Last year, I attended a workshop titled “Body Maps: The Road to Healthy Aging, Pain Modulation and Emotional Balance” led by integrative yoga therapist and clinical psychologist Bo Forbes while at a yoga conference. She gave a brief talk on the neuroscience behind the body maps and movement patterns in our brains, along with how our patterning plays a role—emphasizing the importance of seeking out new, unfamiliar movements in our bodies for longevity.
And then we practiced, slowly, exploring different shapes, transitions and movements than those routinely associated with a standard yoga practice, sprinkled with a few familiar poses for comforts sake. It was the first time in a very long time that I didn’t feel adept on the mat. I felt awkward, confused and slightly irritated. Everything about me wanted to do what I’ve always done and move my body in the same ways I always have in a yoga practice. But I’ll never forget the spontaneous laughter and joy that erupted when we started moving around the room on all fours like our primal ancestors. Seemingly ridiculous, surprisingly, it was an instant mood boost.
New experiences, neuroplasticity and longevity
As it turns out, doing something new and unfamiliar that makes us feel a bit awkward and incompetent is good for us. Acting outside our comfort zone creates new neural pathways in the brain and nervous system that help us learn and grow. (Thanks, neuroplasticity!) The generation of new neurons and connections (synapses) between neurons in the brain improves our mood, memory and learning skills, helping keep depression, anxiety and neurodegenerative diseases at bay.
Neuroplasticity—the brains ability to restructure itself by forming new neural connections in response to sensory stimulation, new information and changes in our environment—is fundamental to our mental health and emotional well-being and reliant on new experiences. However, our nervous system, designed to keep everything the same, continually reinforce long-established patterns no matter how destructive. Sensing that something is different and encoding it as danger, the nervous system automatically resists anything out of the ordinary the first 100 times or so you practice something new (hence the slight frustration I felt).
Lost movement patterns
In terms of movement, which is controlled by the nervous system, repeat something often enough and the muscular pattern becomes neurologically hard-wired into the brain. When that happens, the movement becomes automatic. You no longer have to think about or be conscious of what you’re doing to perform whether it’s brushing your teeth or executing elaborate choreography (a known phenomenon we call “muscle memory”).
The downside of muscle memory is the lost connection between the muscles and the brain once a movement, or posture, is deeply learned. When the brain no longer has to pay attention to certain muscular activity, which have effectively become subconscious, it shuts off to the associated area—losing awareness of, connection to and control over that muscular activity. A neurological condition somatic experts refer to as sensory motor amnesia, the pattern becomes so deeply imbedded that the brain actually loses its “memory” of the muscles all together (distorting the brain’s body map).
One of the major take-aways from the workshop was that “muscles don’t atrophy because we age, we age because we lose movement patterns (followed by muscle mass and strength).” In other words, what you don’t use, you lose (or in the case of muscle memory, what you don’t pay attention to, you lose, as well). When we stop moving our bodies in a variety of ways and directions, our brains slowly forget all the movement possibilities, limiting our ranges of motion until we’re stuck in a movement rut—unconsciously repeating, and reinforcing, the same muscular patterns over and over again.
The body map in our brains
Our brains contain a mental representation of our body referred to as the body map. Each part of the body has a virtual counterpart in a separate area of the brain that is dedicated to sensing and controlling the body part. The brain uses the signals and information it receives from the thousands of sensory neurons located throughout the body to determine where everything is, what’s going on and how to move, or respond, accordingly.
The body parts that move more, and have greater sensing capacities, have larger body maps, while the maps associated with areas of the body that are less used are less dominant. Furthermore, when the brain loses consciousness of muscular activity, the associated body map becomes fuzzy. Not only does the way we move shape and affect our body maps, but our brain’s body maps also determine our movement. The more precise and clear our body maps are, the better we’ll move with our whole body. Distorted, gapped or smudged body maps are often associated with pain. No longer sensing that area of the body, the brain sounds the alarm that something (awareness) is missing, which signifies trauma in the body.
Mixing up movement
Moving in new and different ways not only ensures muscular balance but also helps reawaken areas of the body map that have gone offline—helping to rewire movement patterns you may have lost. And generating new neural pathways is good for both our physical health and wellness.
However, not all movement is created equal when it comes to waking up the conscious brain and developing new neural pathways. The key ingredients are exploratory, mindful and slow movements. Move too fast, the more momentum takes over and mindfulness takes a back seat. You must pay attention (without judgment or expectation) to what’s taking place in your body as you move to bring the brain back on board and wire new pathways.
Rather than repeating the same workout routine, going to the same fitness classes and moving in familiar ways, try mixing up your movement with a new activity once a week. Take up a different athletic endeavor, try a new aerobics class or learn a new style of dance. And if all else fails, throw primal walking into your daily workout every now and then.
Remember, you’re going to feel awkward and inadequate (and probably won’t want to do it), but that’s the name of the game when it comes to neuroplasticity. It’s necessary for your body and brain to keep growing and learning, so embrace your beginner’s awkwardness and pay attention to what arises when you try something new.
Photo credit: Visual Spectrum, Stocksy; Vege, Adobe Stock; Kurhan Adobe Stock; Ulza Adobe Stock; kasto, Adobe Stock