From the Studio
The Embodied Brain: Optimized Movement-learning and The Body-Brain Context
by Chantill Lopez
“What if you looked at your students from a mind and brain perspective in addition to a musculoskeletal perspective? How would your teaching style change?” -- Anne Bishop, founder of Body Brain Connect
What would you do if you could improve a student’s ability to capture what they had learned in the studio and embody those principles in their daily lives? Through a concept called the body-brain context teachers have a new tool for facilitating immediate and lasting integration by enhancing the learning environment.
Attending to the body-brain context will:
- Increase body awareness in student
- Improve learning in student
- Improve teaching in teacher
Using fear as an example of body-brain context…
A student walks into your class, stiff, almost entirely rigid but for the slight sway of her shoulders. No eye contact. No introduction. She looks around - obviously new -- approaches and moves a mat a comfortable distance from the front. You are prepared to approach, meet and invite the student to share her experience with movement and Pilates. Yet, there is something in her demeanor, in the bored look on her face as she sits on her mat, knees folded up, arms crossed over them, that gives you pause. Resistance? Reluctance? Indifference? It was fear.
As Pilates instructors we occupy many roles and provide a dynamic and layered service. In rare circumstances, we might only see the body in front of us. What we are faced with may include injury, hurt, pain, emotion, judgment, deeply held beliefs, assumptions, joy, desire, motivation, and… fear. We use the body as the conduit for what we teach and yet there is so much more to unravel. This unraveling happens without provocation and often without intention. When a student shows up in the studio we become privy to all that is attached to the body.
Fast forward. No matter what offer is made, your student is combative: “I’ve been dealing with this pain for a long time,” she will tell you. “I know what to do,” she assures you. How do you feel, you ask. “I’m in pain.” You will explore her concerns and provide modifications, yet nothing seems to work. Even the most experienced teachers can become stuck if they do not widen their view… but to what?
Fear is a common occurrence in movement education. We have all been faced with the challenges of working with a student in fear, how it affects their ability to learn and make progress. Likewise, we are familiar with how our own fear holds us back, and hinders our ability to teach effectively. So then, how do we manage fear? How do we address something so intimately tied to emotion, psychology, the body and mind?
Anne Bishop, founder of Body Brain Connect, began to ask herself these and other questions when she realized that, although her extensive knowledge of the body gave her consistently good results, there were limitations. “Despite all this knowledge, teaching movement to the body is not enough. I still came across moments when my students could not engage or release the correct muscles or align their bones properly.”
It turns out that what was missing was a tiny little component called the brain.
Bishop, a veteran Pilates teacher from Petaluma, California first became interested in body-brain interdependency while working through a back injury with master teacher Conna-Lee Weinberg. “Weinberg’s ability to teach me to feel my body so distinctively and clearly allowed me to realize that I am exercising my brain while becoming aware of my body.”
In her master class Body-brain Foundations, Bishop asks this question: “What if you looked at your students from a mind-brain perspective in addition to a musculoskeletal perspective? How would your teaching style change and improve?”
By explicitly including the brain as a part of the teaching approach, Pilates teachers, physical therapists and other movement educators have the opportunity to gain tremendous insight into how to mitigate challenges, optimize efficacy, and create more consistently successful motor or movement-learning environments. Therefore, improving a student’s ability to integrate movement skills into varied contexts can improve day-to-day function.
After graduating from the Harvard Graduate School of Mind, Brain and Education, Bishop began to formulate a premise for optimizing movement learning. “I thought about clients who have been in fear while recovering from an injury, and how if I did not feel safe or if I could not trust the person, I couldn’t or did not perceive what they were telling me. I see that in my clients if they are stressed either from chronic pain or lifestyle then they are not always going to perceive or apply what I am teaching them. Of course, this idea of the body-brain context is not new in the world of education. What is new is its application to mind body teaching.”
Body-brain Context and Optimal Learning
What does it mean to say the brain is embodied?
According to Bishop, “An embodied brain means that the dualism between mind and body, or body and brain is inaccurate. When our body is positively stressed, as when you go through a favorite workout, endorphins are released that positively change your mood. When mood is elevated one has the ability to think more expansively and allow increased creativity. Consequently, negative stress like chronic pain can cause depression. Both of the above are examples of how your body can affect your brain.
Conversely, positive emotions and feelings of wellbeing, which are elicited through bodily practices such as seated, walking or moving meditation, can help our bodies de-stress and feel elevated. In other words, the connection between body and brain [mind] is a two-way street. Your body can affect your brain through experiences and your brain can affect your body through thoughts. This is what is meant by an embodied brain. Pilates and other mind-body modalities teach and engage both the body and the brain.”
Therein lies the power of body-brain context. If we leave the brain out of our teaching we miss half of the picture and are ultimately half as effective. If we look at teaching movement through a body-brain lens, we open up the field of possibilities.
“Body-brain context is about getting students and yourself prepared to learn and teach. The beautiful dance of teaching movement,” says Bishop. It is about creating a physical, emotional, and psychological environment that promotes effective movement learning. Body-brain context takes into account the physical (body), emotional and psychological (brain) environments of both the student and teacher.
How to negotiate fear via body-brain context:
1. Join the student where they are:
- Listen deeply: To what is said and unsaid, through verbal and body language
- Build trust: Let go of your own agenda, exemplify malleability, be willing to change course, say you don’t know
2. Adapt to the outer environment:
- Is there something you can change to make the student more comfortable? (i.e. music, privacy, lighting)
3. Be explicit and unequivocal:
- Use non-combative language
- Ask permission/offer invitation: “Would you be willing to…”
4. Respect boundaries:
- Repeat their words back to them. “I am clear that you don’t want to do…” “I hear that you don’t want to…”
Each step is based on improving the movement-learning environment and can be used in general scenarios or with regard to specific physical or emotional challenges.
Ensuring Greater Success
Do we have the tools to ask the right questions of ourselves and our students for teaching and learning to be deliberately optimized? Can we address fear and other factors that affect our nervous system not only through the body but also through the brain? By understanding and integrating the body-brain-context concept we may have what we need. As movement educators we must provide a new perspective - a way to actively attend to the multi-dimensional elements of teaching, and to look at critical elements beyond just physical form. Movement educators must develop practices and narratives that ensure greater success for students.
“Although we may intuitively address some of these emotional and environmental components already with conscious and habitual application of the body brain context framework we could be effective even on our worst days,” remarked Bishop.
The long-range goals of brain and body integration into movement learning:
- To improve the way movement is taught across multiple modalities including Pilates, yoga, dance, physical therapy, and beyond, embracing the “mind-body” approach with equal emphasis on both components.
- To promote the study of the brain as it relates to movement, and to explore the cutting edge research in neuroscience as a way of staying ahead of the curve in an increasing competitive and developing industry.
“I feel that on the surface we are the mind body industry, but I do not see it embedded yet into mind-body education. Just think about what better teachers we could be with improved knowledge about how the brain learns movement. Our students would benefit and as teachers we would have more successful and rewarding careers.”