What role does the mind play when you exercise?
Heard the phrase, “get out of your head, and get into your body?” Thought about how to actually do that and why you would even want to? I heard that phrase many times, but never really gave it serious thought. That is, until I had a chance to discuss the body-brain connection in movement with Anne Bishop. Anne is a Pilates instructor and teacher of Pilates certification, anatomy, biomechanics, and posture, both nationally and internationally and is the creator of the Body Brain Connect. Her teaching is rooted in enhancing students’ body awareness.
Anne and I had a wonderful conversation about so many topics – learning movement, body awareness, Pilates, Yoga, meditation, tips for getting the most out of workouts, and more!
The short podcast is packed full of useful information. And make sure you scroll down to the end of the post for Anne’s 4 Useful Tips for Getting the Most from Exercise.
To listen to the podcast, click here.
Here are some snippets of our interview.
One of the first things I took away from my conversation with Anne is that we all have a unique experience when we move because our bodies are different. Sounds obvious right? But this simple fact is so important to how we teach others to move, how we do Pilates or Yoga, run, swim, walk, and even sit.
Maria: What is the body-brain connection in movement?
Anne: I think at the heart of it is that we can’t separate our brain from our body. You really can’t create this dualism between the two. They are completely part of each other. So what that means is that our body creates the context for our brain. An example of that is if someone is experiencing chronic pain. If your body is experiencing pain, your brain will change due to chronic pain.
Another thing that’s frequently said is, “Get out of your head and get into your body.” But what you’re really doing is you’re shifting your attention from external issues—work, kids, family, job, to internal. “What’s going on in my body? How am I feeling? But you’re still in your head. You’re always in your head!
Maria: So there is no way to get out of your head and into your body, but there is a way to focus our attention inward. What is the difference between body awareness and attention?
Anne: Body awareness is attention. External attention is awareness outside of your body where internal attention is awareness within your body. When we cultivate our body awareness, we’re choosing to focus our attention inward — “how do my knees feel when I’m doing this exercise on the Reformer?” or “Do I feel stressed out?” or “Do I feel more relaxed?” I think it’s totally fascinating because the beauty of body awareness is that it’s transferable. You can take the body awareness that you gain through your Pilates session and you can take it onto the golf course or you can take it to a swimming pool or you can take it to when you pick up your grand kids. Body awareness takes practice just like meditation takes practice. The point is that when you hone body awareness in yourself or your client, you take that with you for the rest of your life.
Many of us are runners, cyclists, walkers, so I was wondering whether or not we can we practice body-awareness in a fast-paced or cardio intensive class.
Anne: You can do cardiovascular activities and be incredibly body-aware; they don’t have to be separate. It’s not like a mind-body class always has to be slow. You can walk and meditate. You could probably run and meditate. You can cycle-meditate. Obviously you may not want to be doing it on the road. You can have awareness of the external world while you’re internally focused – they don’t have to be separate. That’s why I think you have such a beautiful transfer ability of the mind-body modality. The great part is that once you’ve honored your body awareness; go take it running with you on the trail!
Anne: Don’t go on the treadmill and read a magazine. I’m not saying don’t ever do that, but I’m saying you will get more out of it if you’re paying attention. Ask yourself, “how is my alignment?” There’s still a place for just zoning out, but at the same time, there is an incredible place to not do that and to pay attention to your body. There are a lot of things that you can learn and become more aware of when you pay attention.
Another thing I found really interesting is how much emotions play a role to motivate us when we exercise.
Anne: Your emotions are going to motivate or demotivate you to learn. If you’re really stressed out, you’re probably not going to learn as well as when you’re less stressed out. This is why when you walk into a Pilates studio or a Yoga studio, usually there is a sense of calm that makes you feel relaxed. But at the same time, you don’t want a studio that’s going to put you to sleep. You have to try to find that balance.
Maria: So if you’re frustrated or stressed or tired, what is it exactly that makes you less able to exercise?
Anne: I call it the “body-brain context,” and it’s essentially whether you’re in something called a “fight or flight” mode, which is excessive stress. The fight or flight mode is like a nervous system response. And then there’s something called a “relaxation response,” which is sort of the opposite spectrum. And you want to be within this balance when you teach. And that’s why I think teaching Pilates and teaching one on one session can be so exhausting because you’re not just teaching somebody how to move, you’re negotiating their emotions.
And because exercise DVDs are so popular, I had to ask Anne a few questions about exercising in our living rooms.
Maria: How is learning movement with a teacher, like for example in a Pilates class or Yoga class, different from learning movement from a DVD?
Anne: I think the simplest answer to answer is that it’s interactive. A teacher is going to provide feedback for your body specifically. If you’re doing a Skype Pilates session, the teacher can still do that, but I bet most teachers can read your emotions and the way your body is responding to the movements and the emotions involved, better in person. A bicycle machine at the gym can tell you your beats per minute or how fast your heart is my pumping, but it still can’t tell you, “Wow, I noticed that you’re really sitting off to one side”.
And another thing, specifically for group settings, is that there’s been a lot of research about group exercise – if you commit to exercise with someone else, you are much more likely to continue. First, you have a commitment to the teacher, but in a group situation, you also have a commitment to the other people in the class or if you go to the class with somebody, you’re developing that commitment to another student. So either way, whether it’s with the other students or whether it’s directly with your instructor, that commitment of working out with somebody else is going to most likely lead you to have a better outcome with your fitness.
Maria: When you’re performing exercise from memory – you know how it goes and you tune out – does that have an effect on the outcome of the exercise?
Anne: Potentially what’s happened is that the movement became automatized. Once a movement has become automatized, you’re most likely not changing your brain anymore. If you want to keep automatizing things, you have to be mixing things up, which is kind of the beauty of a lot of these mind-body modalities. You can do variations in Pilates or variations in Yoga to keep challenging the body.
And that goes for working out on your own too!
Anne: Get a different CD, put it in a different order, do the Asana backwards, or anything to change it could be really helpful. So at the end of the day, your brain responds when you’re learning something novel. People frequently say, “to exercise your brain, do crosswords.” Well, you can do crosswords and every crossword is new, but once you have been doing crosswords for a year, you automatized how you think about that process or how you do it. So then maybe you want to play Sudoku or maybe you want to go try exercise now. What I really like about mind-body is you’re training your brain but it’s also physical. You get two for the price of one!
That got us talking about one of the topics I have been especially curious about – effect of Pilates not only on our body but on our brain over time.
Maria: What effect does Pilates have on the brain over time?
Anne: It really comes down to this. If it’s new, you’re changing your brain. Period. So whenever you learn something new, your brain changes, whether you learn to juggle, play the violin, practice crosswords. But at this point there is nothing inherently specific about Pilates. However there is research into Yoga. Inherent within Yoga is meditation and meditation has been shown to change the brain. So if you have a meditation component in class not only are you be changing your brain because you are learning a movement, but you’re also changing your brain through the meditation.
Maria: And what is it about the brain that changes with Yoga?
Anne: A lot of the research that’s out there has shown that you can have greater gray matter in your brain after you meditate. So what’s gray matter? Gray matter is cell bodies in your brain and they are on the cortex — on the surface of your brain. So when you meditate, you your cortex gets thicker.
Anne’s Tips for Getting More out of Pilates Classes (and other workouts)
1. Get there early and relax: When you enter your class, you want to be in an alert, relaxed state. Get there a bit early and take a moment to just be with yourself quietly before you start to exercise. Or even if you’re running late and you can’t get to class early, just do your own thing for a second or focus inwards when you’re doing the warm-up, and take time to just check in with yourself.
2. Know the goal (or ask about it): Our brain understands movement by knowing the goal of that movement. So any time you’re trying to learn a movement, be really clear about the goal. In a mind-body class, the teacher may say “Okay, we’re doing a bridge. I want you to articulate through your spine, one vertebra at a time.” So if that’s the goal, focus on that.
3. Know how you learn: Do you learn best when you watch the instructor? Or do you learn best when you hear the instructions? Do you learn best when the instructor uses tactile cueing? It doesn’t mean that you always learn best one way, and it may change over time. Once you pay attention to how you learn, and if you’re ever confused about a movement, ask the teacher to teach in a way that you learn best.
4. Focus inward: One of the best things you can do in any class is to try to enhance your body awareness. To me, there are two streams of body awareness. One stream is for example, “do you know how your knee feels?” The other is like, “how do I feel? Do I feel scared? Do I feel happy? Do I feel stressed out? Do I feel relaxed?” That’s the two types of body awareness and I think checking in on either one of those is good.