Marriage of East and West: Yoga & Neuroplasticity

A client shared a funny story: she was doing her home program and her young son asked what she was doing. “My exercises” she replied. He said – “Mom you have to do it faster and bigger!” We both laughed.

Strength building we think: more load, more reps. But if we are already doing the “work” with an inefficient muscular firing pattern, are we really helping ourselves get where we want? (Hint: not really)  Most of us come to our yoga mat, and our life, seeking “more:” more push, more strength, more flexibility, more complexity, more ____,” etc. and we strain to achieve in life and in spiritual practice.In the East, spiritual achievement is more a process of letting go...

The above is a very Western orientation. In the East, spiritual achievement is more a process of letting go, of peeling away layers of excess. I am learning to apply this to Therapeutic Yoga.Instead we have to develop new awareness and release old inefficient compensatory patterns of movement. Once the parts that are overworking learn to quiet, overall function improves and the strength develops through efficient action.

So what does modern “neuroplasticity” have to offer us? Our patterns of movement are developed through repeated actions over time. For example, we learn to walk through watching others around us and then experimenting. Once we get it, this neuromuscular pattern is wired in our brain, becomes automatic, and frees up our brains to learn new stuff! But if we learned to walk with an odd gait or wore corrective footwear as a child, or later limped after an injury, or learned to hold our belly tight at all time, etc. then our gait also adapted: chances are we grip in our pelvic floor or our hips, our knees take on ranges of movement that belong to the hips (hence rampant knee replacements!), etc. etc.

Neuroplasticity tells us not only that we can teach an old dog new tricks, but how!

I read one super simple definition I love: neurons that "fire together, wire together."  [Bessel Van der Kolk M.D.; The Body Keeps the Score] Then I learned an embellishment on this from one of my sister YT’s Joanne: “where awareness goes, neurons fire; when neurons fire, they wire.” 

Awareness => neurons fire => neurons wire

So what this means for improved function, ie healing, as we consciously relax and release old patterns, all we have to do is bring the light of awareness (and breath) to the area we seek to use, awareness helps the neurons to fire, and when patterns fire, new wiring is laid. With repetition, we enhance this new (neuromuscular) wiring pattern, and we have a new, improved, habitual pattern.

I learned long ago that yoga is awareness, awareness, awareness, (see past blog) so I am excited to apply yoga to helping people move better and get out of pain and back into life!

Try this:Lie comfortably on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place a small pillow between your thighs away from your knees. Let it sit there softly, and turn your attention to your breath, settling into an easy diaphragmatic rhythm, belly rising with inhale and settling with exhale. When you are ready, on the exhale begin to press toward the pillow, lightly. Release on the inhale. Notice what is working besides your inner thighs: is your lower back or bum helping? Are your knees moving? Your hip flexors? Your belly? Quiet all these extra “helpers” (and any others you find!) If you are able to do the pillow squeeze purely, when you stop and take away the pillow, you will likely notice a greater ease and freedom in your hips. Let me know what your experience is!