Surrounded by brilliance….and neuroplasticity.

    Don’t you just love it when the gifts keep coming? Just as I am still marveling at my Sensei’s brilliance two weeks ago in martial arts,  I got another blast of brilliance from my ballet mistress.

    Dancers are visual as well as kinestetic in our learning experiences. We use our eyes as well as our bodies to learn choreography in our technique classes. We look in the mirror to check our placement as well as our movement patterns. However, sometimes we depend on the use of our eyes and the mirrors too much. For example, if we know we can look in the mirror and follow the other dancers, there is less pressure to learn the combinations. We can become complacent, and fall into the habit of watching each other instead of paying attention to the choreography.

    Last week our teacher gave us a specific constraint. She had us turn away from the mirror and dance facing the wall. The results were disastrous! Half of us couldn’t remember the combination, and the other half were running into each other in a bizarre rendition of ballerina bumper cars. It was extremely confusing, but pretty funny. And incredibly revealing. It seems that some of us depend on our vision (and each other) a little too much.

    The dancers who had embraced the choreography as an authentic, internal expression of themselves regained their composure relatively quickly. The others never recovered. Some of them actually stopped and simply stood there, adding to the confusion. It became obvious which dancers were trying to do what they thought they should do, rather than feeling what they could do.

     As dancers we often talk about flexibility. Sometimes we become consumed with the idea of having a flexible body. Perhaps instead of being preoccupied with having a flexible body, we can instead focus on developing a flexible mind. If we did that, who knows to what heights we can climb?

    When our teacher had us turn away from the mirror she challenged our nervous systems to quickly adapt to the change. And we all discovered a little bit more about ourselves. Sometimes all we have to do to is turn away from the mirror to see ourselves more clearly. And sometimes, out of confusion comes clarity, flexibility, strength and grace. Not always….but it is an intriguing concept, isn’t it? And well worth exploring.

    Oh, and one last thought. Don’t you think I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such brilliant teachers? Or maybe their brilliance has been there all along, but now I have the awareness and flexibilty to appreciate it. Hmmm….it’s just another idea to consider.

Be healthy, and flexible!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

Gymnastics with numbers….and thanking a teacher.

    I love math. It’s so simple and so logical. I also have passion for movement.  Math is movement. It’s gymnastics with numbers. Isn’t that a fun way to look at it?

    I didn’t always feel this way. When I was young, I didn’t do very well in math. I used to feel incredibly stupid, clumsy and frustrated. Everyone else seemed to understand and catch on so easily, where I always struggled. It did not help that I was told I had no aptitude for math, or even worse, that I just didn’t apply myself or work hard enough. Ouch.

    I remember being in Algebra class when I was in high school. I was trying to follow along with the new material my teacher was presenting, but I was lost. Utterly, completely and hopelessly lost. Finally, I raised my hand and said, “I’m confused.” The straight A student sitting next to me rolled her eyes and said in a bored, sarcastic voice, “Well, that’s not very hard to do!” I was stunned. The entire class looked at me as my face burned with the knowledge that yes, I am stupid. I have no aptitude for math. I don’t apply myself. I don’t work hard enough. Give up.

       My teacher slowly turned away from the blackboard. He said nothing….he just looked at my classmate for a few moments. Her face turned red and she started to squirm. I don’t think she intended for the entire class to hear her. My teacher looked at me and asked, “Where are you confused?” He then patiently explained the equations to me. Suddenly other hands shot up in the air. Hmmm….it appears that I wasn’t the only one who was confused. But I was the only one who had the courage to admit it.

    Many years later, I decided to go back to school and earn my Master’s Degree in physical therapy. But then I found out I would have to take several math courses including Statistics, College Algebra, and Trigonometry. The old internal monologue and self talk came back loud and clear. I’m not smart enough. I have no aptitude for math. I don’t apply myself. I don’t work hard enough. Give up. The truth is, I almost quit before I even started.

    But then something incredible happened. Somewhere deep in my memory, I saw a young teacher turn away from the chalkboard, give my classmate a blank look, and take the time to explain the material that I didn’t understand. That memory helped change my belief system that I had no aptitude for math. I knew I could at least try. There is no doubt that I would work hard and apply myself. I could start with lower level classes, join a study group, and even hire a tutor if necessary.

    You know what? I never did join a study group or hire a tutor. After the first two weeks of high anxiety and introductory Algebra, I made an amazing discovery. It wasn’t difficult….it was interesting and kind of fun. I was good at it. And I loved it! I was at the top of every class I took, all the way up to Calculus.

   Isn’t it fascinating that such a small gesture could change my belief system and self image? How could I go from being completely inept in a subject to a high achiever without even struggling? Because, in just an instant, my teacher turned what was a hostile, high stress environment into one that was safe, supportive and conducive to learning, without judgment. The intelligence of my nervous system and my own inner wisdom was able to take over and do the rest. This teacher gave me a way to find my confidence, dignity and self respect.

    Honestly, is it ever too late to thank a teacher? I don’t think so, do you?

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

Habits, constraints, and neuroplasticity….let the learning begin!

In my martial arts class, we often practice something called “randori”. One student stands in the center of the room while the other students form a circle around them and take turns randomly attacking the person in the middle. It’s kind of like the Ninja version of monkey in the middle. And it scares me to death. It is my least favorite training activity, but my incomparable stubborness won’t let me opt out. And besides, the guys would make fun of me if I refused to play with them.

Last week, after we completed our randori, just as I heaved a sigh of relief, Sensei said, “We’re going again.” He looked at me and said, “And you are not allowed to do the same techniques. I want you to find new ways to react to each attack.” My response to that constraint was not very mature or Ninja-like. I threw a hissy fit.  Apparently my little temper tantrum didn’t phase him. Either he is immune to them or I need to work on my hissy fit skills. Anyway, he wouldn’t budge. Sheesh, I thought I was stubborn!

Before we began, he had me stop, breathe and relax. Not an easy task when you are surrounded by men waiting to attack you. Against my better judgment, I listened to him. Then I took my place in the middle of the circle and let the games begin. The attacks started coming. And something very interesting happened. I felt new movement patterns come forth without even trying. My reactions were more thoughtful, meticulous and less effort. I discovered that I had a lot more techniques under my belt (so to speak) than I knew I had. I was calmer, my breathing was easier, my chest felt softer, my movements were more fluid. I felt myself responding in a visceral, organic way.

By giving me that one small constraint,  my Sensei gave me the opportunity to interrupt my habits explore new movement patterns, and discover new sensory patterns.  He did this in an environment that was safe, supportive and non-judgmental. What ever I did, it was not right or wrong, good or bad, just opportunities to learn. Hmmm….this sounds familiar. Why does this sound like  Feldenkrais? Because it is. The Feldenkrais Method(R) gives us the opportunity to learn new patterns of moving, sensing, thinking and feeling in an environment that is safe, supportive and non-judgmental. What Sensei did that day was absolutely brilliant! But let’s keep that to ourselves, shall we? We won’t tell him I said that. After all, if I encourage him, who knows what devious new methods he will use to help me learn and grow. Hmmm….on second thought, maybe I will tell him!

Ninjas at Play

If a tree falls in the forest…..

      Several weeks ago a powerful storm swept through Rocky Mountain National Park. Two weeks later, we went hiking in the area, and we came across a devastating scene of absolute chaos and destruction. Hundreds of huge pine trees littered the ground, crisscrossing over each other, their broken limbs strewn everywhere. Most of the trees were literally ripped from the ground by their roots. Some trees that may have survived the storm that swept through the forest were split in two by the crashing force of the other trees that succumbed to the gale force wind.

   What once was a beautiful forest of tall, majestic trees was now an eerie field of debris and destruction. Along with the broken branches, uprooted trees, exposed roots and huge craters in the ground, I saw several deadly nature made wooden missiles scattered everywhere. Their tips had points so perfectly sharpened it appeared as though they had been carefully whittled by a master wood carver. I cringed to think of the damage one of these weapons might have caused as it came flying through the air during the melee of the storm.
    I have heard that pine trees have shallow roots. Simply because a tree appears to be big and strong, tall and mighty, it does not mean that it can withstand the power of a storm if it’s roots are shallow. The truth is, we are a lot like those trees. It doesn’t matter how big, strong and tall we are; if we don’t have the flexibility to bend under the onslaught of life’s storms, we will break. If our roots are shallow, we will be taken out. If we don’t have the resources to help support our neighbor when they come crashing down, or are unable to get out of their way, they will take us down with them.

    The good news is that we have the capacity to change through the plasticity of our nervous system. Flexible strength is far more healthy and functional than rigid strength. It is important to learn how to be flexible so we can spring back when the storms hit. It’s important to develop strong roots so we cannot be uprooted. It’s important to get out of the way and deflect the blow if somebody next to us is crashing down. Maneuvering through the forest of life is not about being big, tall, and strong. It is about having the resilience, spirit, resources and ability to spring back, recover, grow and flourish.

    So,if a tree does fall in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? I’m pretty certain that the symphony of destruction that roared through the forest the day that the trees fell was unparalleled to anything I have heard in my lifetime. But, I guess we’ll never know.

Be healthy, strong and flexible!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

Charlie Brown’s Christmas….the sequel.

    I have a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. So do all four of my sisters. Yes, I have four sisters, no brothers. Which always amazes me that my Dad did manage to live as long as he did. It also explains a little bit of his hearing loss. We used to think it was from the constant noise of the years spent working in the steel mills. Knowing what I know now about the nervous system and habituation, I believe it was from the constant high pitched squeals and shrieks that resulted from living with 6 women.

    Anyway, last Christmas was an unhappy one for me and my sisters. Our Dad died on Thanksgiving weekend, just less than three short weeks after we lost our Mom. The five of us were together again, preparing to say another final farewell. There we were, surrounded by all of the lights, decorations, and the festivities. Everyone seemed to be eagerly anticipating Christmas. Except for us. And our family and friends, of course.

    The day after I arrived back home, my oldest sister (the new head of the family) and I went to the local mall for a few things. We hurried along, our propellers reved up to get our agenda for the day completed. After all, we had a lot to get done. We walked past a small shop that featured a replica of the original Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. We both saw it at the same time. We stopped and just stared at it for a few minutes until my sister said, “Well, that about sums it up for us this year!” My sister couldn’t help herself, especially with me nudging her. She went in and bought the tree, so the five of us would have a Christmas tree in the house.

    That little tree had a place of honor in the middle of the coffee table in the family room, and it was instantly a big hit with all of us. In the midst of our sadness and heartache, that silly little tree gave us a lift and helped us smile and remember the happier times in that house. As a matter of fact, the tree was so popular that our sister sent a cousin back to the mall on a secret mission to buy each one of us our own Charlie Brown tree.

    My Charlie Brown tree was the only decoration I had the energy to put up in my house last year. Every time I walked past that tree, it gave me a gentle reminder of the resilience, sense of humor and spirit both my Mom and Dad demonstrated during their entire lifetimes. That little tree helped me change from the pattern of sadness to a sense of joy and gratitude for being raised by two wonderful people who lived life to the fullest.
    Sometimes the smallest, simplest and most humble of gifts can reap great returns.  

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP