Tag Archives: brain science

A bunch of times last week, I lost my mind.

Once I was attempting (yet again) to do Crow Pose (Bakasana). I planted my hands on the floor, bent my elbows, put my shins on my upper arm bones, sucked my belly in annnnnd… nope, my feet simply would not come up off the floor. My face got flushed, my heart pounding. I felt frustrated and annoyed that my teacher called this damn pose that stumps me every time.

Another time, I was on Facebook and a friend I haven’t seen since high school made a nasty, personal comment annnnnd… my face flushes, my heart pounds. I fire with fury and dash off a tart retort in which I wonder if maybe he’s donated his heart to science since I’ve seen him.

In these situations (and more!), I lost my mind. More precisely, I lost my prefrontal cortex.

When I get upset and impulsive with my thoughts or actions, it’s a sure sign that I’m at the mercy of the less-evolved parts of my brain. The brain stem and the limbic areas of our brains evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. This lower brain keeps heart beating and breath breathing and when under stress it puts us into the fight / flight / freeze / collapse mode. The limbic area is emotion and memory center and is the home of the survivalist (and oft alarmist) amygdala.

I don’t behave well when my brain stem and limbic area are in charge.

The frontal cortex on the other hand (the outside “bark of the brain”), allows me to think, reflect, manage emotion, regulate information flow, and communicate. These are handy skills when I’m struggling with a difficult posture, a snarky email, or an upsetting conversation. And right in the middle of the frontal cortex, behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex connects it all. This latest-to-evolve part of the brain takes in what’s going on around you, what’s going in your body, in your brain stem, in your limbic area, in your cortex and integrates it all. Note that it doesn’t turn off the lower brain, the prefrontal cortex integrates it.

An integrated brain is a healthy brain. And it’s one that’s less likely to dash off a surly email or curse a yoga teacher even when under stress.

The question, then, is how do I function from the integration and skillfulness of my prefrontal cortex instead of from my reactive lower brain?

My yoga teacher, Kelly Stine says, “directed, precise awareness in this moment gives access to a broader perspective.” In other words, mindfulness turns on the wisdom, regulation and integration of the prefrontal cortex. By paying attention to the details of what is arising right now – my heart is pounding, my jaw feels tight, my face is hot — I am able to manage my responses and choose more wisely. From a brain development point of view, when I reflect on my inner experience, identify emotions, and pay attention, I literally stimulate the integrative fibers of the brain.

How do I function from the healthy integration of my prefrontal cortex instead of my impulsive lower brain? The answer lies at the intersection of ancient meditation practices and modern neuroscience.

This from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist

When you breathe in, you bring all yourself together, body and mind; you become one. And equipped with that energy of mindfulness and concentration, you may take a step. You have the insight that this is your true home—you are alive, you are fully present, you are touching life as a reality.

Breathe deep. Pay attention. Get integrated.

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Watch More about the connections between mindfulness and brain science with Dr. Dan Seigel whose work inspired this post.

Mindfulness. Brain Hand Model. Dan Siegel. Empathy and Cognition.

Mindfulness and Neural Integration: Daniel Siegel, MD at TEDxStudioCityED

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If you enjoyed this post, great! Please share it!
And you might also like this one from April 2013: Integration is Health, Part 1


memory brain mapIn addition to training and conditioning our bodies in Nia this week, we also played with training our brains with focused attention.  Directing our awareness in this way increases the richness of the moment, enhances the memorability of each day, and expands our neural plasticity (that is, the brain’s ability to change itself). Pretty good deal, wouldn’t you say?  And even though I’m sure you remember every song, below are the playlists for the week!

Check out this week’s main post for more on the brain science of memory and neural plasticity, and below are the videos from the 100 Word Post:

Have a great weekend and make it memorable!
As always, let me know how I can help more.

Making Memories – Monday, May 27, 2013, 1045am

Éireann – 5:10 – Afro Celt Sound System
Pavement Cracks – 5:10 – Annie Lennox
Freedom – 6:31 – George Michael
Praise You – 5:22 – Fatboy Slim
Dream Machine – 3:53 – Mark Farina
Ma’ Africa – 4:49 – Mahotella Queens/Ulali
Ecstasy – 5:02 – Rusted Root
Stairway To Heaven – 8:03 – Led Zeppelin
Stolen Car – 3:58 – Sting
Tom’s Diner – 3:50 – DNA, Suzanne Vega
High – 4:04 – James Blunt
I Will Remember You – 4:53 – Sarah McLachlan

Making Memories – Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 9am

Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes – 5:48 – Paul Simon
Signs – 4:38 – Badmarsh & Shri
Marisi – 6:33 – Cantoma
Praise You – 5:22 – Fatboy Slim
Dream Machine – 3:53 – Mark Farina
Freek – 7:16 – Shakatura
African Drug [Original Tribal Mix] – 6:02 – Bob Holroyd
Samb Adagio – 5:58 – Safri Duo
History Repeating – 4:03 – Propellerheads feat. Shirley Bassey
Long Bone – 5:16 – Sofa Surfers
Angel – 4:30 – Sarah McLachlan
Prayer Of St. Francis – 2:02 – Sarah McLachlan

Making Memories – Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 1055am

Aquarius – 4:48 – Hair, the Musical / Renn Woods
What I Got – 3:21 – Gift Of Gab, Michael Franti, Spearhead
When Doves Cry – 4:04 – The Be Good Tanyas
Qalanderi – 6:55 – Cheb I Sabbah
Sunshine – 3:34 – Matisyahu
Legend In My Living Room – 3:46 – Annie Lennox
Give Love (Infinite Love Mix) – 5:29 – MC Yogi
Freek – 7:16 – Shakatura
The Time is Now – 3:55 – Moioko
Sorrento Moon (I Remember) – 4:54 – Tina Arena
I’ll Always Remember You – 4:23 – Robert Cray
Peace – 4:44 – FrUiT

Making Memories – Thursday, May 30, 2013, 9am

Wonderwall – 4:09 – Ryan Adams
You Can’t Always Get What You Want – 6:47 – Rusted Root
Love The One You’re With – 5:03 – Luther Vandross
Freedom – 6:31 – George Michael
Super Freak – 4:04 – Bruce Hornsby & Ricky Skaggs
Ecstasy – 5:02 – Rusted Root
Samb Adagio – 5:58 – Safri Duo
Sorrento Moon (I Remember) – 4:54 – Tina Arena
Sweet Child o’ Mine (Rick Rubin…) – 3:56 – Sheryl Crow
Long Bone – 5:16 – Sofa Surfers
High – 4:04 – James Blunt
I Will Remember You (Original Version) – 4:53 – Sarah McLachlan

unityIntegration is health.

Dan Siegel said it. I love it. His book, Mindsight, rocks.

Any complex system – a human body, a family, a company, a country – is integrated when the parts are both differentiated and linked. Integrated is flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable. Without integration (dis-integration??), systems move into either rigidity or chaos.

My Teacher, Carlos, retired from Nia in 2011. Sigh. His last routine, Humanity, focused on yin and yang. My routine, Unity, integrates his music and mine, his choreography and mine. Student honors Teacher…and lets him go.

Integration. Balance. Harmony.

Unity is within Humanity.

Inlakesh, Carlos.

Dr. Siegel 1Sometimes, an idea finds its way to you … and suddenly things get clear. Your dirty windshield is clean. A window opens in a hot, stuffy room. All at once, things make sense. It hasn’t happened often to me, but when it does? DANG, it rocks.

Eleven months ago, I’d just begun my 4-month Radical Sabbatical. I didn’t know what the future held for my teaching or my practice. After 12 years of leading body~mind movement and mindfulness experiences, I felt confused and uninspired.

One sunny spring morning, I was at the gym working out while listening to a talk by Dr. Daniel Siegel. He’s a psychiatrist and neuroscientist whose interdisciplinary approach to the brain, mind, and mental health has led to scientific breakthroughs as well as a greater overall understanding of brain science. The talk I was listening to was the 2010 Keynote address The Mind, Brain, and Relationships: Integration as a Key to Mental Health (you can download it for free here). In that talk, he said, just as simple as can be:

Integration is health.

It stopped me. I said to myself, “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Since then, I’ve listened to dozens of Dr. Siegel’s talks and read his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. He is a gifted writer and speaker and his approach to mental health and well-being are revolutionary. But this definition of health as integration is what really inspires me. It is an idea worth building – or rebuilding – a career around.

In Mindsight, Dr. Siegel defines integration as “a process by which separate elements are linked together into a working whole” and as a state essential to well-being in the brain, the mind and in relationships or any system. An integrated system is flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable. Without integration, systems move out of healthy balance and into either rigidity or chaos. Integration is about allowing separate parts to be both differentiated and linked.

Think about any system in your experience: a relationship, your family, a company, your body. That system will be integrated when the parts are clearly differentiated while retaining connection between the parts. So whether it is your feet and hands, your mind and emotions, you and your child, your boss and your colleague, a senator and her constituent, if two things are integrated, they are separate with full, open connection. Without both differentiation and linkage, the system will seize up into rigidity (e.g., compulsive or habitual behavior, incommunicative relationships, panic) or fly apart into chaos (e.g., intrusive thoughts, emotional fights, lashing out in anger).

This week, notice how integration creates harmonious, balanced, healthy systems of all kinds. In your body, mind, emotions, or in your family, friendships, or work life: if things don’t feel balanced and integrated, ask yourself, “Has this system diverged into rigidity or chaos? Are the parts both linked and connected? And how can I open up the flow of energy and information to bring it back into harmony?”

Tomorrow, I’ll share about how this inspiration wove itself into a new routine that I’ll be launching this week. Until then, may all your systems be integrated!

The_Four_Stages_of_Learning_1“A mind stretched by a new idea never shrinks back to its original dimensions.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Last summer, when I took a Radical Sabbatical, I set out to learn what I needed to keep my teaching practice alive and vibrant.  Over those four months, I learned that I needed to have dedicated time and space for creativity.   I learned that I needed to have time outside under the sky.  I learned that overscheduling leads to stagnation.  I got it.  I really did.  But when I returned to teaching in the fall?  I filled my calendar to the brim and spent most of my time inside at the computer.

I felt frustrated with myself and my behavior.  I couldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing when I knew what I knew!  What was going on with me?

Then I remembered a classic approach to the learning process called the Four Stages of Competence.  The Four Stages are:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – when I don’t even KNOW what I don’t know
  2. Conscious Incompetence – when I know what I don’t know and I still cannot do it
  3. Conscious Competence – I know how to do it and it takes focus and attention
  4. Unconscious Competence – I have embodied the skill and I can do it effortlessly

(For a more complete description of each stage, please go here.)

It was a relief to recall this theory and see that I was just in the learning process – not failing miserably to carry out my intentions.

Before my sabbatical, I was in Stage 1, Unconscious Incompetence:  I didn’t know what I needed to make my teaching practice thrive.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  During my sabbatical and in the months that followed, I experienced the ineptness and discomfort Stage 2:  Conscious Incompetence.  I understood, on an intellectual level, what I needed to do but I wasn’t able to do it.  A few months later I am now moving between Conscious Incompetence (sometimes I don’t do what I intend to do) and Conscious Competence (I’m able to do what I intend if I focus and concentrate).

Another way of looking at the process is a cycle of learning, practicing and embodying.  The awkward and uncomfortable sensations of moving from Stage 1 to Stage 2 is the sensation of learning.  That’s what learning feels like – unfamiliar and clumsy. Then, we need practice to move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 and even more practice to take us into Stage 4, Unconscious Competence, when a skill is effortless and embodied.

Often, there is a misconception that learning won’t feel awkward and uncomfortable, so when it does, people think they are doing it wrong.  Discomfort is inherent in Stage 1 but many people want to avoid that feeling.  The whole learning thing can be an awkward affair, so if we avoid it, we can avoid the anxiety or embarrassment.

I am convinced that the number one reason that people don’t want to take a Nia class is that they think they’ll look silly or uncoordinated.  To avoid that feeling, they get on a treadmill!  For many folks, it was risky enough to get into workout clothes and walk out of the locker room.  Why in the world would they step into a studio with windows and … wiggle??

Two reasons:  (1) Learning new things keeps us from becoming entrained to our habits and (2) learning keeps us vibrant, animated and alive!

If we keep doing things the same way and don’t endeavor to learn new things, we become entrained in our habits until our habits become the only way we can do things.  Our brain gets so hard-wired in one direction there simply is no other way for it to go.

And perhaps more importantly, learning keeps us alive and vital.  Learning creates a literal spark in our bodies and energy in our minds.  Practicing then develops our discipline, determination and focus.

So are you ready to get awkward with me?  Tomorrow, I’ll say more about how we can use current brain science and the Cycle of Competence to do anything better and move into mastery.

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