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Presence In Practice: Brain Training With Sensation Not Expectation

in YogaDork Ed

crystal-ball-predictionsby Kate Krumsiek

Sometimes when I have new student, I’ll introduce myself and let them know that I don’t offer a traditional vinyasa practice; I offer a slower-motion movement class that will invite them to track sensations throughout their body as they move in novel ways. There can be distinct moment of disappointment that hangs in the air—they are NOT going to get what they expected and that makes them unhappy or, at the very least, uncertain. It is a prickle of resistance to something new that may not meet their predicted needs.

But this is where things can get interesting. What happens when we approach a movement practice with a predetermined map of what we will do and how we will feel? Does this insistence on meeting predesigned expectations rob us of a deeper somatic experience that could pierce through layers of numbness? And, most important, how can we enhance presence during practice?

There, inherently, is expectation embedded in a practice because we, as students, are searching for something—steadiness, ease, a balance within our nervous systems. We get ourselves to the studio in spite of all the distractions of a busy life and carefully choose a class for what it can offer us. We may get into grooves that direct our choices toward a certain sense of accomplishment after class and this is where things can get a bit murky in terms of our predicting.

Our world is running a mile a minute and we are dashing about trying to keep up with the incessant amount of information, tasks and requirements that are placed upon our days. There are times when our practice may begin to mirror and mask our internal unrest rather than salve it. We may choose classes that are so hard and so hot that we can feel nothing else OR classes that are so familiar that we are numb with habit. It is at this junction that my curiosity piques.

Entering practice with predictions takes us out of the moment and buries us in our brains, yet, as humans we all do it. Dr. Cathy Kerr, Director of the Mind-In-Body Lab at Brown University, describes in her TEDx Talk the very first step of a mindfulness practice as “bringing the mind into the body” and, although this reads so simply, the skill is complex. In order to do this, we must allow fresh paths of experience to be worn in, rather than traversing the same, predictable patterns that are familiar yet compelling to us.

We must enter movement or meditation without forecasting what we will find. This frees the mind to witness the truth, as it exists in the body in that moment.

And when negative stuff gets stirred up, we witness it without being any more hooked than we would the positive. We defy the natural tendency to tell ourselves the same old stories and end up with the same old conclusion, blocking the path to a new ending. In part, we do this by orienting our attention to particular parts of the body for sections of the practice, as we would in mindfulness-based stress reduction.

Using a deeper application of mindfulness in practice can assist in the development of new skills in processing sensory information in the brain. This is what I refer to as sensation-based practice and, of course, all of yoga incorporates sensation but blending in more mindfulness can deepen the somatic experience. Kerr reports that mindfulness has been shown to “reduce the tendency to worry or self-criticize” but also wondered, “How?”

Paraphrasing her findings, she says that when we train our attention toward a single body part, we are learning to control the sensory knobs in our brain and determine the best volume for vibrations at certain times. This occurs in the primary somatasensory cortex, which processes sensations. These sensations create a pulsating rhythm in the brain that is controlled by the thalamus, which acts as a gatekeeper of sensation for the cortex. In other words, what we attend to becomes amplified in our experience. What we do not tend to becomes de-amplified. These fluctuations can be measured in the brain.

According to Kerr’s studies, those who engaged in mindfulness training were better able to utilize this “sensation editor” and move more nimbly between amplified sensations and de-amplified sensations. By contrast, those who suffer from depression or chronic pain were less flexible in adjusting their sensory knobs because their brain patterns are biased toward the pain sensations and, in depressed people, their attentional energies and resources are consumed by worry and negative thoughts. They lack the ability to “process the sensory work in real time” which is essential to well-being. (Kerr’s studies are continuing in order to assess how practices that develop this skill can change the brains of those who suffer from these chronic conditions, or similar conditions.)

Combining these two elements into a movement practice—resisting the urge to predict sensations and placing focus on specific body parts in order to amplify neutral sensations and de-amplify negative sensations—may bring the practice to a new level of somatic experience for students and allow for new interpretations of feeling in their body. One essential element of this skill development is slowing down the movement, giving the mind time to meet the body where it’s at within that moment; to allow a melding of the two as one.

In order to map sensations in the body, we must be deliberate in our movement and linger in our observation of the delicate reverberations that accompany execution of practice.

This is how we pierce through layers of numbness and dullness to the marrow of the practice: ourselves as separate from our thoughts so we can be both the observer and the observed. I believe there are a number of ways to exercise and grow this skill: tai chi and Qigong, the yoga nidra practice of dropping attention on individual body parts, using mindfulness coupled with movement and the reflective release that occurs with the use of therapy balls in self-massage.

Self-massage can help beginners to this practice of witnessing sensation in real time because it highlights body parts and coaxes distinct sensations, sometimes in areas students are unaccustomed to focusing on. All of which can lead to a development of mindful curiosity that Kerr defines as “neither mind nor body but the actual interface of mind and body.”

Back to my new, not-quite-sold student…the story typically ends in one of two ways. Sometimes the look of disappointment hangs around on the student’s face and it is clear that they are mourning the loss of their predicted practice, are not quite present in my class and dreaming of their initially planned class. Or the student has responded to my consistent re-orienting to the sensations embedded in our practice and a shift occurs. They become rooted in the offered class and allow the forecasted one to melt from their mind. When this happens, there is a sense of relief at the close of class, as though they have peeled off a too tight sweater. It is relief. Relief from the stranglehold of the brain on the body, the chaos of the world and the push toward better, faster, more. Finding relief from that strain is a gift, sometimes one we must have patience and softness to find.

I don’t always see these students again but I feel lucky to have presented the questions and piqued interest in looking beneath our covers of collective cultural numbness. Have you challenged your practice to explore what else it can offer besides the physical? Have you tempered your pace to see what sensation lurks beneath the expected? Have you stretched your definition of movement to skill build in the brain and begin the work of recognizing and regulating your responses?

~

From the start, the practice of yoga did it all for Kate Krumsiek—fitness, awareness, breath, alignment and clarity of mind. She couldn’t resist her drive to pass those gems along to others from the teacher’s mat. Kate’s 200 hour training with Natasha Rizopolous provided an exceptional foundation of yogic knowledge from which to learn, teach and cast a wide net for continued study. Yoga Tune Up Teacher Training refined her lens of understanding to shine upon the anatomical and corrective aspects for practice—helping students identify and address postural habits that impair efficient, effective movement in the body. 

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