Mind Control and Brain Training

I believe in mind control.  I have a deep faith that the power of attention can achieve what was deemed impossible.

When my son was 4 months old my husband and  I were lucky enough to to witness his realization of something truly amazing. He sat propped up in front of us, moving his fingers in front of his face with a look of utter  astonishment.  The look was easy to read “I can control these with my mind.” We felt we were witness to the beginning of him consciously inhabiting his body; it’s a journey that he, like all of us, can continue all of our lives.  The sensitivity to the sensations that originate within our bodies is called interoception.  This sensitivity can be honed, and when it is, it can result in dramatic changes in motor control and the experience of pain.

Brain Training for Interoception

Neuroscience has been offering more and more evidence for my faith in the power of mindful attention in the past decade — brain training in interoception really works. In 2016 a team of Brazilian researchers showed that it was possible for severely paralyzed patients to regain sensation and movement in their legs through brain training exercises.  These patients practiced for more than 2000 hours using Virtual Reality.  Their persistence paid off more than was imaginable at the beginning of the study. Most had returned sensation to parts of their body previously inaccessible, but even more remarkable was that most also had some motor control return as well.*

For my son, learning to control the movements of his body was sometimes pleasurable, and other times agonizing.  For weeks before he learned to crawl he would wake in the middle of the night rocking on his knees.  He cried with frustration at his inability to access the cross body movement patterns necessary to propel him forward, but despite frustration, he persistently willed it.

And yes, we all have memories of how challenging the process of learning new movement patterns can be. I remember the frustration of repeatedly stalling when I first learned to drive standard transmission, and hours of getting the steps wrong when learning to  swing dance.  But the magical moment of mind control that my son experienced at 4 months was not pride at having learned a new pattern, but the pure astonished joy of inhabiting his body. He was not moving in a new way – his fingers had wiggled like that for months. He was feeling more deeply his connection to his body — developing interoception. On the foundation of this experience skills can be built and rebuilt, motor control regained and regained, and pain overcome.

Brain Training for Pain Relief

For the most truly astonishing results relentless persistence and dedication are required — in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing” Norman Doidge chronicals the recovery of patients in chronic pain using specific brain training visualizations to rewire their brains and overcome decades of suffering.* These experiments used simplified pictures of the brain itself as the basis for the visualizations. And the brain training exercises were done for hours and hours a day, for many weeks at a time before results start to appear. But significant and joyful changes can be made in much less time.

In my regular morning yoga class at Movati I have students who have been attending regularly for almost four years.  In that time I have occasionally lead them through an exercise called psychic alternate nostril breathing.  As in nadi-shodana, in this exercise you alternately breath in through one nostril and out through the other, always changing on the exhale.  However I have my students practice it without using their hands, instead using visualization to aid them. I tell them, “this is a focusing exercise; it does not matter how successful you are at directing the flow of air, only that your focus and intention are precise.” But, repeated attention and intention result in shortening the synaptic gap, and slowly, with this brain training, students learn to control the dilation of their nostrils individually.  Recently, I had a student approach me after class with a look of happy surprise on her face — “I  can do it.”  I have seen this joy repeated again and again as my students are immersed in the vibrancy of being in their bodies in new and unfamiliar ways.

Encouraging movement from the outside can often help to more quickly restore the depth of internal sensation.  I often use self massage with grippy pliable rubber balls, or inflated balls to help encourage my tissues to feel more deeply, and thus also move more efficiently or through a greater range. If time is taken to stop, pay attention and really feel after they are used, these self massage techniques become an aid in brain training for interoception – reconnecting or strengthening our ability to feel and move our bodies — and to feel the utter astonishment of mind control.

__________________

Radford, Tim. “‘Brain training’ technique restores feeling and movement to paraplegic patients.” The Guardian. August 11, 2016. Accessed October 01, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/11/brain-training-technique-restores-feeling-and-movement-to-paraplegics-virtual-reality.

Howard, Jacqueline. “Paraplegics moving again years after injuries  .” CNN. August 11, 2016. Accessed October 01, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/11/health/paralysis-brain-machine-interface/index.html.
Doidge, Norman. The brains way of healing: remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity. Strawberry Hills, N.S.W.: ReadHowYouWant, 2017. 17-18

The Difference between Classes and Workshops | Dec 2016

Classes are guided group movement practices. They are distinguished from workshops by being less focused on specific technical education, and more on developing physical experience and skills. You can attend my drop in yoga classes at Movati Waterloo. Contact me by email to book me to teach a class or classes in your facility.

Workshops are one time events or short run series that focus on education. They have a more open format in which questions are encouraged and addressed during class time. Often handouts are provided for further or later review of the material, and there is more in depth focus on anatomy and physiology. Workshops are designed to help one develop or enhance an existing personal movement practice, and can be a great way to develop skills for body workers or those that teach movement.

Look for current event listings here.

Inspiration and Growth

Chronic pain is endemic in our culture. Through my work as a yoga teacher I have noticed that chronic bodily pain is not just restricted to elderly, sedentary people – it’s widespread. I have seen so many people who are healthy, young and active with chronic pain; with headaches, low back spasms, cracking or painful knees, to name a few. I, myself, suffered chronic pain throughout my youth and young adulthood. While yoga helped mitigate much of this, it lead to a host of other problems, including increased ligament laxity – I started out as flexible and ended up unevenly overstretching, which weakened my joints and left me vulnerable to injuries. My journey to understand what was going on in my own body lead me to study anatomy, biomechanics, and the new anatomy of biotensegrity. I felt a deep, internal imperative. I had lived here all my life, but had no road map. I quickly discovered the work of Katy Bowman, Kelly Starrett and Jill Miller, Tom Myers, and Jules Mitchell, among others — some of my principle influences currently.

sitting down

My study of biomechanics quickly lead to the realization that poor postural habits in my daily life (and those of my past) were sabotaging my ability to reduce my pain through yoga.  The body work I regularly sought out didn’t have lasting effects either.  At best yoga and body work would comprise 3 hours of my day, but the postures I was assuming for most of the day deeply affected the way I could move the rest of the time.  I wasn’t spending most of the day moving around.  Mostly I was studying.  The quality of my daily movement habits were affecting my posture, and my emotional state as well.  And what was that posture? It was the same one for me as it is for most others …

The consensus is clear – the biggest “innocuous environmental load” that we face in our culture is the immense amount of time we spend sitting in chairs. The human body evolved to move; to squat rather than stand at counters or sit on toilets, to run or walk instead of drive cars, or ride bicycles, to dance and skip and climb trees. For nearly 200,000 years we moved most of the time. Then the industrial revolution slowly began to fix us to one position and one set of movements most of the day, and Fordism (the advent of the production line to improve the efficiency of capitalist production) reduced the variety of movements we did even further. As technology advances, the amount of us sitting work increases exponentially. In the last decade, with the advent of smart phones, the workplace and social space grow even more cramped.

However, sitting at your desk can’t just be replaced with standing at it. As Katy Boman says in her book Move Your DNA, The “collective move of workers to chairs stemmed from the standing injuries created by post-industrial standing-all-day factory work. ‘Standing’ already has its risk of injury on file.” Instead, the solution is in increasing the amount of time during the day that you are moving, and varying the type of movement and the positions as much as possible. 

The classes and workshops that I teach, informed by biomechanics and theories of biotensegrity, offer empowering techniques to treat aches and pains, to increase range of movement and importantly, to improve knowledge of your own intimate architecture – to integrate with yourself. There is a strong emphasis in these classes to help students undo some of the common postural issues created by our cultural way of living – the long hours we spend sitting while at a desk, or driving, or on a couch; the hunch of working with our hands in front of us at a counter; our reliance on heavily padded shoes with raised heel shoes.

But our bodies and our lives are unique; while many of us suffer from ailments and bodily pains with culturally common causes, each of our bodies has a different starting point, different methods of adaptation, and different goals. This is one of the reasons that the increase in inner body perception, or interoception, is a key part of this practice. As a Yoga Tune Up teacher I often start classes with the suggestion that those practicing become “students of their bodies”. I strive to empower each person in my class or each private client that I have to learn to assess themselves; to discover ways to mitigate the damaging effects of daily posture habits they can’t avoid (most of us won’t quit a job because we don’t want to spend too much time sitting at a desk), and increase mobility and stability for the activities they do enjoy (salsa requires a significant amount of internal rotation through the hip).

Healing happens within. Doctors, physiotherapists and body workers can help to facilitate that healing. But we can also become responsible for our own healing; we can become active agents in making the changes necessary to thrive in our bodies. I am constantly studying and learning new things to offer to my students, but the most powerful tool each of us has is this power to look inside. The techniques that I teach–self-massage, precise stretching and corrective movement–are fueled by increased self-awareness, proprioception and interception. It is through this that they offer a way into taking more responsibility for your own body, for your own being.