I've recently begun pilates therapy, after devoting nearly six months to traditional physical therapy. So far I am discovering that the two forms of therapy are very different.
Pilates therapy appears so far to be a series of small, carefully orchestrated movements to improve core strength and release muscles that are holding on too tightly. I notice an immediate difference after every session - greater mobility and less pain.
That said, it may take me a very long time to learn any of these exercises well enough to do them at home. I tried last week to work on a back stretch she had shown me how to do with a tennis ball and ended up seriously aggravating my neck injury. Not fun. Today when I showed her what I had done, she laughed and told me that I need to apologize to my muscles and promise them I will never do that to them again!
I've known for a long time that humans supposedly have something called muscle memory... meaning that once they have practiced or repeated a physical motion repeatedly over a long stretch of time it becomes automatic so that the muscles themselves remember how to perform their function.
I myself do not have a lot of experience with muscle memory. I have always been uncoordinated, more comfortable on a couch reading than practicing a new swimming stroke or tennis swing. There are very few physical stretches, exercises or actions that I have performed so many times that they've become second nature.
One of the few examples that I can come up for personal muscle memory would be typing... when I was in the fourth grade I found an old typing manual in my parents' bookcase, read it from cover to cover, began to practice and taught myself how to type. I became a proficient typer and have had plenty of practice over the past 25 years. At this point my hands fly over the keyboard (as demonstrated by the fluidity of words in my oh-so-lengthy blog posts).
That's about as far as it goes for me. My greatest athletic ability would be... typing. Eee gads!
I've been thinking about this concept of muscle memory though, and whether it is actually possible to teach an old dog (like me) new tricks (like pilates). Is it possible to train yourself to develop an ability that you've never been able to access before?
I try and try and try, but in reality when my therapist tells me to do a pelvic tilt or tuck my shoulders into the mat, there is no part of my brain that seriously stores that information for next time. (This is probably also why I am a terrible dancer, I can't remember a move sequence to save my life!)
Despite this, I wonder if the concept of muscle memory has potential for other areas of my mind/body - like my heart (which is a muscle!) and my brain (which is not technically a muscle, but I believe it could function like one).
Here is an example of what I mean:
For a decade I used to get a nervous, excited, fluttery feeling in my gut when I met a guy that I was strongly attracted to. In fact, I generally only got this feeling about certain men, and I would differentiate whether I 'liked' a man based on whether or not he inspired this particular fluttery feeling. (Flutter equaled "YOWZA!" No flutter equaled "NICE GUY - WHO CAN I SET HIM UP WITH?")
I consistently found myself surprised when my "fluttery" men turned out to be trouble... bad news... totally wrong for me. "Why is my gut instinct so wrong?" I asked myself over and over, "I felt so certain that this one was a great guy!"
Then one day it occurred to me, after ten years! that the "fluttery" feeling was actually NOT a positive sign. "You know," I confided in my best friend, "I think when I get that really excited nervous feeling my intuition may actually be saying 'RUN AWAY!' rather than 'FULL SPEED AHEAD!' I think my body may be trying to tell me something that I'm not seeing with my brain."
"Next time you get that feeling about a guy," she suggested, "Why don't you try paying attention to it in a different way - and NOT rushing into a relationship with him. That way you can get to know him and find out if the flutter really meant danger or not."
"Why not? It's worth a try!"
I began to use the flutter as a way of weeding OUT men, rather than ushering them ahead. To my surprise and joy, I began to spend time with guys who seemed really serious about me - and who were so much nicer to me. I met my husband and knew that I was in love with him (long before we began dating) when listening to him wax rhapsodic about classical music over a bottle of wine and steak dinner with our friends. There was no flutter this time - it was more of a rush of understanding that he and I were beautifully aligned.
I suppose my point here is that I had to learn a new muscle memory for my heart - that a certain signal I had been interpreting as pleasure was actually a trigger point for pain. Once I adjusted my "romance" exercise routine (and looked for men that I was attracted to who did NOT give me that fluttery rush) I found true and lasting love.
Reflecting back on that life lesson, I wonder how muscle memory could be applied to the current challenge that I face as a wife and mother - incessant worry over my children: their health, happiness and general welfare.
Would I be able to figure out what muscle I am actually exercising when I worry... and then let it rest... while strengthening another lesser used emotional muscle - like my faith?
I am really, really good at worrying. I would say that I have at least two decades worth of practice. I'm not very good at turning to faith - let alone actually feeling it. Would there be a physical-mental-spiritual way for me to develop my ability to rely on faith in the precise moment when I would traditionally turn to worry?
I explored this idea briefly tonight and discovered the work of a Stanford University child psychologist and researcher named Carol Dweck behind a new study which shows that people who are told they can get smarter if they exercise their brain like a muscle will actually do significantly better in school, versus those who believe that their intelligence is fixed and unchanging.
Dweck and her team followed a group of junior high students who were evenly matched in math achievement test scores at the beginning of the study and divided them into two groups - those who had a fixed mindset about intelligence, and those who believed they could become smarter with practice and hard work.
Despite their relatively equal beginning placement, those with a fixed mindset about their own talents did worse on testing over the two years, with the gap widening as time went by. The students that believed their brains could grow tended to be more resilient, persistent and creative in coming up with solutions.
The researchers then took a subset of students who did poorly in math and taught them that the more the brain was used, the stronger it got. "We taught them that the brain forms new connections every time they applied themselves and learned," Dweck said in a 2007 interview. "It gave them a new model of how their minds worked, and how they had control of their brains and could make it work better. The idea is to free them from the tyranny of fear of looking dumb. The name of the game is learning."
This experimental subset of poorly performing students taught to believe in brain muscle strengthening rebounded strongly in their math performance and grades!
I LOVE this study and what it implies about our potential as humans. To me it says - If we believe that we have the capacity to improve and develop our skills, we will be more committed to doing so and less frustrated with our mistakes. We will grow.
Perhaps then the most important muscle memory I can create for my own psyche would be to fully embrace the concept that everything I struggle with - parenting, worry and anxiety, health and even financial acumen - can still be learned. If I believe that I have the capacity to improve as a parent, I WILL IMPROVE. If I believe that I have the capacity to live bravely and peacefully, I WILL BECOME MORE COURAGEOUS AND MORE PEACEFUL.
In a broader sense, this kind of belief in individual potential to improve with practice and hard work seems deeply engrained in the American spirit. Americans may not be the smartest or best educated people on the planet but the one thing we do excel in is self-confidence. If we believe that something can be invented, we will invent it. If we believe a system (or organization! or government!) can be changed, we change it. Part of our credo as a culture seems to be, "They said it couldn't be done... so we did it."
Tonight as I ice my neck from pilates therapy and type out this blog, I am smiling broadly to think with hope and optimism that I still have plenty of time left in my lifetime to improve as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, co-worker, athlete, linguist, chef, writer, philanthropist and global citizen... as someone who lives fully without fear. I can get better! I will get better!!! Someday with patience and effort, I may really turn into the person I truly aspire to be!
One careful little stretch at a time.