Deep Breathing as Healing – Nurturing our Social “Soul Nerve”

Price Institute Director Jack Tchen


My dear mom was a nervous wreck. She was a conflicted person. She was a young radical. Her father was a revolutionary. Yet, when she was out in the streets protesting at the age of 12 during the May 4 Movement 1919, he yanked her home.


In the decades that followed, she lived through invasions, losing her father, civil war, hyperinflation, betrayals, tuberculosis, becoming a refugee, starting life anew, losing a daughter—so many upheavals, disruptions, and unresolved trauma. Throughout all the swirling world events, she fretted about each of her six children and every wayward turn we took and tried to manage each of our lives until she passed at 86.


At age 12 I noticed that when stressed, she took shallow breaths. She didn’t sleep well and she got stuck worrying one matter threadbare. And she always had health issues.


As I’ve tried NOT to take on her ways of coping, I’ve found the tradition of slowing down over preparing meals, tasting what I’m eating and drinking, taking long walks, and slow breathing help me get through tough times—like now.


I’ve just come upon this brilliant reformulation of the role the vagus nerve, that links the brain stem with the rest of our bodies, plays in our lives. Twin City-based social worker and somatic therapist Resmaa Menakem calls this the “soul nerve.” That sounds right—the mind and body connector that also is what makes us soulful and grounded. Unless, that is, we mess it up.


Medical doctors will say this long root-like nerve organ regulates our breathing, our heart rate, our blood pressure, the whole being—all the autonomic activities that keep us going. When we feel threatened or nervous, our breath shortens. We move into flight or fight mode. In the worst case scenario we freeze, like deer in headlights. We get stuck.


But when slowing down and breathing naturally and taking time back, we feel safety and security. When we get together with other bodies we trust, we can synch our energy by decompressing and laughing, by moving together and letting our guard down. We breathe in synch and in community. We relax as we belong.


But here’s the political reality check. Those who practice, knowingly and unknowingly, what Menakem calls “white body supremacy” feel the comfort of belonging in a constipated culture of othering which is built upon “all the exclusion and constriction and trauma”—all those kept at the margins of the dominant mainstream. With all white-body identified who are so afflicted, they “feel a sense of belonging” only when Black and other othered bodies are kept out of sight or “safely” under control. This is an addictive, repetitive, historical behavioral pattern of the white supremacist body politic.


During the pandemic, those who have access to ventilators and those who do not are in part regulated by this culture of belonging and othering. And the chokehold and the choke-knee have clearly become the white supremacist’s murderous act of absolute demeaning denial —  the denial of the right of all to breathe. These systemic police practices also trigger the historical embodied violation and violence. Manakem especially explores the ways generations of pain stiffen our neck muscles, the psoas, which protects that soul nerve. “When we’re talking about trauma, when we’re talking about historical trauma, intergenerational trauma, persistent institutional trauma, and personal traumas — whether that be childhood, adolescence, or adulthood — those things, when they are left constricted, you begin to be shaped around the constriction. And it is wordless. Time decontextualizes trauma.” (On Being interview, June 4, 2020, #843.) The choke-knee maneuver attacks that trauma, the soul nerve and its protective muscle, to kill and also to further sever any reminder of that historical injustice.


The “carotid restraint control hold” is a “use of force procedure” according to US police training manuals. It is wrong policy and practice. It has to be stopped. The powerful international solidarity demonstrations are also resonant to violating practices in each place. Not choking or severing one’s neck is part of the common sense in all peoples’ cultures. In the case of Officer Derek Chauvin and Trump this maneuver is also subtle and effective. It is more than about a messed up, controlling white man killing George Floyd and all those reputed “bad” others. NBC News analysis of police records show that since 2015, Minneapolis Police Department,

“rendered people unconscious with neck restraints 44 times… Minneapolis police used neck restraints at least 237 times during that span, and in 16 percent of the incidents the suspects and other individuals lost consciousness, the department's use-of-force records show. A lack of publicly available use-of-force data from other departments makes it difficult to compare Minneapolis to other cities of the same or any size.” (Siegel 1 June. 2020)


The deeper meaning is also clear. This maneuver kills at the most vulnerable connection of any person. The soul nerve and the surrounding bone, of course, link the head and the body. Attacking is also the attempt to kill what that fellow human being represents to the killer. It is an acting out to kill all deemed as “bad,” as the killer identifies with the Master (and those of wealth and power).


It’s not just about a bad white man or a corrupt policing system, but the choke-knee is a deeply embodied practice of the white supremacist body politic in general. This is a three-way entanglement. Menakem writes:

“the white body sees itself as fragile and vulnerable, and it looks to police bodies for safety and protection. It sees black bodies as dangerous and needing to be controlled; yet, also, as potential sources of service and comfort.” (Grandmother, 36)


This question of service and comfort frames the historical Black servant in the White household and the White House.


This gets even more complicated! Today when the US mobilizes a nation to fight a deemed foreign “bad” body, suddenly all good “American” bodies such as General Colin Powell (of darker pigment, or not, and also female and if you “don’t tell” not heterosexual) are marshalled to fight the true enemy—often bad “yellow peril” bodies, or “brown” Muslim bodies, or Latinx “narco” bodies.


From the other vantage point “The black body sees the white body as privileged, controlling, and dangerous; it is conflicted about the police body, which it sees as sometimes a source of protection, sometimes a source of danger, and sometimes both at once.” And then, “the police body sees black bodies as often dangerous and disruptive, as well as superhumanly powerful and impervious to pain.” (Grandmother, 36)


“Superhumanly powerful” justifies extreme force. Manakem makes another move. This is not simply about bodies but about “bodies of culture”—these bodies are deeply knowing, experienced over generations, and sophisticated ways of surviving, healing, and being joyful. Hence, the excessive performance of this kill maneuver and why has it become so institutionalized and normalized in our surveillance and policing culture. (Recall the white woman in Central Park calling the police on the Black man asking her to leash her pet.) It seems clear, the chi or energy from these wronged bodies of culture are also perceived as more than dangerous but also as contagious.


This backwards others’ lifeforce energy is perceived by the racialized white culture as a pandemic to their good, normal, “healthy” way of life. People of culture, in the culture of the white supremacist body, are both the carriers of pandemics and the pandemics themselves.


But let’s return to the theme of this newsletter – care, resilience, and solidarity. The point of vulnerability is also that of healing. In my cultural tradition, the proper healer is a martial artist and the properly trained martial artist is also a healer. We all come from these cultures before white body culture became a master, globalizing paradigm and practice.


In acupuncture medicine, the CV 22 point—just at the open notch of our collarbone at the base of the trachea—is a key point of energy flow for the body where the muscle is not protecting the soul nerve and the trachea. It is a point of healing or of serious injury. According to martial arts self-defense rules, there is no justifiable reason to use this killing technique unless in mortal danger. And according to these same rules, those on the side of overwhelming force have no justification for using that technique.

Of course this sanctioned procedure and behavior has to stop. But that won’t halt the more subtle forms of everyday racism where spatial segregation is still the norm.


Resmaa Menakem’s , “Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence” from the podcast series On Being with Krista Tippett offers a solution. Amidst the feelings of fear, grief, dread, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, disgust, despair, and so many other emotions flourishing during these pandemic and violent times, nurturing the soul nerve, nurturing the breathing and balancing of our feelings, of safety is key. Offering “people better ways to belong and better things to belong to” is the most effective way to fight white supremacy, but especially the even more pervasive practice of white body supremacy.


I wish my grandfather taught that to my mother when she was young. Different times, different historical context, different ramifications. Yet, the chi or energy generated from deep breathing links our many old world cultures even during the worst of times. And deep breathing is something we can all do for free. But also, deep breathing is something we now have to fight for as a basic historical right for all humans, and also for the whole planetary commons.


Menakem, Resmaa. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017.

Menakem, Resmaa. “Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence”. On Being with Krista Tippett, June 4, 2020.

Siegel, R. Emily, “Minneapolis police rendered 44 people unconscious with neck restraints in five years,” NBC News, June 1, 2020,