Books I’m Reading This November

This month I’ve been reading several amazing books. “Flourish” is the new term a world-famous happiness research is calling a set of criterion which describe a person’s well-being. Mieville continues to describe complex and beautiful worlds unlike our own, yet intriguingly similar. And Richard Branson is himself – extraordinary…

Just a few new books (Photo: Natalia Osiatynska)

On a flight from New York to San Francisco I read a fair portion of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin Seligman. This exceptional psychologist has spent more than 40 years researching behavior and emotion using everything from rats pressing levers to reforming a private British school into a Happiness University. Seligman now researches what he calls “flourishing” which consists of several factors that make up the well-being of a human. In this exceptional book he describes the development of his research and teaching at University of Pennsylvania and provides a wide variety of extraordinary tools that his readers can begin to apply immediately to improve their own lives.

Note: my favorite of these is his gratitude training exercise. Seligman has conducted extensive longitudinal research proving that as little as three statements of gratitude written per day dramatically increase positive outlook on life. What are you grateful for?

I have recently started China Mieville latest work of speculative fiction Embassytown. As always, I am amazed at Mieville’s unique capacity to draw his audience into a world recognizable and alarmingly different from our own. His landscapes are beautiful, rich, and compelling. His characters tell the story of their worlds through the narrative of their lives. Embassytown is a compelling addition to Mieville bibliography – hauntingly beautiful and more relevant to our lives than the made up world initially appears.

Another favorite this month is Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson billionaire, entrepreneur, and passionate Brit.  Branson is the founder of the Virgin group (which includes the airline Virgin America and the Virgin record label, among many others). Losing My Virginity tells the story of Branson’s life from his earliest days founding the magazine Student through the birth of the Virgin records and into the modern day. Richard Branson’s humor and fun loving spirit pervade and make this story of one man’s success fun to read and useful to learn from for all.

Hope you enjoy these!

What Will You Make of Your Life?

In 2004 I set some life goals. Among the highlights were:

  • Become a monk
  • Live (and grow) through heartbreak
  • Professional physical trainer
  • Save a life
  • Write a book

I haven’t become a monk. I haven’t raised a child though I do help others do so, professionally! I did stop that guy from jumping off that bridge. And my first book is going to be published this December. Realizing that I’ve accomplished most of the goals I’ve set for myself I decided to aim higher and get much more specific. I created the following for a Tim Ferriss competition.  I hope you enjoy:

A question that I sometimes ask myself is what would I do if I knew that I could not fail.  I don’t know that I won’t fail this time, or next time. I do know that as long as I enjoy the process each iteration is going to get better. My first book won’t be my last. And my next workshop will be even better than my last. And in the meantime, I’ll keep going!

I would love to hear from you. What are three goals that you would set for yourself if your weren’t afraid to fail? Leave a note in the comments.

Try a Radical New Idea: Celebrate Autism!

I love autism! This sentence begins my first book (an ebook to be sold via Amazon). I know it isn’t a typical idea or a normal philosophy. I’m sharing this idea because it is useful!

“Reach out to children with autism” (Photo: Arturo de Albornoz)

In the beginning, I think the notion of celebrating autism rang true for me because I’d been “poor baby”ed so many times in relation to my own injuries. People pity those affected by autism and then avoid them. The idea – in short – is that having a child with autism is terrible and there ends the conversation… with an awkward silence. I am just side-stepping the issue. It isn’t a matter of the “truth” about autism, whether it is hard or not, but of the outcome of these two different view points. Let’s look at what happens when we view autism as devastating and a disaster. As soon as we say “It is unfortunate that…” we get unhappy!  We want our neuro-typical children to keep up with their peers, excel at music or math, and graduate Harvard with honors. Why? For our satisfaction and happiness. So we can know with joy or pride that our progeny will succeed!

I choose love and joy with autism because it is more fun, more efficient (I am always for efficiency) and there are more options available. Of course, there is a lot of learning and effort necessary to care for of a special child. And as soon as autism is an opportunity we get to ask the question “How is this good?” and a whole world of opportunities open up.

Let’s take a look at how we benefit from viewing autism as an opportunity:

  • I get to learn so much about what works for me whenever I work with a child with autism. When something changes everything changes. In my life when I started new physical activity I change physiologically to match that activity very quickly. If I start swimming today, two weeks from today my body will be measurable changed to accommodate for swimming. I wasn’t always able to recognize these changes but through working with children on the spectrum have learned to watch for and appreciate all of our capacity for dramatic, dynamic change.
  • A child with autism is such an amazing way for us to see ourselves more clearly and to learn about ourselves. Autism is an amazing mirror. If I turned up frustrated, the child – lacking our social standards and relying on attitude – is going to move away from me. If I am going to be effective with a child with autism I have to turn up loving and accepting them because that’s the only way it works. In working with these children I get to practice being loving, present, and non-judgmental.
  • There are so many factors to consider: digestion, social behaviors, physical self regulating behaviors, what we can guess of their mental states. As we look at and work on any one of these factors all of these factors are affected.
  • Every child with autism is different. Additionally, a child on the spectrum can be radically different day to day. Every moment is a new experiment with what works with this new individual and their brain at this moment!
  • I can spend a couple of weeks with one child working on a specific movement pattern. Not only does that pattern become much smooth but other factors, seemingly unrelated, change too. Social behavior improves. Or digestion is impacted. What is going to change is not predictable but that there is going to be change is nearly certain. This is true for all humans but because the characteristics of autism are so pronounced and because we are all so focused on all of these characteristics in our desire to change them, the changes are very noticeable.

So try something new: celebrate autism! Why not try it?

Learn How to Overcome Discomfort (by Jumping into Ice Covered Lakes)

I’ve always gone swimming in really cold water. I’m not sure that I really enjoyed the swimming part but the thrill afterwards kept me going back for more. From an age when I was still learning how to walk I would follow my father into High Sierra snow melt.

There is one lake that I didn’t go in that I still haven’t lived down. It was completely covered in ice at 10,000 feet in June. I was – maybe – nine years old. My father jumped in. My sister went in up to her waist. I vividly remember taking off my shoes and deciding that this lake was just too much for me – while my mother spoke to me consoling from the shore.

Today I am the 0nly member of my family who jumps in naked and screaming to every body of water below 50°. Every year I go camping with my family in the Sierras and those cold water dips are a highlight of each and every day. Friends often goggle as I dip into very cold water on our first night, often well after dark. (By the end of the trip those friends have usually learned to enjoy my ice baths too!)

But all of this serves as back story to my current exploration: I have recently begun taking very cold baths in my home in San Francisco. I grew up taking baths, Japanese-style in scathingly hot water. This was my mother’s ritual every night bed and I’ve adopted it. In the last several months I have begun to add cold water to my regimen. Since I acquired an infrared sauna in February 2012 I have had less desire for long soaks in hot water. Over the summer I regularly took cold showers after exercise and sauna. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I began to elaborate on these showers by making my baths cold, as well, but I am shocked at how much I’ve come to enjoy them!

What is particularly interesting to me is the diminishing of discomfort that I experience in very cold baths. They keep getting more comfortable – almost cozy – and the transition has been remarkably quick. I’m at this moment just out of one and tingling with a warmth that I know well from my time in mountain streams. But tonight – four weeks after having started taking cold baths at least four out of every seven nights – I got out of the bath, realized I wanted more soaking, and got in again for another few minutes. Granted, I’m a bit odd for wanting ice-covered lakes and cold showers to begin with. But wanting more time soaking in middle-of-the-night very cold bath water?

My take away from this is the use and utility of looking at fear and discomfort and facing them head-on. I’m not advocating ice cold lakes or other extremes for all people. I am suggesting to take a second look at those things we fear or avoid. The discomfort lasts a very short time and the benefits of getting over that discomfort last a lifetime.

I’m often afraid of a freezing cold lake in the middle of the night and ice bath were only slightly more appealing. But I know that at the end of a long day of hiking in the mountains a cold dip feels good and that the feel after a cold shower is exquisite.

So what if I want to exercise more this month or write more? How do I change something I don’t want to do into something I look forward to doing daily? I want to know how I can apply what I’ve learned to other areas of my life: getting up early, writing 3000 words a day, running a marathon.  What did I do to learn to enjoy my ice baths?

  • Started small. I began with short showers and I built up from there.
  • No push. I didn’t take a cold shower except when I wanted to. This isn’t a thing anyone I know does or thinks they should do. The magic of the experience for me has been the increased desire to bath in freezing cold water.
  • Variation. I didn’t bath cold unless I wanted to. I still vary it up between hot and cold.

I am going to take these ideas into new areas of my life. I’d like to run a marathon so I am going to start with running a few miles just a few days a week. I’d like to write 3000 words a day. I am not going to write that much tomorrow and that’s okay! I’ll start with editing my book and beginning another blog post. Say, 800 words.

And languor for 20 minutes in a very cold bath – something I would have swore I would never do four months ago – you bet I’ll  do that!

Sweaty and Frustrated – Shortcuts to happiness

As I write this I am covered in sweat having spent the last hour pushing a 600 pound motorcycle up San Francisco “hills.”

This is my angry face! Photo courtesy of college classmate and tanguero William Henner.

Had I stopped–paused for just a moment–and considered why the bike wasn’t starting up I would have realized that I had forgotten to turn the fuel valve back on. No gas, no engine. Instead of taking that moment to reflect I pushed 600 pounds of steel up a steep hill, rode it down and it died at the bottom every time. I was dead set on fixing the problem now (or maybe just getting home and taking a shower) that I didn’t take the moment I would need it to recognize my error.

So what could I have done differently? Things turned out okay: I’m home, safe, sweaty and the bike is fine. And I could have saved myself a lot of effort! But how–in those moments of stress–could I have done it differently?

Call a friend
I could have called a friend. I have a few people in my life who would have gotten really upset that I was having so much trouble. The owner of the bike. My mother. But most people would ask me a few questions starting with “What’s going on?” and “Why are you upset.” A calm voice in the background would’ve been enough for me to reconsider my situation.

Ask a question
I could have asked myself a question. Just like those in the previous paragraph asking “what,” followed by “why” would have led quite quickly to (at least) a distraction from the current situation and (at best) happiness and calm leading to a quick resolution.

Change the channel
I could have stopped. Just that. Stopped, taken off my sweating gear, walked around the block and then come back. What was I pushing the bike uphill for anyway? So that I could get home, take off the gear, and take a shower! Why not do that first and then reconsider the situation?

I didn’t because I was regarding the sweaty motorcycle situation as urgent. If I were on a train track with the train bearing down on me I would not have time to call a friend, ask a question or change the topic. I would need to act! Now! I was treating this motorcycle stall as a life-and-death situation, one that I needed to resolve immediately. But why? This is a motorcycle, stalled on a quiet road with plenty of parking and walking distance from my house. I could leave it for days! I was treating it as a life-and-death situation because that is how I know to handle what I label as “important” situations. Like the old adage “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a jail” one of the tools in my belt is the idea that important situations should be solved now! In my childhood there was often a feel of urgency. Our culture, too, that doesn’t teach that slow and gentle are the best ways to handle the unexpected. It was assumed that I would be nervous when I was taking AP exams. I was taught in college that stress is good for you. More recently I have found many ways in which this is untrue. I learn movement best by going slowly and with great care. As a result I love learning and learn very quickly. And in some places – like with the motorcycle today – I treat the important with urgency and upset.

As a take away for this whole affair, I have a couple of new skills. Next time my bike stalls I’ll recognize my own freak–out, call a friend, ask a question, or take a break. I live, I learn and I keep improving. And you can be damn sure that I won’t leave the fuel valve off again!

I would love to hear from you: what is the situation (the more specific the better) where you freak out and what are some tools you use to calm and learn yourself out of the situation?

FREE Autism Workshop in San Francisco – Oct. 13, 2012

I’m really excited! I am going to be teaching an autism-focused experiential workshop. I’ve been looking for ways to teach parents the principles of the Anat Baniel Method and the Option Philosophy when I am not seeing their children. I also want more practice teaching groups! Thus, I am offering a ninety-minute workshop on the principles of learning applied to autism. There will be movement for you to do, exercises to practice at home, a unique combination of the Option Process and the Anat Baniel Method, and time spent addressing your particular challenges and questions.


What:
Autism Workshop incorporating Option Philosophy & Anat Baniel Method
Where: Metronome Dance Studios, 1830 17th Street, San Francisco, CA
When: Saturday, Oct. 13th at 4pm
Who: This will be a workshop for parents so this time please leave your children at home. Do invite anyone and everyone you think might be interested. Parents, practitioners who work with special needs children, new parents (the tools offered will be relevant for neuro-typical kids, too), and the general public interested in Option Institute and/or Anat Baniel Method. Have you been looking for a way to teach your friends and family about your special child? Bring them!
Cost: Free!

I hope you can make it! I will be teaching more workshops in the future and I’m not sure how many of them will be open to the public. (Plans include teaching at UCSF and Google!) Do you know of other organizations or groups who might like for me to teach similar workshops? Please let me know! Call if you have any questions.

Regards,
Robin

You’re Doing It Wrong! Practice versus Performance

I watch a gymnast work on her handsprings. Or a blues dancer try to learn the “pulse.”  Over and over again my initial response upon watching someone practice something new is an internal shout: “You are doing it wrong!” There may be some hair pulling involved. Then I calm down, decide if the person would benefit from my feedback, usually decide that they won’t and go back to what I was doing.

Want to perform better? Stop making practice matter! (Photo: Martin Gommel)

I do know that “You’re doing it wrong” isn’t the most useful way to teach. Mea culpa. Of exactly the style of teaching I am writing about. We can all of us do better. And I have exciting news: a little change goes a really long way.

There are many studies within the study of motor learning that demonstrate that practice is not the same as performance. Common sense! Less intuitive is that when we demand high quality performance during practice we get poorer overall results.

First off, what do I mean by the terms practices versus performance? A practice or training interval is the period during which a person is attempting to improve at an activity. The performance interval is crunch-time – that period when the person puts practice into practice. In real life this means the basketball player above is about to score (or miss?) game point!

It makes sense that sports typically place a lot of emphasis on how well people perform during practice. That is an easy metric because the results are right there, right away, for everyone to see. When I watch people train I see them place a great deal of importance on their performance during practice. This means that they are getting less out of their practice than they might otherwise.

Let’s look at a couple of the reasons:

  1. Regular feedback during practice distracts from the process of learning. Most often feedback is given regularly during practice. A basketball player is inherently given feedback after each practice shot – did the ball go it or didn’t it? Similarly, the gymnast or the blues dancer attempting is learn a new skill will often be given feedback after each attempt by her coach or peers. Put yourself in the place of the student. If you have someone giving you constant critiques while you are trying something new – constantly pointing out what you are doing wrong – are you going to be focusing on and excited to learn the new skill? Probably not! The fix is simple – much less feedback, much less often.
  2. Emphasis is placed on the end outcome, resulting is less attention to the skill itself. Thus the skill isn’t ever learned as thoroughly as it could be. Even during practice it is all about results. I’m all for results but not when the purpose of practice is to learn the new skill. If we are talking about scoring the winning point in the basketball NCAA championship, by all means do whatever it takes! But practice need not be urgent. By simply shifting the focus from results to experiences during practice, when it does come time performance will increase enormously.

And back to me. After I stop pulling my hair our and before I decide not to contribute to feedback overload I often take a moment to marvel. I am amazed at how well what we use does work! Getting feedback after every single iteration gives a student far more material to work on than can be absorbed in so short a period of time. Regular and consistent feedback doesn’t create an environment where the student is able to really attend to what they are doing. And despite our self-imposed handicaps we are all learning machines! Before I go back to my own workout I dream about how much more we will all learn through a few simple adjustments.

What skill or activity would you like to learn with greater ease? Within that skill or activity I suggest getting really excited about the exploration of it! Don’t let others give you feedback and don’t critique yourself. (You can always get feedback later.) Immerse yourself in experience of the new skill. Be easy in your practice. Play more. Look to learn. I would love to hear from you in the comments! What are you working on and what have you found that works?

Mastering Gymnastics: Non-Attachment to Outcomes

When I took my first gymnastics class at 18 years old I was told that it would take me 10 years to learn the basics: front and back flips, front and back handsprings. I gave up ever trying them again after a life-threatening injury in my twenties. Here’s me doing front and back flips today:

 

 

I’ve trained gymnastics 62 hours over the last 11 months. I began at nothing. Here’s where I am today (September 2012).

 

They aren’t perfect… I’m not quite ready to try my front flip over concrete. And I’ve learned all this in less than 2 hours each week, in less than 1 year. I’ve actually gone back and counted and I’ve spent 62 hours training gymnastics between November 2011 and October 2012. When I returned to gymnastics last November I was petrified of front and back flips (having broken my neck attempting them in 2007), simply couldn’t do a front handspring, and could do a back handspring only with the help (and muscles) of a spotter.

Nearly at the year anniversary of my very successful return to gymnastics I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what factored into this remarkable learning experience. There are many factors: enthusiasm – I’ve dreamed of excelling at gymnastics since I was 5 and a background in a variety of physical activities. And the single biggest? Non-attachment.

When I watch my colleagues train gymnastics I see many of them attempt the same activity over and over for months, often with very minimal improvement. I see a man attempting a new event (for example: the high bar) and working himself to the point of exhaustion. I recognize it because I’ve been there too! I have been so dead-set on accomplishing a goal that I’m beat to pieces – and still haven’t gotten it.

When I’m most successful is when I am not attached. Let’s start by looking at what happens when I am determined to get something specific.

Instead of training with determination I find it most productive to train with curiosity and interest. When I don’t get something on a first try my initial response is “Neat! Why not?” followed by “How could I do that differently?” These questions lead to profoundly different results than the statement “I can’t get this” (said with frustration).  My questions create a profound flexibility that contributes enormously to the end outcome.

Stepping away from gymnastics for a moment I have also found that not being attached to outcomes is essential in working with children with autism. As an exceedingly brief synopsis, kids on the spectrum tend to exhibit “stims” or “isms,” self-regulating behaviors that are regarded as distinctly not normal by most of society. One of the big efforts of parents of these kids to get to their child to stop stim-ing and to fit it. I don’t see a problem with wanting a child to fit in with his or her peers. But how these children are taught are startlingly similar to how my peers (and often me, too) train gymnastics – the end goal is the only goal.

Have you ever while riding a bike or driving a car seen something in the road and – intending not to hit it – gone straight into it? By saying: “I should get my front flip now” or “This kid oughtn’t to behave in that way” or “Don’t hit that object in the road! Don’t hit it!!!” we head directly at that which we say we want to avoid!

So what’s the solution? What might we do instead of aiming at what we’d like to avoid? For a start, ask questions. Instead of “I get that [expletive] back flip” or “My child isn’t keeping up with his peers” let’s try changing these into actual question:

  • “Why have I, thus far, been unable to do a back flip?”
  • “Why isn’t my child doing like her peers?”

As soon as contextualize these questions without the frustration and judgment the solutions become much more clear. When I start to inquire why I haven’t done a back flip I realize it is because I’m scared, or because when I’m upside down I loose my sense of direction. Asking that question in working with an autistic child leads to a whole variety of possible explanations, which help me to get closer to her.  It isn’t that I want the back flip less, but I do need it less. It isn’t that I don’t want the child to learn but I’m no longer tied to that outcome happening now right now. I no longer upset myself for that thing not having happened yet.

I’m not enlightened. I’m actually really impressed with how much I can improve at gymnastics even when I’m determined to get it now; at how much an autistic child can function even while being judged from all sides for behaving differently. (As an amusing aside: I’m absolutely not pushy with the kids I see even when I’m still frequently need an outcome in gymnastics.) Long and short: what we do works – well enough. But when it comes to improving high performance, learning skills in record time, and training the unattainable (most people believe that autism is forever, I know otherwise.) not being attached to one specific outcome in the moment results in much larger leaps in learning over time. I am going to continue practicing gently. What have you found that works?

 

Masterful Marketing – How Jay Abraham sends emails I’m thrilled to recieve

This resource is something I’ve wanted to share for a quite a while. I’ve described this man and his resources to individuals and groups dozens of times in the last year. Whether you are in business, work for someone else, or think marketing and sales are evil words there is useful information in Jay’s ideas and give-aways. Take a look!

 

I’ve never met Jay, though I intend to. I haven’t even read all of his books or used all of his products. I’ve also never paid him and he currently offers very little that I even could spend money on! He works almost exclusively with seriously large (multi-billion dollar) corporations.

That said, there is one audio recording in particular – of Jay Abraham interviewed by Tony Robbins – which is worth more than… most anything. I’ve certainly received more value than I paid for it – because is free! One of the many aspects Jay talks through in this particular interview is the usefulness in business of contributing far more in value than is expected or than we take in payment. I currently employ this in my private practice by charge of consulting two weeks after working with clients – and not at all if effects of my work have not been observed! I have found that this policy is a very useful incentive for new clients. There are hundreds of similarly useful lessons for business and for life in just this two hour audio interview.

I received an email tonight from Jay that explained that I will be receiving 9 emails from him in the next nine days. In the year that I’ve been on his email list I’ve received less than one email a month. My enthusiasm for this man is such that – even though he specifies that he will, for a change, be marketing a product – I can’t wait. I am excited to hear what’s next and what this brilliant man has in mind. I should reiterate that I’ve never spent money on any of his products or services. I may never. The thing that Jay does brilliantly, and the reason I’m excited to hear from him again soon, is deliver enormous value ever step of the way. Jay detailed that in addition to the nine emails I’ll be receiving a report which breaks down of his career in marketing with specific tools he learned at each step in his career (from selling dust carpets to advising Fortune 500s), as well as 4 hours of fresh footage of him reviewing and deconstructing other businesses. Throughout this endeavors Jay builds in value.

Update: Even as I’ve begun to receive the series of emails Jay breaks down how and why he’s organizing the emails for optimal persuasion. Also, though I know that I can always unsubscribe, he explicitly details the number of ways I don’t have to participate or continue receiving his emails if I so choose. Even Jay’s selling techniques provide useful tips!

Here’s an example of the enormous value he brings to the table: This link is to a page which depicts an overwhelmingly large number of products that he has created over the last couple of decades. Enter your email (it can even be a throw-away account) and get access to the identical page except that each product description links to the actually product. My favorite by far is Tony Robbins interviewing Jay Abraham but published books, CD and DVD training programs, and reconstruct-a-business videos are just a few of the products available.

Another note: Try out the audio, even if you’re turned off by Jay’s land page. The products he gives away are invaluable!

I really want you to listen to Jay’s interview by Tony Robbins because it has been completely transformational in my own business. I make a percentage of my monthly income as residual from work that I’ve done for other companies in the past year. I have contributed marketing or sales strategy to these companies and helped them improve their business for a percentage of the profits I generated. In other words, I’ve used one of the models that Jay describes to supplement my income. It was easy and fun work and you can do it too!

Visit http://abraham.com/gifts/ and give this audio a try. This is the most useful marketing tool I’ve discovered in years of learning about marketing and sales. I frequently describe to nearly everyone I meet and I think it can be useful for you, too.

Just as an aside: though I have no financial investment in anything here my reasons for sharing are entirely self-serving. Next time I go to describe this resource to anyone I can just tell them to check my blog! And I’m always interested in sharing business ideas and discussing effective marketing strategy. My hope is that sharing these resources will fuel the discussion!

Stimulus Belief Response (or How to Be Happy at a Funeral)

We’re upset when someone we love dies. Why?

I wrote the following in preparation for a speech I gave on the usefulness of choosing beliefs. This is philosophical approach I subscribe to because I find it useful and I’ve often been surprised with how violently people respond when I put it into action! I’m not endorsing being happy all the time (though that is an option). I think we get to decide all the time how we want to feel.

While you read this consider: how would your peers respond if you weren’t upset at a funeral?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This quote is from Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor and psychiatrist who survived the holocaust by keeping his spirits up. He regularly gave speeches in front of imaginary audiences as a way to validate his own importance!

 

What is a stimulus?  A stimulus is anything, in our environment, internal, external, person, place, thing that we are aware of, react to, interact with.  Our response: how we respond to that stimulus.

 

I find it useful to believe that in between a stimulus and our response there is a space, and in that space is a belief.  We form beliefs and change beliefs all the time.  Raise your hand if you have believed in an imaginary figure?  In Santa Claus, in elves, in fairies, in the Easter Bunny?  How many of you believe in those today?  Everyone here has believed in an imaginary figure and nearly everyone no longer does.  We change our beliefs!  Where do they exist?  If you cut me open you don’t find beliefs floating around inside of me!  Beliefs are make-believe anyway.

 

If I come up to a beautifully dressed woman and say “you are a terrible dresser” she might take offense!  If I come up to a man who appears to have brown hair and say “I can’t stand your bright pink hair,” is he more likely to be confused or angry?  What determines these responses?

 

I think that it is a belief that they hold about themselves.  This woman might be dressing up because she cares about her appearance.  She comes to a speaking club and want to look good?  She is perhaps believing that it is important that she looks good.  So if I say that she has bad taste, and she reacts, she is reacting to her own beliefs about her appearance.  However, he believes with some certainty that he doesn’t have pink hair.  There’s nothing in my statement of pink hair that lands on him.  He doesn’t judge himself as a pink-haired individual.

 

If we lived in a stimulus – response world everyone would react to the same stimulus in exactly the same way.  If I tell everyone in the room that “I love you!” everyone would experience the same feelings and respond in the same way.  My experience is that if I tell two people the same thing I am more than likely going to get two very different responses.

 

We make up beliefs moment, by moment by moment.  The job of the brain is to make sense of our environment, to make sense of the world that we live in.  We do that through the creation – moment by moment – of beliefs.  And these made-up beliefs affect every aspect of what we perceive and what we respond to.  And this is great news!  This means that we are not bound to our responses.  We are not determined – fatalistically – to respond forever in the same way.  We have seen that we have all changed beliefs at some point in our lives.  Given different information, different evidence we change beliefs all the time!

 

Feeling whatever we experience: responding with anger, with sadness, with frustration, with joy.  These are choices based on how we view the world.  Based on specific belief.  “Santa Claus isn’t real?”  “You are very poor dresser.”  “I love you!”  How we respond is based on the beliefs we hold.  By examining our beliefs we can change our responses and change our life!

 

Viktor Frankl celebrated the space between stimulus and response.  I find it useful to identify that space as a belief.  Frankl survived the holocaust by internally validating himself, by making believe that he was talking in front of imaginary audiences of thousands.  He survived to go on to do so!  Frankl survived the holocaust by creating inside himself a feeling of importance. How might we examine our beliefs, change them – if we want to – and thereby fundamentally change our responses, and improve our lives?

Reflections on “Suggestible” (Ditch skepticism, curiousity is more useful)

I had a conversation after Toastmasters this evening which had me thinking about the usefulness of persuasion and the power of positive thinking. As an academic I was taught to be skeptical. Skepticism was regarded the highest courtesy among my scientific peers. Tonight, after giving a speech which I intended to my audience to try out a service I was offering, my companion expressed nervousness over being inaccurately led to overcome pain or limitation. In this post I’m going to try to tackle this concern from two perspectives: from the “being misled” skeptic’s mentality and from a perspective of potential usefulness.

I certainly understand and share hesitation over a hard sell. When someone approaches me with a “purchase, or else” mentality I routinely take the “or else” option, sometimes even though I might have otherwise been interested. In this situation, though, we were talking about the potential for the free 3-4 minute movement lesson I taught to create false freedom from pain or inaccurate perception of increased mobility. I had fun exploring, fleshing out, and verbalizing my opinions on the subject. I hope this is useful to you, too!

The lesson I taught went as follows:

Please close your eyes. And notice how you are sitting in the chain right now. Notice the contact of your pelvis on the right side and on the left side. Notice where your spine is. Are you leaning into the chair, are you forward in your seat. Notice your head. If your eyes were opened would you be looking at the wall in front of you, at the floor below you, or at the ceiling above you. And place your left hand, specifically the top of your left hand, underneath your chin and support – just a little bit – the weight of your head with your left hand. And turn, slowly, using your left shoulder and your left arm, turn your head and your shoulder and twist in your spine a little bit, to look to the right. And then come back to the middle. And do this once more attending now to your pelvis in the chair, attending to your feet on the floor. What can you do, what can you twist, want can you turn, to make this movement so that it is not a turning sharply in your neck but a gentle easy twist through the whole length of your spine. And then come back to the middle. And we’ll do this just once more, this time take your eyes in the opposite direction. So as you twist to the right you’re going to take your eyes slowly and gentle to the left. Maybe think about following something, maybe a gecko, walk on the wall opposite you. So as you twist to the right you are watching this gecko walk slowly to the left, just a little bit! And then the gecko walks slowly back to the middle as you turn your head, and your chest, and your left arm to the middle. And then stop this. And let down your left arm. And rest in sitting, with your eyes closed still. And again notice the ease, the feeling you have in yourself. Do you feel easier in sitting now? Are you more aware of the contact of your spine with the back of the chair? The contact of your feet with the floor. The left side of your pelvis and the right side of your pelvis.

This is a directive movement lesson. I wanted participants to experience greater ease after the lesson is over. I invite them to feel more comfortable, more relaxed. My friend tonight was nervous though that she would experience these changes “inaccurately.”

If I were in a Spanish class and was told that my instructor wanted me to notice the difference between the sound of the word “ser” and the word “estar” that would be perfectly natural. My instructor is giving me two words which both mean “to be” and helping me to puzzle out the difference between these new sounds. However, if I am in an environment anywhere where someone is trying to persuade me of something, the instructor or salesperson wanting for me to create distinctions is what…? At least a reason for caution, often a reason to run for the hills. Why is this?

Back to my example of the evening. I asked participants to notice if they felt more easy, with the assumption that that was one of the possible outcomes. Why? Because when we are quiet, easy, and comfortable in ourselves our brains are primed for learning. We are literally more receptive. What this means is that neural pathways in the brain are more ready to spring into action, often in new and more efficient ways. My friend was skeptical that by my suggestion she might feel more comfortable. In academia I was taught that this might be a bad thing and that was what she believed. So in our conversation I explored this further. Say she feels more relaxed because I suggested it. She learns more because I said it was a possibility. Afterward she either leaves, goes home, and forgets all about it or (much more common among people I have worked with) she continues to experience small shifts, gets curious about them, and they magnify to become profound changes. I then took my extrapolation to athletes. An athlete is in pain, does some gentle movement, imagines that she feels easier, and thus learns to experience greater ease more often until she finally overcomes her injury. Or take a child with Autism. This child is – of course – suggestible. I can invite the child towards what I want: great communication and connect with his family and peers. By my belief and suggestion that such connection is valuable comes his interest in going towards such interactions. In my conversation tonight I then came back to myself. Five years ago I dislocated a vertebra in training for the circus. Medically speaking, I broke my neck. I haven’t been in pain in several years and have gone back to gymnastics in 2012. That said, am I suggestible towards pain? Yes! It would probably take me 10 minutes to put myself in an intense level of pain similar to what I experienced five years ago and I am sure I could do it. If I sat in a room with someone who told me to imagine my vertebra out of place and pain radiating down my spine, and if I did as this instructor suggested, I would end up hurting and probably remain in pain for several days thereafter. I am absolutely suggestible.

I understand my friend’s skepticism from the beginning of our conversation. I was trained to think that way, too. I do believe that profound curiosity is essential to the scientific process and skepticism is often used to reach a similar perspective. And I had delicious fun fleshing out my new beliefs about suggestibility tonight. I am absolutely suggestible. To a Spanish teacher helping me puzzle out the difference between two new words, for a child with Autism or a professional athlete, towards or away from anything that I want in my life I am suggestible and want to remain so! I have freedom from pain, enormous pleasure in my work and in my personal pursuits, and find myself happier ever day than ever before. I find deciding I’m going to live that way and persuading myself along the way to be the best route there is!

Movement with Attention for your child

Note: this post is intended for parents of children with special needs. If that isn’t your cup of tea there are lots of other posts that may be.

Anat Baniel’s first essential is Movement with Attention. The question is how to apply this essential with your child. What’s one new way?

1. Touch your child with curiosity. What does it feel like to touch along his/her spine? Towards the top of the spine vs. the bottom of the spine? What differences do you feel? As you begin to feel differences you awaken your child (regardless of age) to the possibility of experiencing and learning differences too!

2. Join them. Do what they do. If they roll on the floor, sit up, crawl – try doing that too! As you join them in what they like you’ll bond with them, get more engaged with them, and come to see aspects of what they do in a new way!

3. Lie on your back on the floor for 3 minutes and scan yourself. Notice the contact of your feet with the floor, your head with the floor. As you begin to feel yourself more you wake up your brain to the possibility of new experiences. This will then powerfully transfer over to how you are with your child, how you touch your child, and how you attend to your child!

4. Who’s next? What’s another area you apply Movement with Attention?

Anat Baniel Interview

A very authentic interview of Anat on the Anat Baniel Method and Kids Beyond Limits. I love how straightforward she is in sharing her wonder at everyone’s capacity to change. Anat clearly and concisely discusses the difference between mechanical systems and the human brain, which is a learning, information-gathering system. She uses the metaphor of fixing a flat tire: the idea being that we simply cannot fix a person like we might fix a car. Humans are built to grow and learn, not to be solved. Her discussion of teaching the usefulness of “I wonder” is just as I experienced it in her training. As an aside, it is the same way I was taught to not presuppose and to approach questions with an open mind in science. All in all this interview is a loving, open-minded and fascinating glimpse into Anat’s thinking process and the Anat Baniel Method. Delicious and useful!

Stretching and – For a Change – Getting Sore

I’ve always been very movement-oriented and since I started studying with Anat Baniel my previously conceived notions about movement have changed dramatically.  They continue to change all the time.

I recently spoke to a community of runners in San Francisco about the brain and mobility.  I combined a mini-lecture on the pedagogy of motor learning with a short demonstration of a different way to gain mobility.  In 5 minutes the participants  gained significant flexibility in a simple “bend down, touch your toes” exercise.  Over the hour that followed a lot of runners came to me and asked about the “magic trick” or about how they had changed so rapidly!  It was great fun!

 

 

I was taught by my running coaches in high school to stretch before and after exercise.  My coaches, well intentioned and compassionate as they were, taught us a lot of what they themselves had been taught over the course of their running careers.  I took those lessons to heart and always warmed up and cooled down with stretching.  When my physical career took a turn toward circus and dance I learned even more the importance of stretching to increase mobility and protect against injury.

Over the last few years my physical training has been somewhat spontaneous and very eclectic.  I don’t regularly go for 6-10 mile runs anymore; I don’t follow any discipline in a regimented way.  I also haven’t been sore in years.  There is a deep, bone wear and contented sore that I used to experience after a good race in high school and after a circus performance in college.  I associated it with “working good.” Over the last few years I’ve condemned that feeling of sore to “damage.”  It is a fact that soreness in muscles is caused by damage.  (There is a wide range of research that shows that DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness equals damage to musculature.)  There is contention among the scientific communities that study such issues whether that damage is also beneficial.  (The argument goes that through the course of building the muscles back up they become stronger, bigger, more mobile, more integrated, etc.)

After my talk at Sports Basement I went for 7.5 mile run.  This in itself isn’t entirely unusual for me in recent years.  However, when I run solo I stop and walk, I chat with passers by, I admire the view, and I always stop, even just briefly, when I feel my body aching.  On the Sports Basement FunRun I pushed myself harder than I usually do, in part because I was enjoying the community and conversation of the other runners.  (The other part, of course, was my own competitive streak!)  As a result, I was sore at the end of the run.  Very sore!  For two days after I felt a lot of tension in my calves everywhere I went – running and walking.  What surprised me in this was how much I enjoyed being sore.  The endorphin release the day of and the day after the run were really really pleasant, but I already know how much I like my endorphins!  What I didn’t expect was that same feeling of ease and quiet and comfort through the course of my own soreness.  Wherever I walked – for days after the FunRun – I ached and I enjoyed it!  How could it be that I’ve damaged my muscles, they are day-after-a-race kind of sore, and I loved it?

I don’t have a satisfactory explanation to this question. I enjoy not aching  more than I enjoy being sore.  I don’t believe that an aching muscle is well organized and I am dedicated to increasing efficient organization (my own and others).  And I enjoyed the ache!  I’ve entering a new layer of the conversation and really quite excited to see where it leads!

Reflections on Skiing

I went skiing in February 2011 for the first time in many years. I’ve made several trips to the mountains since and expect to continue playing in the snow even as the weather in San Francisco shifts rapidly towards Summer. Quite apart from my tendency to fixate on whatever novel movements I happen across (over the last year my enthusiasm has encompassed a range including foosball, the manual dexterity necessary for cadaver dissection, and rock-climbing), in skiing I have enjoyed the opportunity to explore the topics of movement with attention and enthusiasm.

I began skiing shortly after I could walk, plummeting down hills without consideration for danger or parallel turns. While my family did not live within convenient proximity to the snow, we made it a point to get out to the mountains several times each year. In high school I realized how expensive skiing could be and decided to explore more accessible means of expressing my zeal. This year I have re-discovered an activity I had thought lost to childhood memory.

I did some small amount of mental preparation prior to that first ski trip – imaging what it would be like to wear skis again, visualizing parallel turns on a downhill slope – but I had no idea whether I would be starting from scratch. From the fact that I write enthusiastically of returning to the mountains it is easy to guess that I hadn’t lost my old habits. But since then I have been pestered by the question: Why?

When I stepped off the lift at the top of the mountain (Kirkwood, for the record) I truly did not know whether I would head down a black diamond slope or back down the chairlift. What I did was take my time; not timidly but with attention and enthusiasm. I raise these last two points because they are – in my experience – essential to any learning process. If I had stepped off the lift full of judgement I wouldn’t have lasted an hour. I thought back to what skiing had felt like as a kid. I recalled the feeling of ease that accompanies memories of my early days of skiing, of fearlessness, and the capacity for fixation that is necessary for any young child’s development. I indulged in my experience, both current and historic, and took my first slope without expectation.

These “Essentials” are by no means my own invention. Anat Baniel teaches that Movement with Attention, Enthusiasm, and others are essential for learning. But I began to apply these without planning to and gained some insight on how I might recreate positive experiences in the future.

Since that first trip I’ve given some thought to how best to prepare myself for a day of skiing. I’ve created a short YouTube video to depict some of the activities that I now use to get ready for a day of skiing. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone “warming” themselves up to ski so I thought I would do something small to encourage “warming up” on the slopes. I hope you enjoy this video as much I enjoyed rolling around in the snow to create it!

What have I taken home with me besides a renewed appreciation for skiing? I found myself applying some basic precepts in unexpected ways. Instead of trying to control my first experience of skiing, I entered into the experience wondering “What is this going to be like?”. I re-created the feelings of ease that I experienced as a child. I was passionately enthusiastic. I put these thoughts forward as tools to consider going forward into any new activity and learning to move the way you want.

Barefoot Running

I began my running career early, alternatively tagging along to and getting carried along to family running events.  I have fond memories of being the target of flying tortillas at many Bay to Breakers.  On my Dad’s shoulder before the start of the run I became known as “the Kid” and the running was entirely secondary to the preceding tortilla warfare.  My memories of the half and full marathons to which I was “encouraged” to attend are less fond.  Generally, my Dad ran the full, my mother and sister ran the half, and at 10 years old I keep up as best as I could.

My strength on the high school cross-country team was as a hill climber.  I was not at the top of the team, though I did run varsity though junior and senior years.  My best 3 mile race was at an average 5.30 minute/mile.  I disappointed my coaches and my parents when I walked off the team midway through the Fall of my senior year.  I left because I was bored with the limits of running.  I had had just about enough of “run faster.”

That ending was the beginning of a very exciting and eclectic movement education.  I studied fencing, rock-climbing, a couple of martial forms, a variety of dance forms, and numerous circus apparatus.  I have since performed in dance and in circus.

Years later, I’ve been drawn back to running.  Leaps on a ballet dance floor leave me anxious to get out and take up even more space leaping on mountain trails.  My answer to the ubiquitous smoking breaks outside every dance studio I’ve experienced is to go for a run.  The difference is how I think about running.  I still like moving fast and I’m still an endorphin junkie but I don’t run for the sake of running anymore.

I purchased my first pair of Vibram 5-finger 12 months ago after reading this article from the New York Times magazine.  I have always been an advocate of barefootedness.  Early in high school I studied abroad in Costa Rica and walked and ran barefoot after discovering that my performance running shoes offered no traction in the mud.

I had no trouble adapting to my new Vibram Five-Fingers probably because I’ve always enjoyed using my toes.  A traditional Anat Baniel Method/Feldenkrais Method exercise consists of gently interlacing toes with the fingers of the opposite hand.  (Go really slowly, don’t insert fingers in a way that causes pain!)  The mobility of my feet were dramatically altered as a result of an hour spend doing variations on this theme.  An interesting fact: young children often have the dexterity to interlace the toes of their feet just as we interlace our fingers.  It is something I aspire to.

The Vibrams were great for walking down San Francisco streets.  This was just before the shoes hit mainstream shops and I got into all sorts of interesting conversations with people who wondered what in the world I had on my feet.  The downside I’ve discovered to Vibram Five-Fingers is the same that I encounter with running shoes.  I still can’t feel the floor.  Especially during winter months when trails are wet and muddy there just isn’t enough sensation, my toes can’t dig it.  I still tend to take my Vibrams off halfway though a run and continue barefoot.

I’ve recently learned of a new shoe-less product that may enter the market.  Nike has come up with what they are calling “Foot stickers,” rubber/plastic patches that fit on parts of the bottom of the foot and act as second skin.  I haven’t (yet) managed to find a pair to try but I like the idea in principle.  There are a couple of varieties depending on activity: yoga, dance, cardio.  More samples and the article here.

I haven’t seen many shoe-less alternatives available.  A simple, though pessimistic, explanation: running shoe manufactures have a market cornered and don’t want to let it go.  There is more money in telling customers that a new shoe will solve the problem than in telling them to take off those shoes and walk/run barefoot.

My own shift away from regular shoes has resulted in an increase in my awareness of my feet throughout my daily life.  By increasing the demand on my nervous system during a run I feel as if I’m actually increasing the use of my feet throughout my life.

I attended Anat Baniel’s Move Into Life workshop in July 2009.  Michael Merzenich, PhD and noted neuroscientist was in attendance and gave a short talk.

To summarize Merzenich says that walking around barefoot increases demand on the brain, which in turn improves performance.  I have mulled his discussion over since July of 2009 and taken my running to a new, logical level in recent months.  I’ve found running barefoot on a university track to be painful and it isn’t always possible to find trails.  The city streets of San Francisco pose a threat to the barefoot runner.  I resort to running barefoot on a treadmill.  Now that I’ve thought of it, this seems completely logical.  Running shoes we built to keep our feet safe.  The gait-path of a treadmill doesn’t pose significant threat of rock or used needle; in other words we would be hard pressed to find a safer environment on which to run.  Thus far I haven’t been ordered off a treadmill as a result of my barefoot running. I do get strange looks.

Another new discovery resulting from my own barefoot exploration is related directions in research.  It turns out that Harvard has a lab dedicated to the topic of barefoot running.  (http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/)

This skeletal biology lab asks “how and why humans can and did run comfortably without modern shoes”.  They compare native peoples from various parts of the world who have never worn shoes with long-time barefoot runners and gym-going shoe-wearing runners.  The most informative piece of this website for me was that of children running in African whose feet seem to slap the ground.  The muscular tonus of their feet is pretty minimal and they seem very light and easy on their feet as they run.

Try an experiment: Choose your dominant hand. Bend your arm at the elbow, leaving the elbow on the ground.  Relax your wrist so your hand hangs limp.  Raise your hand and forearm like this six inches or a foot off the ground and let it fall.  Don’t throw it at the ground, just let it fall.  Do this several times.  After: do you notice a difference between your dominant hand, the one you let fall, and your non-dominant hand?  I’ve been trying to run using my feet like this.  Literally letting my feet falls towards the ground as I run.  It takes some practice but if the Harvard Skeletal lab is to be delivered, running barefoot requires on average 7% less energy than running in shoes, and is significantly less likely to cause long-term damage to the runner.

Something to consider…

On New Fitness, TED, and Practice

I spent the weekend at Anat Baniel’s “New Fitness” workshop. My new conceptualization of enthusiasm, vitality, and fitness: A baby learning to crawl.  I, for one, have never seen anyone in a gym look so eager nor move so well.

I just watched Aditi Shankardass discuss neurological diagnostic techniques for learning disorders on TED talks. This seven minute clip is worth seeing.

Finally, I’m continuing to enjoy the writings of Jonah Lehrer. Specifically, in September he summarized a paper about the importance of practice.  Here’s the link and here is the conclusion of the paper:

On a practical level, the present results suggest a means by which perceptual training regimens might be made markedly more efficient and less effortful. The current data indicate that it may be possible to reduce the effort required by participants by at least half, with no deleterious effect, simply by combining periods of task performance with periods of additional stimulus exposure. If this proves to be a general rule of nondeclarative learning, it could help to explain how potent instances of learning can arise when sensory stimulation is not always coupled with attention.

Jonah Lehrer on Neuroscience and Humanity

On Tuesday night I went to the Herbst theatre in San Francisco to hear neuro-scientist and writer Jonah Lehrer in conversation with Roy Eisenhardt.  While I grew up listening to City Arts and Lecturs, this was my first live discussion and a much needed return to academic discourse (not to be confused with discussion, debate, or dialogue).  As an alumnus of Columbia and Oxford Universities, Lehrer is now a contributor to Scientific American,  National Public Radio, and Wired Magazine, among others.  He has published articles in The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe and maintains the blog The Frontal Cortex.

Lehrer’s talk was especially interesting personally because of his combination of academic affiliations and real-world application.  As a scientific correspondent Lehrer straddles disciplines with which I myself struggle: the balance of academic research and real-world application.  Lehrer speaks and writes with the ease of a well-read academic.  In discussing one of his two books – Proust Was a Neuroscientist – Lehrer cited Plato to confirm his thesis that some fundamental ideas currently espoused by popular neuroscience were conceptualized by the Greeks.   (I grow bored with the use of the classics merely for the edification of ones argument though this trend is by no means exclusive to Lehrer.  In my opinion, references should be accessible to the audience to which they are cited.)  However, I heartily concur with Lehrer’s argument that the humanities use different methods to answer fundamentally human questions about thought, cognition, existence, humanity… .  What artist, writer, poet, dancer – who?! – does not seek to answer such questions through whatever medium their profession employs?
Jonah Lehrer’s most recent book, How We Decide, encompasses decision making throughout the development of research psychology all the way to recent publications in neuroscience.  I have a pretty thorough grounding in classic Behaviorism (B. F. Skinner, etc.) and Cognitive Psychology.   It was interesting, then, to hear studies with which I am very familiar (the classic example of Pavlov’s dogs trained to salivate at the sound of a bell which ques food) in the context of neuroscience.  Lehrer discussed Chimpanzees being fed squirts of apple juice and conditioned to respond to a bell just as Skinner’s dogs were, with the important difference that these Chimps were also undergoing brain scanners.  The brain scans showed anticipation of food as clearly as did Skinner’s dog’s saliva.  My cognitive psychology profession Dan Reisberg used to argue that neuroscience would not replace cognitive psychology but merely confirm what we (as cognitive psychologists) had already learned.  I saw echos of this throughout Lehrer’s discussion.

In all, I very much enjoyed Lehrer for his wit, humor, and melding of neuroscience with the news.  I am critical of academic’s trend to use lofty references to establish credibility but I see this everywhere that academics publish.  And truly, Plato had some interesting things to say.   I will be adding The Frontal Cortex to my blogroll and will certainly be posting about Lehrer in the future.

As an aside I am also amused by Lehrer’s public image:

This rumpled look is awfully reminiscent of the graduate students I know in the sciences at UCSF.

How Much Evidence Do You Need

One day some months ago, in the middle of a very intense segment, Anat asked my class: “How much evidence do you need to know that something is so?”  Today, a number of events have conspired to encourage me to consider these words.

This afternoon I posted a New York Times article @robinpzander on the effects of tai chi on fibromyalgia.  The research article discussed in the Times was published in the New England Journal of Medicine – a rather prestigious journal – and the Times enthusiastically discussed the findings.  I have only dabbled in tai chi (specifically tai chi chuan) but have enormous respect for the form(s) and it comes as no surprise to me that medical professionals found positive effects on the little-understood neurological degenerative condition or conditions that we call fibromyalgia.  Tai chi consists of a series of interconnected movements executed slowly with attention.  Sound familiar?  That’s two basic precepts of human motor learning:

  1. Movement with attention
  2. Slow

While there may well be aspects specific to tai chi that improve nervous system functioning, I need no further proof than these underlying precepts to satisfy my personal search for knowledge.

Later today I shared the Times article with my mother.  My mother’s is the voice in my head that asks, when I’m confronting a difficult decision, how does it feel?  (Good?  Go for it!  Bad!  Leave.)  She was a bit dismayed that so much time, energy, and money was put in to creating a scientific article that says something that is (for her) self-evident.  Of course moving gently with attention improves functioning.  What of it?

That said, she has been repeatedly surprised by the impact of her current favorite form of movement: a very specific restorative yoga class.  Her recent report was that she slept very deeply for a full night for the first time in several months.  When I asked what happened in class I heard an increasingly familiar set of words: gentle, slow, attention, movement.

A dear friend recently had a routine check-up with her physician.  One of her major on-going projects has been eating foods that are gentle on her system.  In stressful times she always falls back on broths, soups, and easily digested ingredients.  I have not known many people so dedicated to their slow road to recovery as my friend, but as she says – she must, therefore she does.  In this case, she was discussing her status with her doctor and feeling a little overwhelmed by the current stumbling blocks.  His response (reproduced to the best of my ability) was: “There is no method or organization, person or process that can tell you what to do.  You have to feel what is right for you and do that.”  He elaborated by saying that there is no such thing as trying.  “Don’t ask ‘how can I eat better?’ Ask ‘what am I going to eat today?'”

First, I’m in awe of any Medical Doctor with such comprehensive and holistic knowledge.  I know they exist but I certainly haven’t encountered many in my own experience at Kaiser Permanente.  After I got over that initial response, I heard the underlying message: How does it feel?  This medically trained professional is well-published and (as I understand such things) well-respected within nutritional medicine but he is not asking my friend to follow a specific regime.  Instead, she has been given the power and responsibility to follow her own intuition or thinking or common sense or whatever we want to call it.

I foresee a hosts of arguments again the question of How Much Evidence Do You Need.  I have studied enough Cognitive Psychology to know that humans are often very poor decision makers (Thank You, Dan Reisberg.) On the other hand, I’ve had enough experiences of not stopping to think before acting to see some strong correlations between how something feels during or afterward.  (Those 4 donuts at a friend’s 14th birthday party…? I haven’t eaten a donut since, I felt so ill.  Hiked up the mountain as it was getting dark…?  Covered in poison oak, cold, and lost on the mountain.)

This is my first approximation putting down in words what for me is just a feeling or an idea.  But consider: How do you decide whether to take a shortcut through a dark ally?  How do you feel?  If you feel unsafe, that’s all the evidence you’ll ever need to not go down that ally.  I’m not interested in dismissing hard scientific proof.  I’m just curious what would happen if we were to ask ourselves the question:

How much evidence do you need to know that something is so?

(And how do you feel about it?)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I’ve just finished another fantastic book…

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon is a mystery told from the perspective of the protagonist Christopher, a fifteen-year-old who falls on the autistic spectrum (likely Asperger syndrome). The story ostensibly revolves around Christopher’s discover of a murdered dog and subsequent decision that this death deserves investigation. In truth, though, The Curious Incident is a touching look into the mind of a very intelligent boy whose worldview is just different from the norm.  Described  from Christopher’s perspective, “abnormal” behaviors are reinterpreted as logical copping mechanisms.  The murder mystery takes Christopher (and the reader) into the hither-to unexplored realms of interpersonal relationship, complex mathematics (one the realms in which Christopher truly thrives), and conceptualization of social norms.  In Christopher we find an endearing character who has constructed a mental framework within which he is safe, with Christopher are dramatically forced outside of this comfort zone, and grow through the experience.  The story provides a novel look into the mind of a very special child who will remain with the reader long after the last page.  Regardless of a reader’s personal interaction with special needs children, The Curious Incident encourages thinking about other’s perspectives in a way that is touchingly, profoundly human.

Dance Education: A dialogue

The following from a conversation I had with a dance teacher I really like. The best (and most challenging) ballet classes I’ve ever taken. Topic is the application of the Anat Baniel Method and Feldenkrais for professional dancers. I think the ideas also apply to all high-level athletes.

What I am interested in hearing is what you have done and are doing in terms of your Feldenkrais training, what you intend to do with that training and how that would translate to a dancer’s education on an ongoing basis.

Is that all?  I’m glad you are starting small.  If you were to ask all of the hard questions all at once I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Anat Baniel was one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ pupils and studied under him from the early ’70s until his death in ’84.  Since then she as founded the Anat Baniel Method, continuing the evolution of the Feldenkrais Method under her own name.  Anat is widely regarded in the Feldenkrais community and is also the mother of a close friend.  In my life I have encountered a small handful of instructors (in a diverse set of fields) whose process of instruction – quite apart from the material itself – is truly exceptional.  (While we are on the topic, you are one of those few.) Anat is one. At its essence her topic is learning and thus how she teaches is, of course, exemplary.

Continue reading “Dance Education: A dialogue”

CNS (Central Nervous System is Sexy)

A couple of clarifying notes as relate to my most recent post on Neurons and Excitability…

Often, when one hears Central Nervous System the inclination is to think of the brain.  This is accurate but not a complete picture.  The CNS also includes a region of the spine down to about the waist line – the spinal cord.  It is important to note that the spinal cord does not extend the full length of the spinal column.

Sensory information may arrive at a wide variety of points along the spinal cord or reach the brain itself.  Information that is processed along the spinal cord without reaching the brain results in what we call reflexes.  This is why reflexive actions occur so quickly: they need not travel the length of the spine and into the brain.

Muscle Fibers and Nerve Excitability

I have spent a great deal of time dissecting cadavers this year.  This has been an amazing opportunity to learn in person about human anatomy and physiology and is deeply informative for my continuing work with clients seeking to overcome pain.  In examining these bodies, generously donated to UCSF/SFSU, I have spent a great deal of time isolating muscles as well as bony landmarks and nerve bundles.  A muscle cell, technically called a muscle fiber, is composed of interconnected proteins which contract and release.  The first part of my revelation was that each of these fibers is the full length of the muscle of which it is part.  This means that a fiber (remember, that means a muscle cell) which makes up a small part of the Rectus Femoris (the outermost of the quadriceps muscles, it runs from the pelvis down to the knee cap) also runs the full length from the pelvis to the knee.  My second breakthrough was in connecting this fact to a similar detail about nerve cells.  A nerve cell is called a neuron and the aspect of the cell responsible for transmitting electrical impulses from the body of the cell to the outputting ends is called the axon.   Note the axon of the neuron below, covered in a myelin sheath.

Nerve

When I bump my toe everything happens so fast that it is nearly impossible to tell what is going on.  The sensory neurons in my toe send a signal to my spinal cord or my brain for processing, which then facilitates either a reflex or a processed reaction to the stimulus.  Perhaps, I withdraw my toe and cradle it in pain.  The signal, as it travels in both directions, is traveling from neuron to neuron or along the axon of many neurons, from extremity to the central nervous system (CNS, see following post for further discussion of this system) and back out again.  Some of the axons responsible for conducting the impulse to and from the toe are the length of the distance from toe to CNS!  Once the signal reaches the injured extremity it excites muscles fibers which contract (too late) to bring the toe out of harm’s way.  In these contractions, remember, fibers the length of the muscle are contracting.

Given two facts – that muscle fibers run the length of a muscle and that axons may run the distance between an extremity and the central nervous system – we can begin to understand why we can experience pain in parts of the body distant from a specific injury.  Neurons begin to respond when other neurons in their vicinity are excited.  Thus a wave of signals traveling away from the CNS may excite offshoots and facilitate muscle contraction in an area not directly impacted by the original stimulus.  As part of the healing process, this interconnectivity may be utilized by subtly adjusting areas peripheral to the site of injury.

I was recently working with a client, a professional dancer, who suffered injury to his ankle some years ago.  Since that time his career has been successful but he reports always having noticed less mobility at the site of injury.  He had seen physical therapists and massage practitioners about the issue with little or no success.  He reported that these practitioners had spent considerable time working directly on his foot and ankle and wondered aloud why I was dedicating so much attention elsewhere on his body.  But consider: if muscle fibers systematically run the length of a muscle and the axons of nerves may run from an extremity to the CNS, what impact might working elsewhere i.e. on the same leg have on the point of injury?  Muscle cells that directly connect to the area may be as far away as the knee.  Neurons that directly relate the the area may end as far as the upper spine or head.  Conceivably – just given these two facts – we could have worked on his head and seen results in his foot.  Certainly, my clients saw results!

That muscle fibers and neurons can be the lengths discussed should not be taken to completely explain interconnection throughout the body.  How neurons communicate is a very active field of research.  How axons come to be a certain length is not thoroughly understood.  Nor should the story of my client be an incentive to start poking at a friend’s head in hopes of provoking a response in her foot.  It probably will only serve to get you a good swift kick.  Of course, none of this changes the two tenants of the discussion.

Next time you stub your toe, consider: where did your responses originate?

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of A Biology Watcher

The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas does not contain of the exclusive scientific vocabulary one might expect from a Doctor of Medicine who was professor, chairman, and dean at some of the most prestigious hospitals and medical universities in the United States. Thomas writes not as a scientist but as a scientifically-minded poet.  The book is a slim volume which covers a great deal of territory: each of the ten chapters takes a different perspective on issues relating to micro-biology, human evolution, the natural world, the pursuit of science.  The consistent humor and delicacy with which Thomas delves into difficult issues is a primary connection between the essays’ diverse topics.

Before properly beginning the book properly I turned to a random page and read:

Watching television, you’d think we lived at bay, in total jeopardy, surrounded on all sides by human-seeking germs, shielded against infection and death only by a chemical technology that enables us to keep killing them off.

These descriptions of our fearful actions continue for a lengthy paragraph and it is only at the end of the page that Thomas begins an outright discussion of the chapter’s topics of disease and the micro-organisms held responsible.  He sheds light on human behavior as relates to germs, behavior based not on knowledge of the cells themselves but rather on our own immune responses.  Thomas elaborates on several cases in which changing our approach could achieve more productive outcomes.

Lives of a Cell covers much more than just a discussion of micro-biology, even as relates to human behavior.  In “Some Biomythology” Thomas seriously discusses mythical beasts from a diversity of cultures and casually compares what these have to teach us about the animal kingdom with what recently-discovered micro-organisms can reveal of biology to the public.

In “Ceti” Thomas discusses Tau Ceti – a nearby start which resembles our sun, the CETI (Conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and the logistics of communicating with intelligent life beyond our solar system.  He revels in the potential miscommunication. What of ourselves would we choose to share with newly-found intelligent life if the beginning of our conversation spanned hundreds of years?  Our recent discoveries in science would be an embarrassment 300 years later.  He draws the reader into the realization of how quickly human society is changing, and proposes that perhaps music – Thomas favors Bach, specifically – could be our greatest ally.

Lewis Thomas’ prose are not what one might expect from the highest echelons of academia.  He is far too human and humble in his stringing together of abstract ideas; too good at reaching a broad audience.  I cannot wait to get my hands on his earlier book The Medusa and the Snail, on his many published articles, maybe even articles published by his colleagues, to discover whether the beauty of his thoughts and writing extend beyond these pages.  I hope they do.

Tango

After many years, last evening I again dabbled in the “the dance” as I once heard Argentine tango described. While I had planned to continue today’s post with further discussion of the muscular sets which the fitness industry usually ascribes to the core, I cannot help but throw in last evening’s revelations.

Other links will described more accurately and in greater detail both the general attributes of Argentine tango and the somatic-sensory experiences of the dance.  My purpose in bringing tango into the discussion is begin to broaden the discussion and understanding of thoughtlessly used terms towards definitions which may further not only general intellectual understanding but also an individual’s personal and physical experiences.

From the moment I stepped onto the dance floor last evening I knew that something in my own awareness had dramatically changed since the last time – years previously – I was a tango floor.  Without being told, I knew that the most important aspect of me in the dance was my relationship to my center of gravity.  (I attribute this new awareness to my training under Anat Baniel and will elaborate in some later post on how that training has changed my perception.)

As my friend and colleague, Pilates master practitioner Connor Aiken, has pointed out on several occasions, “center of gravity” is a term echoed in different words throughout many different traditions.  Center of gravity is how science describes the area approximately two inches beneath the navel.  Joseph Pilates described this zone as the core.  In Hinduism the same region contains the sacral chakra.

Regardless of the name, it was my own connection to this zone and through me to my partner which dictated the quality of each dance I shared last evening.  If I was not fully connected, my partner, regardless of her (or his) prior dance experience, felt it and our dancing suffered.  However, on those occasions where I wasn’t too distracted by dance floor traffic negotiations or stepping musically to pay attention to my center, I experienced a degree of groundedness and a clarity of physical communication with my partner which is unique in my dancing experience.

Center of gravity, core, sacral chakra, or one of a dozen others; what matters more than a name is how we choose to use the area.  I suspect that many on the tango floor last evening have considerable more use of their cores than do those work tirelessly in a gym to build the appearance of a beautiful abdomen.  This is not to say that building the ubiquitously desired six pack cannot run in concert with greater body awareness.  I would merely encourage exploration – not necessary just of tango – of any form of movement which allows connection to this intriguing aspect of the human body.

Beginning Discussion of “the Core”

I just came across the following definition of the concept of the core at Spring Pilates and Yoga Studio in San Francisco.

What is the “core”?
You may have been hearing this buzz word for a while now, not completely sure what everyone is talking about. The core refers to a group of muscles and tissue around the crucial area of the lower trunk and hips. This group includes the lower spine, sacrum, pelvis, and femurs. Strengthening the muscles that attach to these areas, such as the abdominals, psoas, spinal erectors and gluteals are necessary to stabilize and control this “core” area. Since the core is the foundation of all movement (kind of like a starfish, where all movement radiates out from the center), any weakness, instability or dysfunction can cause minor to severe strain and discomfort throughout the entire body.

It is a better definition than most and provides a good place to begin. Look for further discussion soon!