Fitness & the Brain
The Alexander Technique:
Humans and Jaguars
Functional fitness is the muscular activity you engage in when performing complex, multiple-step tasks like lifting a child, storing luggage in the flight compartment near your seat on the plane, working with heavy hand tools, etc. Contrast functional fitness with gym exercises on machines that only work isolated muscles. While some muscles may increase in strength and bulk, they will not necessarily help you in real world activities without straining your back.
Imagine spending your fitness time and money on integrated, functional exercises that engage your muscles in complex movements. Such a fitness program would bring an added dimension to your workouts. Any exercise routine (even with good music) can become boring, but a functional fitness exercise program engages your brain in the movements and brings consciousness to the movement, resulting in a dynamic mind-body connection that increases your enjoyment of the activity.
How does this happen?
Attention Association Center in the Jaguar
It is also responsible for the quieting of the mind of one trained in meditation and the associated heightened awareness of their environment that allows them to be in harmony with their surroundings.In short, the same area of the brain that organizes one’s physical prowess is also responsible for breakthrough mental processes, bold creative ideas, and their execution, and amazing feats of every type of endeavor—whether one is an actor, surgeon, athlete, dancer or architect. The Alexander Technique teaches basic principles that can help a willing student gain access to this magnificent center of mind-body coordination.
So what is it that keeps us from attaining this level of functioning?
Why is it that most people do not have the coordination of jaguars—why is it so difficult to achieve the jaguar’s organized, harmonious, and flowing movements? This is because our movements are being interfered with by a different part of the brain, called the “orientation association center,” which orients our sense of self in the surrounding space when we are processing sensory information. This splits our experience into “self” versus “other”, “mind” versus “body”. Our brain filters and simplifies our sensory information so that we are not overwhelmed by the environment. As a result, we are able to perform our daily activities and respond to much of our environment unconsciously, that is, we react to stimulus based on habits generated by these simplifications. Most of the time, these habitual responses make life easier for us. Unfortunately, when our memories of past experiences include a bad scare such as an accidental fall or other a traumatic experience, our habits (unconscious responses) can lead us to habitually “startle” in response to a bad experience we do not consciously remember. The final result being that we can end up with the inability to understand why we keep ending up in similarly trying situations.
The orientation association center interferes with the flowing, coordinated movement that is the gift of the attention association center. As the Alexander Technique teaches us to pause and inhibit the activation of the orientation association center, it allows the attention orientation center, the true center of our power and primary control to rise to the forefront and direct our movements. The primary control is our most basic coordination of the head neck and spine that can work for or against you. You can discover how to take this relationship from a state of startle and stress to a higher level of functioning in your first Alexander Technique lesson.
Leo Stein, the brother of the writer, Gertrude Stein, called the Alexander Technique “the method for keeping your eye on the ball applied to life”. Whether you are exercising for fitness or sorting your laundry, you can apply the Alexander Technique to improve your movement throughout your everyday life.
The Alexander Technique will make you aware of the quality of your fitness exercises. If you don’t feel a sense of “flow” from your exercises, if you rely too much on the music to get you going, it’s probably a sign that it is time to re-evaluate your fitness program. The Alexander Technique can help you take your exercise program to a higher level that is functional in terms of real-life fitness and enjoyable as well.
The part of your brain that is the center for control of complex movements is called the “attention association center.” In the jaguar and other predator animals, the attention association center directs a flowing, coordinated hunt for prey involving the whole body. In human beings, the attention association center has evolved to become the center of intentionality and goal-setting in the brain.