Friday, September 5, 2008

In the moment: on being mindful


I could tell you how to lose weight or show you 60 great abdominal exercises. That's part of my job as a fitness professional and coach—to help make your body strong and looking amazing. Assessing your health and prescribing exercise are all part of a road map to get you where you'd like to be. But even though we've heard lots of advice on how to make some changes to become healthier, somehow our heads can really get in the way. To be more exact, our brains.

A network of neuropeptides and their corresponding receptors extends out to approximately 75 trillion cells in our brain and body. Everything we think, feel, respond and react to either internally or externally goes through this changing network of cellular information. By the time a message reaches our brains, we've already attached a feeling on what we think of the situation, e.g., "I'm such a glutton. I'll never lose this weight." Learning new ways of being in the moment can help you move more effortlessly, help you not react in a judgmental way to thoughts and events, and even change the way you look at food and overeating. Here are two interventions that can help you experience how your mind and body really are one.

Melting ice cream

Imagine that your shoulders are melting like vanilla ice cream in the sun. Your neck muscles become long and relaxed, and your head floats like a balloon on top of your spine. Or imagine that your head sits upon your spine as softly as a buoy in the ocean. These "body feeling" words are from Franklin-Method Institute founder Eric Franklin, author of "Inner Focus, Outer Strength." In his book, Franklin explains how people can hold tension in their shoulders, maybe for years. So when you imagine an effortless movement, like melting ice cream on your shoulders, it feels odd and new. We are accustomed to our old patterns of holding our body. Neuroscientists estimate that 90 percent of what we do is purely habit, from what we put in our grocery carts every week, to how we get up from a chair.

For example, getting up and down from sitting is something we do dozens of times a day. It offers good training for our legs and abs by getting up and lowering our body weight back down. However, if you habitually use the same lead leg, muscle imbalances can develop, and the pelvis can start to tilt.

A dressmaker might notice this sideways sway or lateral tilt in adjusting the length of pants, for example. As the pelvis is the foundation of how your spine stacks, that imbalance can result in pain or poor movement patterns over time. Now try getting up from sitting, if you are, and imagine that champagne bubbles are rising up and lifting your spine upwards. Or next time you walk up a flight of stairs, imagine light down feathers between all your joints, as if you we floating up the stairs, rather than clomping down on your feet. Imagery like this is what Franklin feels make us use our bodies with more ease, less stress and a joy of movement as we move about in our daily life.

Happy cells

A massive hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of Dr. Jill Taylor's brain in 1997 left the neuroscientist with a new perspective. As she lost function of her linguistic, methodical, judgment and analytical abilities, she discovered the character of her brain's right side, where her consciousness was deeply connected to a feeling of deep inner peace. While she healed the left brain's neurological networks over the course of eight years, she realized that she was also recovering cells of function that were linked to a lifetime of emotional reactivity and negative thinking, ones she just didn't want back. She wanted to update her brain's files, and have more say over her judging and analytical left-brain perspective.

We can also delete old files of how frustrated we've been by our weight or by not sticking to a diet. For example, you might say, "Carbs are making me fat," and attach too much importance to what you can't have. An old automatic approach might be to feel discouraged and then overeat. Instead, you could appreciate that these are just passing thoughts, and don't mean you can't ever lose weight. Visualizing the trillions of cells making up her body is something Taylor now appreciates. What kinds of faces make up your trillions of cells?

Connie Aronson is an American College of Sports Medicine certified, ACE Gold certified personal trainer, and an IDEA Elite personal trainer, who trains clients at High Altitude Fitness and the YMCA in Ketchum.

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