MBS Program Director Leora Gaster explains how the same principles behind Mind Body Studies are reflected in the natural processes of child development. Whether we are adults, children or babies, the movements that we explore in group or individual MBS lessons are opportunities to recognize ourselves through our own movement patterns.
Since the learning process used in MBS is direct and experiential, there’s no need to rely on language, to convey a philosophy, or to adopt special beliefs. On the contrary, we’re already hard-wired to learn rapidly and deeply through our own bodies and movements.
Throughout Mind Body Studies lessons, and all the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, movement provides the basis for us to reconnect with learning abilities that are actually “hardwired” in the human organism. As Leora describes working with babies and indeed the entire MBS approach, she emphasizes our genetic predisposition for learning. From conception, our DNA is pre-programmed to enable certain basic patterns of movement.
“These patterns are fundamentally programmed,” Leora points out. ‘ This is what you can see when you observe babies learning through every movement, as they become aware of the world bit by bit, as they become curious and explore their surroundings and themselves. Every movement, every coordination, leads to the next step of abilities and coordination, preparing the entire system for the up-coming tasks ahead, improving coordination and self-propelled action.
In time we learn to specialize in a way of thinking and acting, which makes us more efficient in basic coordination, motion and thought, but that, by definition, is also a limiting faction, as we cease to explore and develop areas of our brain and behavior.
How can we tap into our hugely unutilized potential and continue to develop a more complete sense of health and potential, in any condition, at any age, as champion athletes in recovering from injury?
The short answer: “What we do is to re-visit and rewire it”
‘Rewiring’ with Movement: Rehabilitation as a Learning Process
Having grown up with Moshe Feldenkrais as a close family friend and mentor, Leora went on to pursue studies in Human Biology at Stanford University, with a focus on the Interconnection Between Brain and Behavior. When discussing the learning and developmental processes, she is able to explain, teach and apply the principles of efficient learning, such as utilizing the experience of “less is more” – quality over quantity, describing the neurological and physiological functions taking place behind the scenes.
For example, she explains how the process of overcoming neurological difficulties and disruptions, as in rehabilitation we can tap into the natural neurological learning process. “If someone has had an accident or some sort of physiological failure, and there is a part that is not moving,” Leora explains, “you can say there is a miscommunication between the person’s wish to move and the nervous system transmitting this information to the muscles, which need to be activated to move the skeleton.
Because of the fundamentally programmed connections mentioned above, what might appear quite complex, Leora explains, is actually quite simple to understand physiologically: “There are only a few things that could have happened. Either the electrical impulse of the nervous system isn’t strong enough, the nerve endings are missing each other, a nerve is damaged, or there is a blockage.” In any of these cases of “interrupted communication”, with the right stimulation of patterns of thought and movement, the organism has an innate ability to create new, functional pathways.
All those redundant and continuously produced cells can be utilized to create new pathways: they can make a bridge or extended path where the signal isn’t strong, they can circumvent the blockage, or find the way to reach the continuation of the nerve that needs to continue to transmit the information to the desired place along the chain.
As functional neural pathways are restored, communication can resume throughout the nervous system and the body.
Long before neuroplasticity became a buzzword, Leora recalls Moshe’s certainty that the brain held this capacity:
“When I was a child and Moshe told me about this, there were no MRIs. There was absolutely no proof of it, but he was convinced that there were stem cells in the brain and there were many redundant cells we could use, and that was how he explained to me about rehabilitation. When I went back (to Stanford) and I was in my forties – years after he told me this – then they began to be able to prove it in the laboratories. Now it has been scientifically proven and universally accepted as a fact.
That insight was a fundamental cornerstone of Moshe’s work. As Leora points out, when an old pathway is damaged and the system requires a new one, “It doesn’t happen by itself. The way it happens is through the movements that we do.” While we do have a natural capacity for this kind of learning, the lessons that Moshe developed are specifically designed to promote the process. “They stimulate these patterns in a way, so that we keep on reminding the system of what it is already programmed to do, and we stimulate the system to create these extra pathways, generated from within. We don’t impose a foreign way of moving, we encourage and facilitate the system to find it, just as it is wired to do”
In cases of serious injury, where movement is highly limited, the fundamentals are still the same, Leora gives an example:
“For people who are paralyzed or have had a stroke, one technique is to put a hand on the face, which is an early and primal connection, as you can see with babies and as we see in the connection of facial muscles with phantom arms. There are two reasons for this: we stimulate these neural paths and regress the system to early developmental stages, to a level that is so basic and primal, that we can ‘walk’ through progressive stages together. Secondly, the connection of hand to face connects the system with itself: we ‘remind’ the system that it is one. A person who is gravely injured is psychologically and physically alien to themselves. They don’t recognize or govern their states and behavior. By connecting them with themselves in this way, we can gradually expand this self knowledge, awareness and connection between body and brain. In the brain, you either need to strengthen the impulses or chart a new pathway around. It sounds simplistic, it looks simple, but it makes sense and the thing is: it works.
Guided by Curiosity: Learning As Babies
Infants continuously experience wondrous moments of discovery. Seeing new things stimulates the brain, feeling different textures develops nervous acuity, connecting their hands with themselves and gradually realizing they are under their own control is a miracle.
Leora notes how continuously babies are engaged in this learning process. Everything is learned through curiosity and experimentation, within the baby’s limits, timing and abilities. There is a cycle of learning between natural curiosity, physical limitations and abilities, which keep changing as the baby keeps learning.
“When we teach child development, we make a point of observing babies, and presenting an opportunity for students to observe how an infant is always in motion. Each movement prepares the grounds for the next stage of coordination and development, tuning and connecting the nervous system to itself.”
Guided by curiosity, a baby is drawn to look towards a sound or toward the sight of a familiar face. Beginning with the eyes, this movement then extends throughout the baby’s body, from the turning of the head down through the spine. Meanwhile, the feet and toes are exploring too. The information comes from both and all sides and continuously strives to connect. If a baby sees an interesting plaything lying to one side, his eyes and hands will move in coordination, together, toward that desirable object. The movement extends along his arms and shoulder blades, the ribcage and spine, stimulating the need and ability to roll over.
The infant forges these neural connections for the first time, whereas rehabilitation utilizes these built-in patterns to create new neural pathways to replace damaged ones. The basic mechanism is the same. In both cases, a neural connection through the body is mirrored by a more complete sense of oneself and one’s abilities.
“And it builds in succession,” Leora adds. “The body has to get strong enough to accommodate what the baby wants to do. That’s why a baby doesn’t stand before he rolls over. The hip joints are not formed enough. The sacrum isn’t fused. The baby needs to build coordination and strength and all of these stages are the physiology maturing together with the neurology.” The interconnected nature of mind and body is not just a concept or a belief, but forms the basis of our developmental process as living beings. Leora underlines this continuous feedback loop, between sensation, intention and action. She reflects, “The whole body is in any case an expression of instructions from the brain.” How we move and how we develop our muscular and skeleton systems is patterned according to the neural pathways we build conceptually and physically – beginning in infancy.
Education and Spectrums of Excellence
“Naturally, developing habitual patterns is necessary in order to function. We can’t get much done if we have to stop, analyze and reprogram ourselves every time we want to walk, turn around or bend. It would be highly time consuming and inefficient,” Leora points out. However, doing anything, always in one way only is also limiting, especially when so much of how we move and think is as a result of cultural pressure, emotional stress or even injury. MBS work is an opportunity to revisit our ingrained ways and find options, so that we have choices of using what works best for us – and, what is even more significant - alternatives for different situations. For example: there is a general belief that there is an optimal way of breathing. We say that this does not make sense: how can you breath the same when you are rested, nervous, happy, active, upset, etc? The physiology: many flexible ribs, a long spine which is also flexible, belly, back sides – all affecting the space provided for the lungs, and affected by emotions and thoughts. There is so much of us that is involved in breathing and there are many places to move and use for effective flow of air. Just as our breathing changes when our emotions change, so we can change our breathing by knowing where and how we can breath. Once we become aware of possibilities and connections we learn how to access them at will, use them and make them available to suit the variety of situations and challenges in which we find ourselves in daily life.
Our patterns of movement reflect, and are affected by, our thinking and our posture and the way we function.” Of course, the patterns we pick up as children also play a role in how we adopt increasingly circumscribed patterns. Leora notes the predominant cultural assumptions about education. “In our culture,” she points out, “we are systematically taught to alienate ourselves – as children – from our bodies. Education has become about learning cognitive things and accentuating mind over matter. Once we are older than a toddler, we must wear shoes, which limit our awareness of our feet. We are taught to sit at desks in a classroom. Move less, experience less, and think more.
By contrast, Moshe developed a system of learning based on observing and being aware of experiences, and learning to figure out how we perform well within a range of comfort, just as a baby learns the things we end up knowing best: like talking, walking and using our hands. Working within the easy and interesting range, rather than through imposed effort, by definition, helps us figure out how we do what we do well, rather than push at the limit, which is just repeating the range in which we are limited. In other words: practicing the difficulty. Leora emphasizes the scope of change that can come with this style of learning. “When we learn this way, we get to know ourselves better, expand our abilities, accomplish more and become in charge of how we run our lives.” We’re right back to the relationship of mind and body:
And yet, although the approach seems so different from what schoolrooms might look like, Leora explains how simple this is to incorporate into the existing educational systems. The principles of MBS can be incorporated into any school, if even for just minutes at a time. This has been donein many school systems, to excellent effect with students from age 6 – 19 and the children and teens love it! With children and with babies, MBS lessons take the form of explorative, interactive play. It is about a shift in one’s approach to learning, which can “teach children to be much more in charge of themselves, thereby more confident, to have more options in life, and to be healthier and develop abilities to deal with the many life-stresses and demands to come.”