In James Maskell’s first-ever solo podcast, he introduces Evolution of Medicine’s upcoming event, VagusFest. On May 29, 2024, listeners can join the Evolution of Medicine’s debut VagusFest, a participatory education experience focused on toning the vagus nerve, that will provide hands-on healing experiences for participants.

In this podcast episode, James previews themes that will be explored during VagusFest and expresses how the event will help advance health-promoting medicine.

VagusFest will serve as a model for clinicans to recreate similar events in their local communities as a strategy for carrying out public relations campaigns that promote functional medicine at the local level. VagusFest is a complete set of tools to run a VagusFest event in a community, including step-by-step guides, marketing materials, and PR assets.

Check out the full conversation to learn about:

  • James’ thoughts on what has been limiting the growth of functional medicine.
  • How to win over new patients who have been deterred by long treatment timelines and expectations to make lifestyle changes.
  • How VagusFest will give participants the tools to regulate their own nervous systems and create a sense of unity and healing in their communities.
  • Upcoming opportunities for practitioners to participate in VagusFest events and learn how to implement them in their own communities.


VagusFest Debut | Episode 335


James Maskell:

Hello, and welcome to the podcast. This week, we are going to be doing a special solo episode. I’ve actually never done an episode by myself, but we are going to be talking about a new concept called VagusFest. If you have been following my emails for the last few weeks, and you know what we’ve got coming up, you’ve heard a little bit about it. But I wanted to take some time on this week’s podcast to talk about VagusFest, where it came from, how you can get involved, how it can really benefit your practice, and some of the upcoming events that we have where you can join to be in part of one of the first VagusFest, and bring VagusFest to your community. The Evolution of Medicine has always been about transforming the health of your community. It says it in the intro for every podcast we’ve ever done.

What I hope that you will hear today is a way that we can bring together some of the ideas that you’ve heard over the years in the podcast and bring it together into a usable format. We’re going to be talking a little bit about VagusFest Pro, which is VagusFest for practitioners, and just some of the upcoming dates. We have the Institute for Functional Medicine Annual Conference. We’ve got the worldwide premiere of it the 29th of May. The Austin Functional Forum, we’ll be doing it on the 5th of June. We’re going to be doing it at the Freedom Practice Coaching Quarterly Conference on the 7th of June in San Antonio, and we’re going to be doing it at the July Live Functional Forum in Loveland, Colorado.

So those are all the initial opportunities where you as a practitioner can get involved in participating in VagusFest, and then learning how to do it so that you can bring it back to your community. Just a thank you to the sponsors. What you’ll hear is that part of the thinking of this came through really understanding the value of the group visit toolkits and Lifestyle Matrix has been a great sponsor for us for a number of years, and so it’s in that vein.

All right, so let’s get into it. How did this come about? The first thing that I want to just connect with all of you on is particularly this one issue is that functional medicine is slow. The success of functional medicine is slow. You can take a painkiller and feel better in 15 minutes. To reverse an autoimmune disease or a chronic illness can take three months, six months, a year, multiple years to do, and that has been one of the biggest issues that holds functional medicine back because ultimately, even in technology, there is a phrase, if you go to Y Combinator, they’ll tell you, “be the painkiller, not the vitamin.”

What they’re talking about at that moment, be the painkiller, not the vitamin, is that you should create things that solve problems that people have now, not something that’s a nice to have for the future. Now obviously as functional medicine people, we can see that if the whole world becomes a painkiller and not a vitamin, you end up with the world that we have today, which is that we have an opiate epidemic and we have short-term focus on pretty much everything. We don’t invest in the vitamins that are necessary and that’s why we have chronic illness. You can see that in the short term, that might be a good idea in the long term, it’s a disaster that we are living in right now.

The second thing about functional medicine, it’s not only is it slow, but it’s participatory, which is the biggest change in the model, right? The biggest change in the standard of care is that the locus of control moves from the doctor to the patient. And so ultimately, you need to get patients ready to actually participate. One of the reasons why in fee for service functional medicine, you see so many patients drop off after the first appointment is that they are not engaged. They want to understand what’s going on with them, but then if you tell them, “Hey, you’re going to have to change your diet, take these supplements and it’s going to take six months,” a lot of people are just like, “I’m out. I can’t see that for myself and I don’t even know that it’s going to work.”

And so ultimately these are, I think two of the biggest things that have been holding back functional medicine from taking its rightful place or even lifestyle medicine, integrated medicine, anything that is health focused from taking its rightful place at the front lines of medicine. Why isn’t this the standard of care? I think it’s because it’s slow, and because it’s participatory. If you think about all the ways that we convince people to do functional medicine, a webinar, a dinner talk, we’ll get into some of this education online, a talk in the local community, it’s always didactic. It’s never participatory. And so what I want to do today is to share some of my thinking of where this came from and to share the foundation for VagusFest.

Over the years, we at the Evolution of Medicine have introduced a number of different ways to turn the local community. If you’re going to go out and convince the local community to get healthy, you need to have a system to do that consistently in a way that ends up with a profitable business. The very first one that we were hot on right at the beginning was the Evolution of Medicine Film Festival. Those of you who were around in 2015 remember that. It was all based on this understanding that there was a movie called Escape Fire. If you’ve never seen it came out in 2011. It features Dean Ornish and Andy Weil and it’s one of the main characters getting acupuncture in the VA. But I would say that film was incredible at getting people to think, hey, I want that kind of medicine.

And so that’s why it was a good fit for doctors to show a screening of Escape Fire, fill the theater with potential patient prospects and use the film to convert them because it was really good at transferring feelings. We had Dr. Gladd on there early on. He and I actually watched Escape Fire together in 2013, I think at Heal Thy Practice Conference. And that’s when we got excited about it like this is putting our best foot forward in a really amazing way. And so that led to the Evolution of Medicine Film Festival. That is actually not even possible today because the technology that underpinned that called Tugg went out of business during the pandemic, which is the easy way to get it to film and put it on your local theater.

But that was part one of the concept. Yes, it was didactic, but it was also specifically designed to engage you and want you to want integrated medicine so that was an effective tool. Another thing that we’ve talked about over the years is the dinner talk, and Dr. Charlie Webb from Freedom Practice Coaching in my estimation invented this idea and this structure, and now 800 clinics around the country used this. Charlie Webb started Freedom Practice Coaching, and he decided that the way that he was going to do this was that he was going to schedule dinner talks where he would essentially pay for dinner for 50 people at a time at a significant cost, right? 50 bucks a head, 2,500 bucks just to host the dinner. Then you have to fill the room. That’s another 2,500 bucks. So let’s say he spends $5,000, but he knows that he can close five people out of those people into a $5,000 functional medicine package, and so it’s just a cost of doing business.

And just to put some meat on that bone, last year I had the chance to meet a doctor called Dr. Mike Smith, and he’s from North Carolina. He’s a naturopathic doctor practicing in an unlicensed state, and I found out that in 2014, he clicked on one of my emails after the first Evolution of Medicine Summit and joined Freedom Practice Coaching. And now, nine years later, he consistently works two weeks a month and he sells between 20 and 30 packages every month at $8,000, and you can do the math on that. It’s at least a couple million dollars in practice and he works two weeks a month.

People who have built a consistent way to get in front of people, to fill the room, to orient them to the practice, and to sell them consistently into the practice to go through a specific episode of care, that’s an effective strategy. But how many practitioners out there want to sign up for Freedom Practice Coaching and then execute that sort of plan? Some have, 800 have but 80,000 haven’t or 50,000 haven’t or whatever number we have here, but that’s at least giving you an idea of a solution to educate. But again, it’s still didactic.

Then I did a podcast a couple years ago with Keri Sutton who’s a nurse practitioner in the Midwest, and she talked about her journey and her and her team’s journey of building an orientation for the practice. So what started out as, hey, there’s so much information that we need patients to have. They take insurance, they do group visits, they want to make sure that they give all the patients the ability to really understand what’s different about their practice. They would have everyone come in at one o’clock on a Friday and do the practice orientation where Dr. Keri Sutton would do her hour-long spiel, and then one week she couldn’t do it and they put the front desk person to do it. And guess what? It was even more effective because it’s easier for someone else to wax lyrical about your abilities than it is for you because of humility and those kind of human things that we all have.

So then they realized, okay, it’s better if not the doctor does it. Then they realized during COVID that they could do it virtually. And then, critically, they recognized that instead of doing an hour talk about the practice, if they did a half an hour talk about the practice and then gave half an hour to have people talk about why they wanted to come in and what they were hoping to get from the practice, they established essentially a mini group visit. And that was powerful for them because they wanted to, because a lot of the care that they’re delivering in their practices in groups. That was a big, big moment because they started to realize that the orientation was even more effective when there was just a micro part of participation.

If you add participation to the onboarding, you get even better outcomes with the onboarding into the clinic. Then the final thing is the group visit toolkit. As I mentioned earlier, Lifestyle Matrix has been the sponsor forever here for the last five years. I wrote a whole book on group visits and Dr. Shilpa Saxena created this group visit toolkit, and you can see that the reason why the outcomes in groups are better in the Cleveland Clinic than individual is because of the participation. It’s because of the engagement, resolving loneliness. So the trend is that all of these things that I’ve just mentioned, the film festival, the dinner talk, the orientation, and the group visit toolkit, all four of those pre-educate and they sell and they engage, but the orientation got better results with less information and more participation. So that’s the feedback to what I’m about to talk about.

Then here we are this year and we’re coming into the year of unity. My friend Dr. Navaz Habib comes on the podcast and he says, I want to do a podcast about the vagus nerve. And I was like, “Talk to me in the context of a theme of unity.” He basically said he believes that the vagus nerve is the organ of unity. It’s the structure that is connecting all of the important functions of the body. It connects everything, whether or not you’re in sympathetic or parasympathetic, whether or not your healing is dependent on the toning of the vagus nerve, the tone of the vagus nerve, and it’s equally important for every type of practitioner, functional medicine, lifestyle medicine, integrated medicine, chiropractic, acupuncture, nutrition and everything else, health coaching, everything, everything is all about is about toning the vagus nerve.

And even if you take it the next step, you could talk about polyvagal theory where essentially safety is what’s needed to get into parasympathetic state, so that’s another reason why the groups is so strong, is because ultimately it’s toning the vagal nerve through safety, and that’s why we think about the group visit. So that’s got my mind going. And so then ultimately, this is how the idea for VagusFest came about because I was like, look, if we know that the vagus nerve could be something that unites communities, unites practitioners is as important to a nutritionist and a mental health practitioner as it is to a functional medicine doctor or a lifestyle medicine doctor, then this could be something to bring everyone together and ultimately what would it look like to give the gift to your community of giving them the tools that they need to regulate their own nervous system?

That’s what we’re going to be talking about, and ultimately that’s what VagusFest is. It is a participatory education experience where you’re going to educate members of the public about their vagus nerve, and you’re going to give them an opportunity to tone their vagus nerve together. And the good news is it’s not that hard. I have a thing called the Man Morning that I do with friends of mine who are entrepreneurs, and we come together, we share our wins for the week. We do some breathing. We literally put on a Wim Hof video every week. It’s an 11-minute video. We do the breathing and we do a cold plunge and then we chat, and that’s what we do that once a week.

It’s not that difficult to replicate one of those breathing exercises. It’s not that difficult to replicate one of these meditation exercises. I would say if you’ve ever done any cold plunge, or if you’ve done a breathing exercise like that, or if you’ve done a really powerful meditation or mindfulness exercise. If you’ve sung for 20 minutes, if you’ve hummed or if you’ve been in some sort of participatory structure, you can feel the difference. You can feel what it feels like to have participated in that. You could feel healing, you could actually feel it.

This is what I want to talk about. I want to talk to the practitioner community now about using some of these tools to give people an actual experience of what healing is going to be like to teach them some tools, to teach them about healing at the root cause through participation, not through didactic learning. And then either implicitly or explicitly share that your practice is the place to go if you want to continue that healing journey. And ultimately, VagusFest is low cost. You don’t have to spend tons of money to fill a restaurant and book a restaurant and fill a restaurant. You could do it outside in nature, in a park this summer at no cost. You don’t have to be a legend at meditation or mindfulness or whatever because literally going to have, we have step-by-step guides to help you do a breathing session for a group of people to help you run a meditation section, to help you do a gargling exercise.

All of those things are organized in such a way that it’s easy for you to do it. What essentially, VagusFest is a complete set of tools to run a VagusFest, just like the group visit toolkits from Lifestyle Matrix Resource Center, or all the things you need to run a group visit toolkit. VagusFest is a complete set of tools to run a VagusFest in your community so that is a step-by-step execution guide, a step-by-step marketing guide, PR assets. One of the things I thought about is local PR. Some of the doctors that we’ve seen have the most success in building a brick and mortar practice have found ways to get local PR. A dinner talk is not press worthy, right? It’s a marketing exercise that’s being done to build a business. A doctor or a group of practitioners coming together to run a VagusFest in a park in your community, that is press worthy because it’s an interesting topic.

The vagus nerve is super interesting. It’s à la mode, right? It’s all of these things like the Wim Hof style breathing, the ice plunge, all of these things are in the public consciousness right now. This is a la mode. So what I’m going to invite all of you guys to think about is this summer running a VagusFest or multiple VagusFests in your community, and to set it up in a park to invite your community, your email list to partner with a couple of organizations, partner with synergistic organizations. This is some of the things that we’ve spoken about for years here. Is there a chiropractor or an acupuncturist or a mental health therapist or a Pilates studio or a gym or anyone that’s in the business of health creation? Could you partner with them and all invite all of your people down to the park, and could you then take 100 people through this journey over a couple of hours in an afternoon and at the end of it, come up with 30 patients that are ready to come into your practice?

That is what I think is possible, and that is what VagusFest is about. So in order to set this up, we are going to do what we’re calling the VagusFest Pro, which is a VagusFest for practitioners to give you an experience of doing it so that you could put yourself into the role of, oh, I’m going to be the person that’s going to do it, and then you can see yourself doing it. There’s a few opportunities that we have coming up to do it, so as you may or may not know, for the last number of years, we have done the pre-party to the IFM Annual Conference. This year at the annual conference, which is in Las Vegas, that’s part of the way that this came about, I was like, “Las Vegas, vagus nerve, VagusFest,” right? So that’s the beginning of it.

So on the 29th of May in Las Vegas, there is an opportunity, it’s almost sold out, but there is 10 groups of 10. So groups of 10 practitioners are going to go through the different stations in the VagusFest. This is going to be inside the Bellagio in Las Vegas so not exactly the opportunity that everyone else has, but also, you probably need a little vagus nerve toning if you’re going to spend more than a weekend in Las Vegas. So that’s the first one. So there are tickets available for that. You can actually do the VagusFest. We’ve got some of the hosts there. We’ve got Dr. Mike Ash and his crew from the UK. We’ve got Dr. Jeff Gladd from Fullscript, we’ve got Dallas Hartwig leading one. We’ve got three groups that are for MD and DO only that are part of the Physicians Lounge. Those are already almost sold out I think. I think you can see some of the other leaders that we have running those, Deanna Minich. I think that one’s almost sold out.

So we have leaders essentially running those 10 groups of 10, and that’s going to be the worldwide premiere of VagusFest. Also, if you know, I’ve recently taken over the Austin Functional Forum, so I’m going to Austin four times this year. We just had our first meeting, we’re going to have our second meeting on June the 5th, and we’re going to do that in Zilker Park in Austin so this is going to be an example of it doing in the park. We’re going to do it at Freedom Practice Coaching Quarterly, which is also that weekend so I think that’s Sunday the 8th or 9th of June in San Antonio. We are hoping to do VagusFest at the Independent National Convention, which is in Denver the 4th through the 6th of July in Denver.

Really excited about that event, and I would welcome any practitioners that are interested in new ideas, new forms of governance, new structures for the emancipation of humanity and the transformation of human consciousness. Come to the Independent National Convention, I’m running the Community Health track. I’d love to have you there, be involved. On the 8th of July, I’m going to be doing the Functional Forum from Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, and we’re going to be doing it there. And then I’m already in talks with a number of big conferences like the Integrative Medicine for Mental Health Conference which is October in DC, and the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, which is in October in, where is that? Orlando. That we could do more of these ones for practitioners, and that then at that event, you’ll have the opportunity to get all of the tools that you need to go and put on one or multiple VagusFests in your community and use it as a way to grow and develop your practice.

That’s what it is. I’ve never done a solo podcast before. I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any feedback, let me know. I’d love to get your thoughts and insight. We’re still in the process of building out all of the step-by-step execution guides for all of the different stations. We’ve got essentially a deck of cards that you’ll use to run the event. We’ve got the PR assets, and we are going to be running a couple of test runs, both at individual clinics and then groups over the summer. But my dream and the vision is much like the Evolution of Medicine Film Festival. I think we had 40 locations putting on the film, and I think 4,000 people checked out the film. How many people could we put through a VagusFest experience? How many people could we give the tools to manage their own parasympathetic state? What is the value of that gift?

If you give the gift to that many people in your community, the reciprocity, the law of reciprocity is going to mean that you’ll become the center of your community. We even have Dr. Karla Mehlenbacher is going to be starting to run VagusFest in employers. So there’s already some momentum for it, and I’m really excited about all the different, so IFM, Austin Functional Forum, Freedom Practice Coaching Quarterly, Independent National Convention, that’s inc24.us.

I’ll be there with my family. Hope you can join us, Loveland, Colorado, and more to come. If you enjoyed this, let me know. If you think about another practitioner that you think needs to hear this, please forward it to them. My hope is that this is going to give many more people an opportunity to experience healing, to participate in their own healing, and then your clinic and your practice is the next step in that journey. I look forward to what’s next. Thank you so much for tuning in, and we’ll see you next time.

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