Neural Plasticity

When I teach Nia, here is my habit: I start with the focus. I think about it, read about it, draw and write about it. I post what I come up with here on this blog. Then I create playlists for the week based on that focus, choosing choreography and lyrics and energy that lend themselves to where we’re putting our attention. Then I listen to the music, review or create choreography, and BOOM, I’m ready to teach for the week.

I like it. It works for me. And it is definitely, without question my habit.

Several years ago, I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I found it to be utterly fascinating and I still think about it all the time. I totally recommend the book and you could also read/listen to this NPR interview to get a taste of the science behind how we do what we do. One of the things Duhigg talks about is how much of what we do is habit. Research shows that 40-45% of the choices we make aren’t choices, they are habits. There are excellent reasons for why our brains do this (like efficiency and freeing up space to do more creative things) but it’s worth understanding how habits work so we can make choices about them.

Habits aren’t just fascinating to me but to some of my favorite writers:

James Clear recently wrote about replacing bad habits with better ones (and before that, wrote about how habits work…based on Charles Duhigg’s book!)

Leo Babauta, blogger at Zen Habits writes extensively about habits (obvio from his blog title) so there’s lots to explore on his site but I like his Habit Change Cheatsheet as a starting point.

Seth Godin writes a genius blog with short, wonderful posts. You can see some good ones about habits here, here and here.

In my experience, habit-breaking isn’t just beneficial for the results it can offer (like quitting smoking or meditating regularly or eating more dark leafies). I believe that there are intrinsic benefits to breaking any habitual pattern. Years ago, my friend Marga Odahowski, author of The Way of the Hammock,told me that she would start habits intentionally (chewing gum was the one I remember) in order to then break it. And I think there is something to this.

It is an act of mindful awareness to notice what we are doing and how we are doing it. Do you always step onto the first stair with your dominant foot? Do you always put take your right shoe off first? Do you always dance the same way during freedance? There isn’t anything inherently wrong with doing any of those things and (unlike smoking or eating Hardee’s every day) they aren’t likely to hurt you much. But what if the very choice, the very act of doing something new or doing something old differently has tremendous benefits? Would you be willing to play with the possibility of changing things up?

We’re going to explore neuroplasticity in a future focus (you can read a little about it here and there is lots more to find on the Interwebs) but my short answer is YES. Understanding the way habits work is the first step toward not only building the habits you want to have but also to making your brain stronger and healthier.

So, here’s what I’m doing: I’m breaking my class-preparation habit this week. I’m picking music based on my whim. Then for each class, I will let a focus show up somehow in the time just before class: it might be something someone says to me, something that I see on the drive in, or something that pops into my head as I set up the stereo. It is what it is and we’ll see what it is. For each class, I’ll do a sketch or some piece of art for the focus that arrives. We’ll see what it is and it is what it is.

The idea is that breaking the habit of how I do what I do makes it more than whatever it is.

Focus Gallery

Mon, April 30, 2018, 1045am

Trust. The health of any relationship comes down to the trust that each side has for each other. Think of the relationship you have with a friend, a business, your body, a beloved. What do you trust? What don’t you trust? What is the sensation of trust?

Tue, May 1, 2018, 840am

Chest: the home of the heart. I woke up this morning with a tender, achy heart. A tendency when I feel this way can be to stabilize my chest to protect my hurting heart. Instead, this morning we focused on mobilizing the chest to keep the heart soft and sensation alive rather than numbed. Breathe into the feeling.

Wed, May 2, 2018, 11am

First Chakra. On a physical level, we focused on releasing the low spine/sacrum and engaging the low abdominals. On an energetic level, we focused on the first chakra which resides at the sacrum. The first chakra is the center of security, stability, and your right to take up space in the world. By releasing the low back and engaging the low abdominals, we offer ourselves support from the inside while also resting in the support below us. Any time you accept help or fully relax and let go you are energizing your first chakra.

Thu, May 3, 2018, 840am

Squeeze & Release. Energize and relax your body in the most basic and powerful way. Your heart and lungs and muscles all work in this way. Feel it for yourself.


4 ways to strengthen proprioception
Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

Proprioception is our body’s ability to sense itself in space and time. Watching Ian, a man who lost his proprioception, move in the documentary The Man Who Lost His Body, I was struck by two things: the brain’s ability to learn and change (sometimes called “plasticity”) and the amazing grace and ease of normal human movement.

Through determination, hard work, and consistency, Ian was able to regain most movement he needed to function. But in order for him to do even basic things like walking through a store and picking up a turnip require him to concentrate, focus, and plan each piece of the movement. Watching his story gave me renewed appreciation for the actions that most of us do automatically.

Cases of lost proprioception are rare but they invite us to truly appreciate the miraculous way our bodies move and give us the choice to pay attention to the secret sixth sense and do what we can to strengthen it. Awareness of proprioception can improve balance and grace and help avoid injury.

Here are 4 ways to bolster your secret sense including some little guys to show you what I mean (Remember, it’s not about being able to do the most advanced version, it’s about finding the balance in your body between challenge and ease/breath. Hint: if you can’t breathe, you’ve gone too far. Focus on excellent form over forcing to go to the next step.):

1. Standing Balance

The balance triumvirate of proprioception, vision and the vestibular system (inner ear) allow us to balance. Working together, the three allow us to walk along a crowded, uneven sidewalk or even just across the room. Strengthening balance strengthens the body’s sense of itself in space which helps increase stability and gracefulness and decrease the chance of injury. Here’s a simple graduated standing balance series (when you can do any of these for 30 seconds without falling, move to the next step):

proprioception standing balance– Stand with feet together
– Stand with feet together and closed eyes
– Stand on one foot (do both feet since balance is often different side to side)
– Stand on one foot with one eye closed
– Stand on one foot with both eyes closed (you can also do the one-foot balance on the ball of your foot or lifting up and down to the ball of your foot)
– Stand on an unstable surface (like a Theraband Stability Trainer) on one foot
– Stand on an unstable surface on one foot with one eye closed
– Stand on an unstable surface on one foot with both eyes closed
Obviously, there are unlimited variations on this. The basic idea is that the way to increase your balance and stability is to take your body out of balance and stability. Play with ways of challenging your proprioception by standing on different unstable surfaces and gradually eliminating the anchor of your vision.

Theraband Stability Trainer

2. Core Balance

Much of our balance and grace comes from the strength of our core muscles. Similar to the standing series, one way of powering up the center is to put it into increasingly unstable positions:
– Table Top Three-Point Balance – From hands and knees (hands under shoulders, knees under hips, spine long and neutral) lift right hand keeping the hips and shoulders level. Then lift left hand and each leg one at a time.
– Table Top Two-Point Balance – From hands and knees, lift right hand and left foot reaching away from center. Switch sides.
– Cross Lateral Table Top – From hands and knees, lift right hand and left foot long away from center then pull knee and elbow together. Switch sides. (Variations: touch knee to forehead, do this with eyes closed)

– Side Plank – Press right hand down into the floor and stack left knee on top of right and lift hips making a long line from knees to crown. Stack left shoulder over right and look up to left hand or even close the eyes! (Variations: Balance on the edge of the bottom foot, with the top leg bent and whole foot in front of the bottom leg; stack feet on top of each other, lift the top leg!)

proprioception side plank

3. Explore Novel Movement with Curiosity

“Movements that are most likely to lead to changes in the quality of the [brain] maps [to the body] are movements that are curious, exploratory, novel, interesting, rich in sensory input, slow, gentle, mindful, non-painful.” – Todd Hargrove, Move Better blog

Experiment with new movements like the ones described above. In particular, Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, yoga and Nia are excellent choices for strengthening the mind-body connection.

4. Visualize & Imagine

“The very act of visualizing or imagining the gestural movement helps [Ian] express himself better.” – Dr. Jonathan Cole, Neurologist, from the BBC documentary, The Man Who Lost His Body

At the moment, I’m attempting to learn how to do a handstand. The act of balancing upside down gives my nervous system all kinds of opportunities reorganize and burn new pathways! (It also gives me lots of opportunities to awkwardly fall and flail!) If I take a moment before I go into a handstand to visualize what I’m going to do and where my body is going to go, it always goes better. When learning or practicing a new movement, imagine yourself doing it before you do it.

A variation on this is to do movements using visualization: pretend to toss a cotton ball, then pretend to toss a bowling ball; reach up and lift a crystal glass off a shelf, then reach up and lift a glass punch bowl off a shelf; push open a gauze curtain then push open a heavy velvet curtain. By playing using your imagination to visualize various textures of movement, you are training your proprioception for a wide range of possibilities.

Have fun with these and I’d love to hear how awareness of your body’s proprioception affects your experience!

proprioception the secret sense 112815
Right now, as you read this, you have a secret sense at work in your body. Right now, this secret sense is allowing you to hold whatever position you’re in, to manipulate the device you are reading on, scratch an itch while you are reading, and even to speak, gesture, and tell someone how awesome this post is and that they should be reading it, too.

Proprioception is the secret sense that gives your body a sense of itself. Sometimes called the hidden sense or the sixth sense, proprioception is what allows the body to find itself in space and time but more than that, proprioception allows us to be embodied. [For a great explanation of proprioception, check out this excellent post by Todd Hargrove.]

Proprioception is so essential to our physical functioning and sense of ourselves that most of us take it for granted until it goes off track. Proprioception calculates where your body has been, where it is, and where it’s going. A common example of mis-propriocepting is when you think there is one more step at the top of the stairs and do that awkward-wackadoodle-over-stepping thing on the landing. Proprioception also calculates how much stretch and strength is needed for an upcoming movement. So when you see a box that you think is full of books but when you lift it find that it is actually full of tissue paper, you’ll lift wildly and probably toss the paper across the room.

But to get a true picture of how integral proprioception is to our physical functioning, imagine what would happen if a body lost it entirely. In his case study, The Disembodied Lady (from his brilliant 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat), Oliver Sacks writes fascinatingly about just that. He tells about Christina who, when given preoperative antibiotics before gallstone surgery, lost her proprioception. This young, athletic woman suddenly was unable to move, sit, speak or use facial expression. When she began to regain some movement, she could only move body parts she could see and even then movement was drunken, flailing, and wildly awkward.

In his early observations of Christina, Dr. Sacks writes

the collapse of tone and muscle posture, from top to toe; the wandering of her hands, which she seemed unaware of; the flailing and overshooting, as if she were receiving no information from the periphery, as if the control loops for time and movement had catastrophically broken down.

As Christina herself describes it

I feel my body is blind and deaf to itself… It has no sense of itself.

Truly, the proprioceptive sense is indispensable for creating the normal, easeful, graceful movement that most of us do automatically.

The body’s sense of itself comes from three systems: vision, balance organs (the vestibular system), and proprioception. Usually the three work together and should one system fail, the others can compensate. It is for this reason that Christina could use her eyes to create movement since the body had gone “blind” and couldn’t “see” itself.

For a deeper understanding of the connection between vision and proprioception, watch even a few minutes of the amazing 1998 BBC documentary, The Man Who Lost His Body.* The film tells the story of Ian, a man who lost his proprioception at the age of 20 and his miraculous rehabilitation to near full-functioning. Like Christina, in order for Ian to move, he has to see himself do it. His vision is so utterly tied to his ability to move that when the lights went out suddenly in a power outage, he completely collapsed to the floor.

Why do we care about this secret sense? Unlike Christina and Ian most of us have fully functioning proprioception. (Whew, right?) So why is it worth knowing about a system that is working without any input from us?

First, we can strengthen proprioception through movement, awareness, and body-mind exercises. By strengthening our secret sense, we can avoid injury and improve balance, agility and grace. Who wouldn’t like a little more of that? (On Tuesday, in the Art in Action post, I’ll talk about specific things you can do to boost your proprioceptive skills.)

Second, understanding the fundamental, hidden power of proprioception is like noticing your habits. By taking proprioception out of the shadow of unconsciousness into the light of awareness, it gives us and a deeper understanding of what our bodies and brains are doing for us in every moment and we can then make choices to bolster it.

Not least, understanding proprioception gives cause for celebrating miracles. Miracles like touch typing, scratching an itch in the middle of your back, and walking without looking at your feet. And that can transform the secret sense into secret sauce.


* [RABBIT HOLE ALERT – I was only going to watch a few minutes of this documentary to see what Ian’s movement looked like, but got completely fascinated and watched the whole thing.]
BBC Documentary The Man Who Lost His Body (1998)
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Dad & SJ in baby pool

 (photo of me and my father in July 1966 that delights me no end)

When he was bed-ridden with a herniated disc and sciatic pain, my husband Frank had a sincerely narrow range of motion. He could slowly get up and down off the couch but if he dropped his book on the floor, forget it.  That book might as well have been on another planet. All his movements were pulled in toward his center. Even his spine curled in on itself.

After more than a month of inactivity, he started physical therapy.  At first, he could only do a few repetitions of the smallest of movements: drawing his chin down and back, pulling his scapulae together, engaging his abdominal muscles. As he’s healed, he’s increased not only how much he can do but how far he can reach and stride — his range of motion — as well.

* * *

Think about the range of motion of someone using this chair.
Enough said.

* * *

Frank and I got smart phones a while back. After years with our standard cell phones, I did not know what to do with this new contraption that didn’t even come with an instruction manual. I set that gul-darned thing on the coffee table and glared at it every time I walked by.

* * *

My beloved mother-in-law, Helen, is in her early 80s. She embraces new technology like a teenager. She has an iPad and voice recognition software and her cell phone is patched into the dashboard of her car. Her mind is youthfully courageous and engaged as she fearlessly embraces the new gadgets that I eye warily for weeks. She can also give you a serious smack-down in Pinochle, Whist, Bridge, and just about any card game you know.

* * *

A friend tells a story of her father who died recently at the age of 89. Just a week before his death he was talking excitedly with a colleague about the book he was going to write. Not the next book, but the one after that. It would have been his 37th.

* * *

A friend’s mother-in-law gets pedicures not because she loves the warm bubbly foot bath, or the pampering of a foot massage, or even how her toes look. She gets pedicures because she can’t reach her toes.

* * *

In my circle of friends, this summer has been a rocky one. Just in my little corner of the world, the past few months have included two abdominal surgeries to remove tumors, a herniated disc with a side of sciatic pain and shoulder bursitis, deaths of four fathers, a cancer diagnosis, the death of an old colleague, relationship collapses, custody disputes, and an accidental death on a mountain bike trail. Some moments, I can actually feel my heart breaking.  From my little perch on the world this summer, I stretched my emotional wings to let in plenty of fear, grief, sadness, disappointment, and anger.

At the same time, though, in my same circle there has been a wedding, sweet birthday celebrations, generous meals offered, lots of laughter, kindnesses given and received. As I have leaned into the painful events, my capacity for gratitude, pleasure, generosity, compassion, wonder, and especially love has increased in equal measure.

fingers and toes manWe use fingers and toes all the time and they’re easy to take for granted. Until you stub one. Mindfulness of them enhances fitness, happiness, and presence – even without anatomy or Nia principles.

Toes tend to tighten. Relaxed toes relax the whole body.

4 Mindful uses of fingers offer big benefits:
1. Use them – Stretching, shaking, squeezing, flicking fingers strengthens hands and engages the body.

2. Relax them – Like toes, relaxed fingers help the body relax.

3. Break habit – Use non-dominant fingers. Wear rings differently. Burn new neural pathways!

4. Be expressive – Using fingers to express emotion is intimate…and healing.

%d bloggers like this: