Do Less, Move Better & Learn More

When you hear “movement” what you think of? Probably something kinesthetic, something related to the human body in motion. This is a great beginning – and a limiting definition. Movement is related to everything. Digestion is the movement of food through our body. Speech is the movement and articulation of air pressure through our vocal cords. The perception of speech is the movement of our neurons for the purposes of interpreting that air pressure. The human body breaks down and reconstructs the entire skeletal system over the course of every seven years. Neat, huh? Movement really is everywhere and everything we do.

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Robin on a German Wheel cerca 2005

This is relevant because it is an entry into the conversation of learning. Whether we’re talking about learning to ride a bike, drive a car, interact socially, eat food, or behave in a way that society deems normal, improving movement improves learning and improves life.

If I am standing up my brain has to process the floor, the air around me, and whatever it is that I can smell and see and hear. If I’m wearing shoes my brain has to make sense of the shoes on my feet, the shirt I’m wearing on my arms, on my chest, on my back, on my belly. Not to mention that I am standing! If I am lying on my back on the floor I/my brain can take more time and attention to process the feel of my back on the floor, my bottom, my legs, feet and head. Our brains are constantly organizing and making sense out of all of these inputs–that is a lot of work!

Try This Exercise

Play some music that you don’t ordinarily listen to. Play louder than you usually listen to music. Begin to jump up and down out of time to this music. Simultaneously, your right thigh with your left hand. Blink your eyes open and closed very quickly. And now finally add in reciting aloud your 13 times tables.  Hard to do, right? In juxtaposition lie on your back on a comfortable floor in a quiet room and see if you can, easily and gently, count your 13 times table. It easier to do? To do something that is challenging or to learn something that is new it is much easier to decrease the demand we place on the brain. In other words, when you are trying to learn something new, try less hard and you’ll get better results.

Where’s Robin? Join me for weekly (free) movement lessons.

There are a lot of new and exciting changes in my life. Over the last 2 years I’ve gone out social dancing 6x nights a week, training gymnastics until 10 or 11pm some nights, and working early into the morning hours. It was a not uncommon occurrence for a flatmate to be getting up for breakfast and find me fixing myself a 5am pre-bedtime snack. Well, that’s changed…

I am currently organizing the biggest event I’ve ever put on. We are organizing a thousand person workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area for The Son-Rise Program®: Essentials workshop – a transformative three days workshop for parents and professionals with children with autism. There are some free upcoming talks, here.

Additionally, I’ve switched from dancing Blues/Fusion and Argentine Tango to ballet. I am currently taking ballet class at LINES ballet six times each week.

These changes make me harder to find than I was just a couple of months ago. I am used to seeing a lot of people regularly on dance floors around the Bay Area and won’t be, for the foreseeable future. So I’m instigating a new, weekly (free) event. I have been certified to practice the Anat Baniel Method, a modern variant of the Feldenkrais Method, and a gentle style of movement education that I’ve used to overcome some severe injuries. This is the same sort of thing I do with autistic kids. I’ve done a lot of movement in my life – from founding a dance company to trying a dozen martial arts in a week. I have studied with some amazing teachers. And I’ve never met someone with a more thorough applied understanding of human motor learning than Anat Baniel. I want to continue to learning with you…

Play More

We all know theoretically that being playful is not only more fun, but can be useful. And yet we give ourselves so little freedom to explore and play with freedom and curiosity. I am often struck by the specific circumstances in which people do give themselves permission to play freely. My 10-month old nephew is prime example. As soon as people see him, they bend down, squeal, and join his games.

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In some situations I am extremely playful. The first time that I entered a gymnastics gym at 18 years old I was overwhelmed that such a place existed – and that I could be allowed in! I remember running the distance of the gym, between trampoline, high bar and tumble track, marveling that all of this equipment existed in the world and that I could play on it.

But what gives us freedom to play under certain circumstances and not in others? Why, with my nephew, do strangers on the street allow themselves to say hello when otherwise they would look away? How did my enthusiasm in gymnastics make it possible to do the impossible?

The Body In Pain

When someone is in pain their brain literally shuts down. fMRI show that there is much less neural activity when the body is in physical or emotional pain. Pain therefore literally leaves less room for learning. Thus, one function of play is to expand neural activity, increasing the likelihood for new connections to be formed within the brain. 

The Humor Shortcut

If I’m uncomfortable I cannot be playful. Fortunately, the reverse also hold true: when I am playful I automatically become comfortable. Lat week I made my first I attempt at stand-up comedy. I joked about getting beat up in middle school. On stage the events were so exaggerated that the results were funny (at least to me!). The experience of talking about experiences that were at the time very challenging required a degree of mental flexibility that I found freeing. Creating a humorous situation out of a controversial one is just another way of stretching the brain and creating new connections.

Limitless Options

If play allows for a flexible approach to the study of anything, seriousness limits the ways in which we can explore. When we are stubborn or stuck there are literally fewer options available.

Engagement

In addition to playfulness allowing for broader exploration, it creates the possibility for more active, enthusiastic engagement with the material presented. How come? Playfully presented material is more likely to be remembered. We remember experiences we enjoy.

Play Is Fun

Finally we have reached the simplest and most compelling reason of all: play is more fun. Simple as that. Who has a more enjoyable experience: the man who awkwardly averts his eyes or the woman who squats down to look my nephew in the eyes and make funny faces? I know which activity I enjoy more (and – of course – I have never awkwardly averted my eyes! Not ever…)

Where This Leaves Us

In the last few weeks I’ve been noticing where I am playful and where I’m not. By noticing trends I’ve begun to take the level of flexibility and enthusiasm I have in certain areas and transfer into others. Begin to notice where you are the most playful in your life. To begin, I suggest noticing where you are playful in your life, too.

What Is Joining? (An Easy Tool to Help Kids with Autism.)

First Things, First

I am thrilled to announce that Move Autism (that’s me) is sponsoring the first ever San Francisco Son-Rise Essentials Program®! For those who aren’t familiar with the term, I’ve talked about the program before and you can learn more here. This will be a three day course in San Francisco, April 25-27th with a follow-up “Next Steps” program July 25-27th! Learn more at http://www.sonrisesf.com.

Beginning what I’m sure will be a theme over the next several months, in this post I’ll discuss my experience with a single element of the Son-Rise Program®, called joining. Before I dive into a definition and my own personal experience, I’ll say a few words about the intersection between autism and learning. What I look to accomplish with children with autism is actually quite similar to what I look for with athletes or book authors – next steps. Autism is a complicated issue with diverse social, environmental, movement and other factors affecting each child. But what I do with individuals, regardless of diagnosis, is similar.

Step 1: Assess where and who they are, getting familiar with their habits and patterns.
Step 2: Form a common bond and connection.
Step 3: Invite them towards something new – be that backflips or more typical child-like behavior.

What Is Joining?

Joining is the term used by the Autism Treatment Center of America to describe a way of developing commonality with children (step two), long before inviting them into something new.

Tiny Steps Towards Change

Tiny Habits.com is my all-time favorite habit building tool, created by B.J. Fogg, PhD of Stanford University.

BJ studies how to change habits. and over the course of his decades of research B.J. has come up with the Tiny Habits system. The idea is quite simple: smaller habits are easier to build and sustain than big habits. Habit building is a skill that can be improved. When people aim to change small habits they are much more likely to continue building the skill of habitual change and thus make bigger changes in their lives.

Tiny Steps

In the last year I have used Tiny Habits half a dozen times to encourage myself to do projects ranging from handstands to monitoring my finances. Tiny Habits is free, lasts for 5 days, and has allowed me to adopts several habits that I will use for the rest of my life. Even more exciting, though, are some of the aspects of building habits that I have gleaned from Tiny Habits and begun to apply elsewhere.

How To Learn Handstands

I’ve practiced handstands on and off for almost 10 years but it was only in making a study of the gymnastics giant that I was able to master my handstands. I did so by studying the component parts.

This post is about using small steps to learn handstands quickly and in stages. At the request of Karen X. Cheng I’ve broken down how to learn handstands into 10-second videos. To accompany the videos I’ve put together this post, detailing the progression.

Everyone tries to learn handstands by trying to do handstands. When we break the process down, it can be much easier and quicker.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. -Albert Einstein

Tools to Learn Anything Well (Hint: It Is Simpler Than You Think)

The more time I study learning the more I realize that the tools which improve performance apply across disciples. Everywhere we look there are struggles and every-day heroes overcoming those struggles: athletes achieving record-breaking feats, regular people losing that last 10 pounds and children with autism self-regulating, tantruuming, and improving.

I make a study of the commonalities (and differences) between seemingly unrelated disciplines. What does the Gymnastics Giant and curing autism have in common? It turns out there is method to the madness and more commonality than difference among disparate paths.

Experiment. Stick out your tongue once in a while. (I suggest not biting it, though.)

Overcome The Impossible – How I Learned To Complete A Gymnastics Giant

In the Fall of 2011 I took up gymnastics. This is the sport that boys start at 6 years old and most adults believe they can’t ever begin because they didn’t start young enough. I began by experimenting with gymnastics apparatus: tumbling, trampoline, parallel bars, pommel house, and high bar. This last – the high bar – has consumed the last six months of my training and in this post I’ll detail how I’ve learned to complete a Giant in six months – a skill that is taught over the course of a decade in most pre-professional gymnastics training programs.

But first, here is my first-ever High Bar Giant:

Why Movement for Special Needs Children – Robin Discusses Why Movement for Autism

Movement has always been at the center of my pursuits and practices. I now have the honor and privilege of taking more than two decades work of experience and applying these skills to children with special needs. Through an understanding of the basic science of human motor learning acquisition – or how people learn to move better – I apply the skills I have acquired to help children learn to move better.

Get Flexible Without Stretching (Limited Spots Available!)

In February 2013, on a whim, I built a program for 10 close friends on how to learn the splits without any stretching. Sounds impossible, right? I promise it is not. Building flexibility without stretching is a part of what I do in my personal training and together I and my group of friends turned my in-person instruction into a digital study-course.

See the original program offer here. (Please note, this offer has expired.)

Stretching

The idea that stretching is outdated isn’t new but has generated more momentum recently in mainstream media. Skim this article in the New York Times on the potential damage caused by static stretching before working out.

The course lasted for 30 days and included more than 45 custom-recorded lessons in which I taught my participants how to train in such a way that they discovered dramatically increased flexibility, without the potential damaging effects of too much stretching!

Now I’m making this program even better…

Learning 12 Martial Arts in 1 Week

I recently went on a binge. I’ve never studied a martial art to speak of – surprising considering how many other sports I’ve tried. The last time I trained in something even remotely aggressive was soccer. And I quit soccer in 5th grade when the guys started using elbows.

Photo: Edward Dalmulder
(Photo: Edward Dalmulder)

Image my surprise last month in discovering sabre practice once each week resulted in my greatest productivity that week. By process of elimination I realized that it was the aggression and competition of sword play that resulted in my increased results. I began to investigate what else I might learn to supplement my physical training…

Enter the crazy. In 1 week I tried:

Clearly, I’m a bit of an odd case. I don’t recommend you learn all of these. But I thought it would be useful to describe a bit about each of my favorites.

Why Does Movement Matter?

When you hear “human movement” what you think of? Something kinesthetic, related to the human body in motion. This is a great beginning – and limited.

Try this exercise:

Play some music that you don’t ordinarily listen to. Play louder than you usually listen to music. Begin to jump up and down asynchronous to the music. Simultaneously, slap your right thigh with your left hand. Now add to that blinking your eyes open and closed very quickly. And finally add in reciting aloud your 13 times tables. Hard to do, right? Now a juxtaposition: lie on your back on a comfortable floor in a quiet room and see if you can, easily and gently, count your 13 times table. Is it easier to do? To do something that is challenging or to learn something new it is much easier to decrease the demand we place on the brain. This is essential to consider if working with children on the spectrum.

Movement is related to everything. Digestion is the movement of food through our body. Speech is the movement and articulation of air pressure through our vocal cords. The perception of speech is the movement of our neurons for the purposes of interpreting that air pressure. The human body breaks down and reconstructs the entire skeletal system over the course of every seven years? Neat, huh? Movement really is everywhere and everything we do. Movement is an entry into the conversation of learning. Whether we’re talking about learning to ride a bike, drive a car, interact socially, eat food, or behave in a way that society deems normal, improving movement improves learning and improves life.

My brain is constantly processing the floor, the air around me, and whatever it is that I can smell and see and hear. If I’m wearing shoes my brain has to make sense of the shoes on my feet. And standing! Standing is complicated; just think about how long it takes babies to learn! If I am lying on my back on the floor I/my brain can take more time and attention to process the feel of my back on the floor, my bottom, my legs, feet and head. Children with autism often have difficulty with their environment and sensory integration. Our brains are constantly organizing and making sense out of all of these inputs – that is a lot of work! The autistic brain is often not able to make sense of the floor, the wind, and all of the rest of these sensations that you and I take for granted. By helping these children to make sense of their own movement patterns through decreasing demand we inherently help them make sense of rest of the world, too!

Splits Without Stretching – 10 volunteers to test-drive design

I’m building a program that trains the splits without stretching. The concept has come out of my own rehabilitation and return to peak performance with the Anat Baniel Method, and my practical philosophy training from the Option Institute. The idea is simple, no impact, and I want your help!

But first, some theory…

Read Anat Baniel’s recent article on the myth of stretching in the Huffington Post.

This video was recorded with a group of competitive runners. Try this 2 minute exercise yourself and you’ll be better able to touch your toes at the end.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDz3B1E2QIc]

 And now, the rules:

Want to participate? Email me at robin (at) robinpzander (dot) com.

Running 100 Miles “Because It’s Fun”

January is the biggest month for personal trainers everywhere. February and March make up the largest number of discarded fitness goals every year! When I am continually successful within any new discipline it because I really want to act and enjoy the process. So I’ve brought in my friend Kiwi to talk about how she runs 100 mile runs “because it’s fun!”

Enter Kiwi:

Robin asked me to write a guest post about my ultramarathon runs.  So I’ll tell you about the best run I ever did, in 2008, on the Western States Trail in California.

Every June some of the most hardcore trail runners in the world complete this 100 mile trail running race starting in Squaw Valley near the Nevada border, reaching a height of 8500 ft on the mountain trails of the Sierra Nevada, traversing a series of deep canyons, usually in sweltering heat, and finishing in Auburn, California just outside Sacramento.  I’m not as tough as many of these ultra-runners, but I reckon I have more fun than most.

Introducing “Fuse” – San Francisco’s first Fusion Performance Company

In August 2012 I met with my casual acquaintance Todd Elkin with the thought of co-founding a performance company. In September and October we danced together and met with several possible candidates to join us in founding a dance company. Since November four of us have been learning and developing Todd’s choreography. We debuted at Mission: Fusion and Shades of Blues in December 2012 in San Francisco. Enjoy!

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0aubEnGOZY?rel=0]

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:

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?

 

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.

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?)

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!