and modified it. I think a lot of the modifications that have been done to it, like Lowen's work, I think it's great. I'm not suggesting that it was better by any stretch but I've also done a whole bunch of other kinds of breath work in my life, like coherent breathing and all sorts. I have a book this big of like an Indian breathwork person that my friend gave me and I'll just like open it up. I'll be like let's try that for a bit and I'll try and see what it does to my system.

So what do you mean by breathwork journeys and what's the result in your mind? Not the result, but what's the experience for one of your breathwork journeys?

Johnny: I think it's helpful to categorize breathwork. There's many categories, but the two main ones in my mind are the kind of real time shifting, either upshifting or downshifting of state. So something like triangular breathing or humming will calm people down, or if you do breath of fire Kapala Bayi, hyperventilation. That will amp people up and you'll feel more alert.

Joe: Can we just stop for a second? Just a big, deep breath in. That's what he's talking about. As far as like, a breath to regulate a state. Your state is different after a single deep breath in. I love being that visceral experience, not just the explanation. OK, go ahead.

Johnny: Yeah it's great. I mean we could do another full breath. then humming on the exhale also releases nitric oxide and that's one of the one of the most effective ways of downshifting is just like a long hum all the way to the end of your breath. And again, you'll feel so much different after just one or two hums. Yeah, let's do it.

Joe: We'll do one just because we don't want it to be too boring.

Johnny: Yeah, get comfy. So full breath in through the nose, inhale and then humming through the nose.

Joe: Fuck that, It feels too good. Let's do another.

Johnny: The rest of the podcast will just be Johnny humming for 20 minutes.

Joe: Yeah, the breath has that same thing where you can feel it toning the vagus nerve. The constriction that the hum causes also creates a vibration in that nerve corridor. That's cool. I've never done that one.

Johnny: Yeah, yeah. No, it's great. I did it this morning in the cold tub as I was trying to find my breath. That's one category and the other category has many names but transformational breathing is the general category and that includes things like holotropic, Rikien, and conscious connected breathing. There's all different types of names. The particular branch that I trained under was called facilitated breath repatterning, which is a form of conscious connected breathing. But the practitioner will basically read the breath during a journey and make certain adjustments, certain verbal cues, nerve flossing, different things to both create more ease in the exhale and sometimes more activation and energy on the inhale. Generally speaking, once someone kind of drops into this circular breathing pattern, the journeys go from anywhere between an hour to two hours. Once someone's kind of dropped into the breath, these incomplete reflexes or like stored emotions will tend to kind of rise to the surface.

For me it was almost like layers of an onion. One thing would come. I would move, express whatever the thing needed to be felt, would feel and then there was a brief integration and then the next piece would come up. It was just so many different things would arise. For me I don't recommend that people do this online because I think there's a huge amount to be gained from having an in-person facilitator really out of safety reasons such that if something big arises, they can be there to help coregulate and help you grow.

Joe: Totally agree. Yeah, we do our version of breath work but we'll only do it in our in person stuff.

Johnny: Yeah, I think it's really important and also having a high facilitator to breather ratio as well. In the place that I trained one to four is what they tend to do.

Joe: We do one to three, one to four. I totally agree with you, got to have it. Because I've seen people go comatose. I've seen people have massive trauma responses. I've seen so much puking, so much stuff happens in those rooms. You really want that high of a ration.

Johnny: I know there's people out there that do breath work with crowds of like 200 or 300 people, and it will work in the sense that big emotions can arise. But what we talked about earlier with that mobilization kind of cycle, it's much harder for people, especially if they don't have that kind of down regulation capacity to feel through and to find the ease and calm and integration on the other side. I've known people that have done some of these holotropic and then they've been in this kind of semi triggered state for the next like several weeks or even months and they found it really hard to downshift.

Joe: Yeah, I worked with somebody who did some version of a breathwork journey and didn't sleep for a decade. I would offer that there's one not knowing how to down regulate as part of it but also a trauma gets released and they don't know how to actually integrate the trauma is another potential thing. There's a re-traumatization that happens and there's another too, which is you brought all this stuff up but you didn't heal it. So maybe it doesn't re-traumatize but like you had the experience. I've seen this with both some drugs or medicines that'll do the same thing and breath work where they get these big states, these big outs, but there's no integration of it. So you're not actually seeing transformation of a person over time. I did another ayahuasca journey and I had this other big experience. But the way you're living your relationship, your friends, your level of connection, your level of emotional fluidity, nothing. Your thought patterns aren't particularly changing. I've seen the same thing with breath work, where someone's doing breath work that doesn't have the integration care afterwards where they're having big experiences but they're not actually integrating into transformation or development.

Johnny: Yeah, absolutely. One interesting piece that I love about breathwork in particular is that when you're breathing someone, especially in a one-on-one capacity, you can see the changes in their breath kind of before and after. you can tell if that thing landed and If it has been integrated by the way that they're breathing. if they come for another session the next day or the next week, then you can see if that actually landed in their system. Whereas with a lot of other modalities, particularly psychedelics, it's very difficult to know if there was actually a meaningful shift or if it was just a big cathodic release that didn't have any lasting impact on them as a human.

Joe: Integration, yeah. So I know that at one point I was suggesting that you might do some live in person. Has that happened or do you have plans for it in the future?

Johnny: Yeah, I've been doing one-on-one sessions with people here in Boulder, mostly mostly friends and also the odd kind of client as well, which is kind of a good mix because I do really miss the in person live interaction that I know you get with Groundbreakers. It has felt like a good balance for me.

Joe: No, that's great. Fantastic. Glad to hear it. I mean, that absolutely changed my whole world, the seven years that I did. I mean, it changed the way that I had an orgasm. It changed the way I laughed. It changed my capacity to my resilience, my stress level. It changed so much. My armoring, physical musculature, armoring it. It had a huge impact in seven years. A lot of the impact happened in the first little bit because I was very ripe. then there was just like something that happened over time that there was an eroding and a wearing in a way that happened over time. That was really useful.

Johnny: Yeah, it's interesting you mentioned laugh. Both my laugh and my voice have changed. I listened to a podcast episode I did four years ago and my voice sounds noticeably different compared to how it sounds now. I think a lot of that is because a lot of the tension in my lower belly and lower diaphragm has kind of been released.

Joe: When you're doing your breath work, I could geek out, like inhale, exhale, position, but it would bore the crap out of everybody. At some point I'd love to chat with you about it. I'm just curious, when you're doing the in person breath work and you're watching somebody breathe, are you making adjustments in any way to help them deepen into their breaths? Is it an interactive thing or is it like a prescription thing?

Johnny: No, it's constant real time adjustments. So there's hands on the body most of the time. Generally what we're looking for is both seeing what is someone's window of tolerance, what is their capacity and keeping them within that window. then titrating or pendulating, another term, the breath to either increase more energy usually by deepening the inhale. Sometimes getting hands under the rib cage and allowing more air to go into the upper lungs. More often than not, especially with kind of type A high achievers, it's helping them find ease in the exhale. So often people will hold in their throat.

Joe: Oh wow, it's really similar. It's really similar to the work. It's the same thing. It's the most full breath, inward capacity breath, like a stretching. How do you increase both in the belly and the chest and other places and how do you release with no effort?

Johnny: Exactly.

Joe: Yeah. OK, so actually really similar. Fascinating.

Johnny: Then finding out what all of the blocks and tension are to either a full, a kind of vibrant inhale or a relaxed, effortless exhale and usually starting around the rib cage and then kind of working up or down depending. Also you know, bearing in mind, how many sessions is someone going to do and do you want to open up a big piece knowing that you'll have three or four sessions afterwards to help integrate it if something big arises.

Joe: I could geek out. After we turned it up, I want to keep on. I have to go to another podcast. So it was a total pleasure to have you. Is there anything that you want to leave our audience with? Any thought process, any good wishes or tell them about anything you're doing?

Johnny: Yeah, and well, thanks so much. This has been so fun. I have a podcast as well called Curious Humans podcast. You've been a guest. If you enjoy this conversation, there's a chance that might resonate too. If people want to learn more about the Nervous System Mastery course, we have a spring cohort coming up in mid-March and the website is I love seeing how much overlap there is between our two communities. There's a bunch of people joining. So it's really cool to see that overlap.

Joe: Pleasure to have you on, Johnny.

Johnny: Yeah, you too.

Joe: Yeah, pleasure. All right. See you soon.

Johnny: Yeah.

Joe: Thanks for listening to The Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us in your podcast app. We'd love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter, or check out our courses at

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