Friday, February 22, 2008

The brain-body connection

Western medicine is slowly realizing the error of separating the mind and body into unrelated elements of the human experience.... and so am I, both as a dancer and as an instructor. The following is a longer post that I've been cooking up for a few days. I think the subject matter is incredibly important. Of all the things I have learned as a dancer, the magnitude of the mind-body connection is the most important thing I will carry with me throughout my career.

The University of Chicago Basketball experiment.
I've started to tell this true-life story of the power of visualization to my dance students.

A number of people were divided into three groups, then they were tested on shooting a number of foul shots (free-throws) in basketball. The groups were then given different instructions.
Group 1: Did not practice foul shots for 30 days.
Group 2: Practiced foul shots every day for 30 days.
Group 3: Practiced foul shots only in their mind (visualization) for 30 days.

After 30 days the 3 groups were tested again and the results, compared to their initial performance were incredible.
Group 1: Showed no improvement at all, as one would expect.
Group 2: Showed a 24% improvement, which can not be considered satisfactory given that they had been practicing with the ball for one month.
Group 3: Improved by 23% which is amazing considering they had not even seen a ball for 30 days.

Basically, you can think about shooting hoops or actually practice shooting hoops, and either way, you'll improve. These results show the power of visualization, combined with physical training, can make all the difference to a player's progress. I think this is true with any activity we undertake, especially dance.

Practice in Your Head.
I admit, I don't do enough physical dance practice. However, I practice in my head, a lot. I visualize myself dancing at my best. I see in my mind's eye how my body should move through space, and how I want to interpret whichever song I'm obsessing over at that moment. This doesn't mean that I don't need to practice actual dancing, but it does mean that I get a mental head-start when I actually do find the time and space to practice. Of course, I need to keep my body flexible and strong - no amount of visualization will maintain physical stamina and strength - but positive thinking even when I'm sitting still can take my dancing and my performances a very long way. If you imagine yourself performing at your best, you will be closer to achieving your best in the studio and on the stage.

Of Chocolate and Butter.
I belong to a newsgroup on which all the members are Level 2 certified or higher in the Suhaila Salimpour format. One of the requirements for the Level 3 exam is the splits - right side, left side, and front. One member asked, "What do you think about when you're doing the splits?" I've never been that flexible. When I attempt the splits, I think something like, "OK. Fine. I'll try it. But I hate this." However, my unconscious brain must believe I can be that flexible, because I've been having dreams about doing the splits ever since I was a little girl.

But I realized after reading that message on the newsgroup that when attempting the splits I haven't been thinking that it's even possible. Of course, sometimes I still have that feeling of absolute dread whenever I try to go into the splits, but I'm never going to get anywhere with that attitude. I have to believe that I love the splits, I can do them, and that I've always been able to do them.

There's another component to this. Food.

And I'm not talking about how what you eat affects your physical and mental wellbeing. That's another post for someone else to blog. I'm talking about imagining yummy food. Food that makes you happy.

Another member on the newsgroup replied to the splits query, "I think of my body as pat of butter melting on a warm skillet." I thought that this was an excellent visual and then I thought, "What other yummy things melt?" Chocolate. Cheese... Just thinking about those things make me happy.

Try this. The next time you attempt a difficult stretch, maybe it's the splits, maybe it's a seated wide-legged forward fold, close your eyes, take a deep inhale, and as you exhale think of nothing except your favorite melty food item (chocolate really works well), and imagine that your body is becoming that food as you ease into the stretch. Picture that food in your head, whether it's butter, chocolate, or cheese, and have a very clear image in your mind's eye of that food melting. Do this several times in the stretch. I think it's important to keep your eyes closed, as this allows you to really focus on the image of melty food goodness in your head. Then, think of your body melting fully into the stretch, as if you were the most flexible human on the planet. Flexible. Melty. Food. Mmm...

The "No" Demon.
Every one of us has a "No" Demon. It is sum of our self-doubt, psychological damage, internal censor, and self-inflicted limitations. It also feeds on fear... Fear of appearing or feeling inadequate, inexperienced, incompetent, uncreative, stupid, and (my "No" Demon's favorite) not good enough. What we often don't realize, however, is that our past fears affect greatly our current physical state. When we push our bodies beyond what we think are its limits, negative past experiences can often hinder us from moving forward and improving our physical selves even more.

I'll share some of what feeds my "No" Demon with you all. I was brutally teased in school, from 2nd to 8th grade (including a death threat against myself and my family, and even some physical abuse like hitting and punching). It was a relentless barrage of spite, hate, envy, and jealousy from my classmates. I never felt like I had an adult advocate in the school who would take my concerns, and my emotional pain, seriously; I felt like some teachers didn't care, some didn't think it was a big deal. I certainly didn't feel like I had any classmates that I could trust and call "friend." I would say that most of this cruelty stemmed from the fact that I have been a consciencious over-achiever (even since Kindergarten!) my entire life, and that my obvious nerdity beamed out like a beacon for any unhappy classmate to attack. I was an easy target. I would cry when teased. I cried because it hurt, but mostly I cried out of frustration because I knew I had no adult advocates and that there was nothing I could do to get back at them, because... then they'd get me in trouble. "Ignore them," the adults would say. "Oh, maybe the boy just likes you," they would say. "Toughen up," they would say. "Kids will be kids", they would say.

The worst of it all happened in P.E. class.

In 8th grade, I learned to toughen up. But in toughening up, I sealed off my emotions, pushing them way down into the depths of my subconscious. But they didn't go away.

So, under physical duress, my emotional barriers fall, and my Demon comes back. Because most of the teasing happened in P.E., a certain amount of physical activity, such as the weeklong Level II Suhaila Salimpour format workshop, will trigger those memories and emotions that are held within my body. The only way to deal with this is to let it out: cry and experience that anger that I keep within myself and visualize it releasing from my body so that I can move forward as a human, artist, and dancer.

My "No" Demon, the one that tells me I can't do the splits, lives in my body, and gorged itself on my childhood and adolescent pain. My job now is to starve it.

Telling the "No" Demon to fuck off.
As we practice, and especially as we become performers, the "No" Demon is quickly biting at our heels, and if we aren't careful, it can grow and eventually eat us alive. It's always there, behind us, threatening us with failure. It's the voice in your head that says....
..."I can't do that."
..."Ok, I'll try, but I won't be able to do it."
..."Mary, Louise, and Isabel can do it, why can't I?"
..."I'll never be able to do that."
..."I'm just not good at this."
..."I hate this move."
..."I'm not good at this movement."

The more you tell yourself that you can't do something, the more you won't be able to get past that self-created mental block. You will think yourself into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can tell the "No" Demon to fuck off by turning each negative statement around and making it positive.
..."I can do that."
..."I'll try, and do my best."
..."It's ok that Mary, Louise, and Isabel can do it. I need pay less attention to them and more to my own progress. I can do it too."
..."I will be able to do that."
..."I will practice this move more."
The "No" Demon thrives on your negativity.

Try this. Draw a picture of your "No" Demon. You don't have to make it pretty. Actually, the uglier and more raw, the better. Use color. Personally, I like using crayons because of their inherent association with childlike innocence. My Demon has big sharp teeth and angry red eyes; his mouth is open, incisors prepared to bite, ready to tear me apart. If it helps you connect with your "No" Demon, give him or her a name. Once you have completed your drawing, say a not-so-fond farewell (I tell mine to "fuck off" because it's strong, succinct, and to the point) to your demon and rip the paper in half. Do it with purpose. Tear that paper like you mean it. Don't tear it up so much that you can't recognize the image anymore. Keep your torn up image somewhere accessible so that when you start to lack self-confidence you can look at your "No" Demon and remember that you are in control.

Visualization is key.
The basketball experiment, practicing in your head, chocolate and butter, and telling the "No" Demon to fuck off are all part of positive visualization. If your brain can see yourself doing something, you have the capacity to achieve it. Of course, this applies only within reason... I can imagine myself flying using only the flapping of my arms, and we know that's not very likely to happen in the near future. However, I can see myself in my head doing the splits, and when I think about doing the splits, I am sending an unconscious message to my muscles and joints, telling my body that it can do the splits. Once I melt away that mental block, I truly believe that I will be able to do the splits. If there's a movement that you're struggling with, imagine yourself executing that movement, and doing it well. Then, with that image in mind, get up and try it. You'll be amazed at how far a little mind power will take you. is gradual, yet inevitable.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Asharah. :)


Amber said...

This is a wonderful post. I love the idea of thinking of oneself melting into the floor. I'll have to try that at class tonight!

Anonymous said...

so true and so well put :)...

Unknown said...

Holy Shit!
I've used visualization before for guitar, practicing movements and learning choreography before... but it never occurred to me that I could also use it for the splits. *facepalm*
I never really put a mental block on my sides splits, and I've been able to progress down to the point where I can cover up the last few inches with my fringe, but I've always been sarcastic when working on my middle splits. They're just kind of that unachievable dream I had lost hope on before I even started and I never realized that that might be the reason why I am not really progressing. In the 2 or 3 years I've been working on them for, I have gained less than a foot... man, fuck that! I -will- be able to do the middle splits! And chocolate will get me there :)

Thank you for your post, Asharah!