Holding On vs. Letting Go
Just for a moment, think about what you are doing right now. Feel your body. How are you sitting? What muscles are you using? Are you sitting still? Are you relaxed or are you holding tension in your body?
Next, let’s move to thinking about the concept “holding the body.” First and foremost, we hold our bodies upright against gravity. How effectively we do this is a major determining factor in the efficiency of our everyday movements. Not only that, but we need to hold tension in our muscles. And, for the most part, this is normal tension. A muscle has to tense — or contract — to lift a weight or to carry out a task, like when we sit down or stand up.
But sometimes we hold too much tension in our bodies. When you are learning a new movement skill, whether dance, tennis, yoga or learning to play the cello, there is a pronounced tendency to hold excessive tension globally, all over the body — in your face, jaw, neck, fingers and toes. This excess tension translates into extra effort. To complicate matters, the tension could also be psychological in origin. If you are apprehensive or anxious about learning this new skill, chances that this psycho-emotional tension is being held in the muscles of your body, too. It takes practice to let go of this extra tension, whether in the mind or the body.
Practice Practice Practice
Until the motor pathways are well established in the brain, new movements and skills are inefficient and require a lot of extra effort. But, when we practice an activity, neuronal pathways are laid down in the cerebral cortex, one over the other, again and again. Over time, practice being key here, the movements become easier. You use less tension to accomplish them. You are able to do more. You have more fun. The movements become more refined.
We often think of it as kinetic or muscle memory. Really, what you have done is to establish motor pathways in the brain. Further, if you have aptitude and a good teacher, these movements over time will be increasingly efficient and effortless. Think of the best dancers or musicians. They seem to throw away all technique and move/play effortlessly.
This is especially true after an injury — you have to learn how to move again, perhaps to learn new postures, in addition to restoring strength and flexibility.
On the other end of the spectrum, what happens when the brain itself is injured, like after a cerebral vascular accident, a stroke? We often see varying degrees of recovery after a stroke. The primary factor is the severity of the stroke and its location in the brain. Another, in my experience, is that those people who have a good fitness level before the stroke tend to do better. Is it because they have developed more in terms of quantity and diversity of motor pathways in the brain? That when the brain was damaged in the stroke, they had a head start on recovering function. Maybe the motor pathways are deeper, cut in deeper grooves and more plentiful.
Speaking of practice, might something similar occur in psychological terms? The more we practice anger, say, the better we get at it. Might it be that thought pathways develop through axons and neural synapses. Is this because we have deeply embedded the neuronal processes and pathways in the regions of the brain that spark anger? Is this why cognitive-behavioral therapies have such a good track record with depression, because they teach the patient how not to just keep repeating the same old patterns — cognitively, emotionally or behaviorally — but to establish new ways of thinking and behaving. In essence, beyond the mystical and mysterious results of seeing the changes in one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors, are we simply establishing new neuronal pathways?