When neurons get stuck….

Have you ever felt like you were stuck in a rut? Perhaps you have a certain habit or pattern that you’ve tried to change, but you keep repeating it, even when you don’t want to. The old pattern comes creeping back, like an unwelcome guest in spite of your efforts.

You try harder to change, put in more effort. and you fail again. So, you try even harder. That doesn’t work, either. Tired and defeated, you may just give up. Maybe you even think that the problem is all in your head. In a way, it is. It’s in your brain, your nervous system, and your neurons. 

Your neurons communicate with your brain through complex connections. They tell your brain to respond a certain way to a particular stimulus.  Neural connections that cause a specific response to a stimulus grow stronger with use. The response becomes faster and stronger through repetition. This explains why even complex tasks become easier through practice, which is a good thing. However, this same strong feedback loop can reinforce patterns that don’t serve us well and are difficult to interrupt.

You could blame your neurons and just give up. However, since you and your neurons are one and the same, it would be more effective and a lot less effort if the two of you put your heads together, so to speak. Your neurons are here to help, and sometimes they know you better than you know yourself.

It is possible to interrupt old patterns and allow for new pathways to be activated. It’s called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that our nervous system is inherently flexible and able to change during the course of our entire lifetime. But, we have to create an environment where our neurons are able to direct the impulses in a different direction to allow for neuroplasticity to occur. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to help support the process.

Make small, slow changes to allow for new motor and sensory pathways to be activated. Give yourself time to integrate the changes, and don’t get discouraged if you feel like you’re not making progress. Remember, these changes are taking place deep in your nervous system in a visceral, organic way, not in a cognitive, thinking way.

Another thing to keep in mind (so to speak), is to watch your language. Negative self talk can easily trip up the new neural pathways from connecting. Support your nervous system by speaking words of encouragement. No, I’m not kidding. Your nervous system is always listening, and nothing can make new connections go haywire faster than talking trash about yourself.

Most of all, trust the intelligence of your nervous system. Your neurons are here to help, and they’re smarter than you think they are. After all, they got you this far in life, haven’t they? Just imagine how far they can take you if you let them. Speaking of imagination, that’s another way to fire up your nervous system. But, that’s a topic for another day.

 

Start moving and stay moving.

Issac Newton knew what he was talking about. You know, a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest….well, you get the point. Here we are, already at the end of January, and those New Year’s Resolutions to work out more and get fit are staring us in the face. Our resolutions may have sounded quite reasonable during the festivities of the holiday season, but now it’s almost February. The cold bleak weather, demands of work, family and the reality of time constraints may sabotage our efforts to achieve our goals. Perhaps we are even overwhelmed by our goals and have already given up.

But here’s another idea: why not change your strategy to make your goals more achievable? Start with small, simple changes at home and at work that could easily be incorporated into your daily routine. Just a few minutes of exercise each and every day can have a huge, positive impact on your strength, flexibility, overall health and fitness.

Let me give you a few examples. Keep a set of light weights at home for your arms and shoulders. Do a few mini squats and lunges for your hips, thighs and buttocks. Sit and gently bounce on an exercise ball while watching TV to improve your posture, balance, stimulate circulation and strengthen your low back and abdominal muscles.

While doing household chores, slow down and really focus on the quality of your movements as you move about your work. The simple act of cleaning the kitchen then turns into an opportunity to improve your gait, balance, strength, flexibility, posture, body awareness and body mechanics. And it surely makes cleaning the kitchen more interesting! The possibilities are endless. Use your imagination; be creative and design a program that is unique for yourself. Make it fun, playful and interesting.

Remember, a body in motion, tends to stay in motion. You’ll feel better, you’ll look better, and you’ll have a whole new outlook on a brand new year! Doesn’t that sound better than giving up?

The Feldenkrais Method(R) and nuts about neurons….

I have always had a passion for the biological sciences, but when I experienced my first course in neuroscience, I knew I found my niche. My brain almost squealed with delight. I guess you could say I’m nuts about neurons. I even considered pursuing an advanced degree in neuroscience, but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it, so to speak.

I couldn’t see myself working in a lab all day. I’m more of a people person. But I sure did love the subject, and I still do; it’s like candy for my brain, only a lot healthier. I gobbled up every course I studied and found myself looking for more.

Even though I didn’t get my advanced degree in neuroscience, I resigned myself to knowing that as a physical therapist I could still work with people and have some exposure to neurology. But it wasn’t the same. Working with patients with neurological disorders in a traditional clinical setting just seemed cold and detached. It also seemed like the focus was on the disorder instead of the individual. Where was the magic of the nervous system that so captivated my attention and imagination?

And then I found it. It was in The Feldenkrais Method. Once I began my Feldenkrais training, I realized that this was the practical application of neuroscience combined with my love of learning with my passion for working with people to help them improve the quality of their lives. It doesn’t get any better than this! After all, why should the neuroscientists have all the fun?

Feldenkrais(R) Training: The eyes of a practitioner….

I used to have headaches. Blinding, incapacitating, vice-gripping, put your life on hold for three days kind of headaches. I don’t have them anymore, but they used to be unbearable. For some reason, when I was in my Feldenkrais Training, my headaches got much worse before they got better. However, it’s interesting that eventually they went away completely.

One of the worst headaches I’ve ever experienced was in the middle of my second Feldenkrais Training segment. I woke up with the familiar pain gripping my head, neck and shoulders. I couldn’t turn my head, and I wondered how I was going to drive to class that morning. I had stabbing pain deep in the middle of my thoracic spine, and I thought blood was going to shoot out of my eyes. Even my hair hurt. It was promising to be a long, miserable day.

I could have stayed home, but I didn’t want to skip a day of training. After all, today might be the day that the “mystery of the method” would be revealed. I don’t remember how I managed to safely drive across town to the training venue, but as soon as I got there I knew I had to leave. I gathered my things and painfully crept toward the door, hoping to make a quick get away without anyone noticing. I almost made it, too, when I heard a familiar voice ask me where I was going. I turned to see one of my favorite practitioners standing next to me. I explained I had a horrible headache and was leaving for the day.

He offered to help me, but I refused. I just wanted to go home. I politely excused myself and again headed toward the door. He walked with me, talking the entire time and blocking me from making my escape to sweet freedom. I wanted to clobber him, but I was in too much pain. Suddenly, I realized he was touching me while he was talking to me. Very softly and gently, he was doing a plucking motion of his fingers, right on the middle of my thoracic spine. Funny, that’s exactly the spot where my headaches seemed to come from. How could he know that? He kept talking and touching, until finally he said, “Getting rid of this might make you feel better.”

Irritated, I turned to snarl at him when he said, ” Yikes, here’s another one, even bigger than the first!” I was too surprised to yell at him, so he continued, “This one’s got jagged edges on it. Here’s another one…it looks like it’s been here a really long time!” In spite of my misery, I had to smile, and I got in on the game as he continued to pull the knives, arrows and spears out of my back. He even made clanking sounds as each one fell to the floor. A few days later he remarked how much lighter I looked without the excess hardware. Every time I crossed his path, he would cup his hand to his ear and say,” They’re falling out on there own now. They’re getting smaller, too.”

Over the course of the next four years of the training, I must have eliminated enough metal to start my own scrap iron shop. By year four, the clanking diminished until they sounded like acupuncture needles landing on carpet. Then one day, they were completely gone. Oddly enough, my headaches slowly but surely decreased in severity, intensity and frequency.

I don’t know what prompted that practitioner to pull the knives out of my back that day. I couldn’t possibly understand that he was looking at me through the eyes of a practitioner, and seeing things that most people wouldn’t even notice. I understand it now, and I really am glad I didn’t clobber him that day. I would have missed out on a great learning experience. As well as the knowledge, understanding and the feeling of what sweet freedom really means to me.

Wishing all of you sweet freedom!

 

The Feldenkrais Method(R), and mind over matter

One of the most valuable things I have learned from my Feldenkrais Training is that what we tell ourselves really does matter. Our mind (our brain and our nervous system) is constantly listening and processing the information that it receives. What we tell ourselves is what we believe. What we believe is what we become.

This became quite obvious during ballet class a few days ago when I listened to several of my ballet friends beat themselves down with negative self talk. Our teacher had just given us a challenging and complex combination. A group of dancers stood around discussing their limitations, their short comings, their injuries, the reasons why they wouldn’t be able to do the combination and what would happen when they tried.

It was fascinating to see all of their dire predictions come true once the music started. It was a stark contrast to the group who quietly watched the teacher, marking the movements with their hands and in their imagination. They moved through the combination with an ease and grace that looked effortless.

I must confess, I used to engage in deprecating, negative self talk myself. I wasn’t only good at it, I was a master at it, and I took it to an art form. However, this self defeating practice began to change once I began my Feldenkrais Training. The change was slow and subtle, but it was there. I felt happier, healthier, and more energetic. I even felt younger, and I discovered that I liked myself more. I became my own best friend instead of my own worst enemy. And I learned that life was a lot more fun than it used to be. What a gift!

What we believe is what we become. Be careful what you tell yourself, because your nervous system is always listening. Your mind does matter. And it will believe what you say. Be gentle with yourself, and give yourself positive messages. Soon it will become automatic, and effortless. And you may be surprised how good you’ll feel, and what you can accomplish. The possibilities are endless!

If you can dream it….

One of my favorite ballet teachers is quite the task mistress and really keeps us on our toes, so to speak. I just love her, and I love her classes. If your ballet technique doesn’t improve after studying with her, you might as well hang up your toe shoes and go home. She teaches a professional level class, and I have to work pretty hard just to keep up. This means thoroughly engaging my mind as well as my body, which brings me to the point of exhaustion at the end of an hour and a half, but it’s fun. I love challenging myself.

I often write down my corrections in a small note pad I keep with me at all times. Some of the younger dancers have remarked what a good student I am when they see me scribbling madly in my book. I smile sweetly and thank them, but the truth is, I can’t remember anything I’ve just been told. Also, I get just as tired of hearing the same corrections over and over again as my teacher does saying  them, so it benefits both of us. And, it gives me the chance to think about how I can improve and gives me a deeper understanding of the technique.

I even had a dream last night about class, where my teacher once again was trying to get me to correct the position of my leg. It’s the same correction that she’s given me time and time again. I keep trying to fix it, but the harder I try, the worse it gets. Honestly, I really don’t fully understand what I’m doing wrong. Until I had the silly dream. I was standing at the barre, and in the middle of the crowded class, she stopped and mimicked my movement. That’s when I finally got it. I did a mental head smack, even in my sleep.

From the position of an observer instead of a participant, I could see that the slight bend of my knee and drop of my thigh wasn’t coming from my leg. It was coming from a lack of confidence. Even in my sleep I could see my confidence crumble just a bit as I attempted to extend my leg behind me. It was very slight, but it was enough to keep me from achieving my goal. Instead of trying to correct my leg, perhaps I need to change my approach. Because one thing I do understand is that attitude is everything. I understand that when you change your mind, you change your moves. I also know that if you can dream it, you can become it. I sure am glad I had that dream. And I can’t wait to go to class tomorrow.

New Year, new you, who knew?

Here it is, another New Year, and already our New Year resolution guilt may be weighing heavily upon us. It doesn’t help to see all of the signs at the local health clubs advertising “A New Year and a New You!” Gee, and I kind of liked the old one. Adding insult to injury are the endless commercials for weight loss programs neatly sandwiched in between all of the commercials for junk food in anticipation of the playoffs and the upcoming Super Bowl. It’s even more difficult to get motivated to stick to those New Year’s goals for fitness and weight loss with the cold, dreary weather. Those junk food commercials are looking like a good option. What’s a body to do?

Before you give up, here’s a little bit of advice which is not only helpful but practical as well. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself, and the beginning of a brand new year is an ideal time to look forward to a fresh new start. However, anytime you are trying to make changes, it’s important to set clear goals that are achievable as well as flexible.

Don’t focus on the end result. Instead, focus on the journey. Set several small goals that are easy to incorporate into your lifestyle, give yourself a time limit to achieve your goals, and write them down. You may post them in a place where you can see them every day, as a gentle reminder of what you would like to accomplish for yourself. Some days you will achieve your goals, some days you will exceed your goals, and some days you will fall flat on your face.

It’s important to celebrate your success, but even more important to be kind to yourself on the days you fall short. Don’t give up, and don’t beat yourself up. Speak softly and gently to yourself, and speak positive words of encouragement. Your nervous system is always listening, always paying attention to the messages you are sending it, and it will respond accordingly. Giving yourself positive information and giving yourself the opportunity to grow and succeed is the best gift you can give yourself and the best New Year Resolution you can make. And that, I believe, is truly something to celebrate! Happy, Healthy and Positive New Year to everyone!