Like life, most the barriers in yoga are mental rather than physical. My favorite example is Roger Bannister who decided he could break a four-minute mile. This had been deemed impossible, but he trained and succeeded in 1954. After that people started breaking four-minute miles all around the world in growing numbers. Now, Wikipedia describes the four-minute mile as a “standard” for middle distance runners. We can argue that diets and technology have changed, but I believe it is more about the mental shift. The impossible became possible and attainable through his attitude and efforts.
One of my favorite teachers, Adail, emphasizes that we can’t exceed our own self image. If we believe we are tight, stupid, worthless, or not good enough at X to achieve Y chances are we will all prove ourselves right. Not because we are right, but because consciously or unconsciously we create roadblocks for ourself. Our brains are extraordinary instruments trying to make sense out of this world. The job of our brain is to gather sensory and experiential information, interpret it, and allow us to respond in a fashion that is orderly and makes sense. The problem is that life is complicated and the information we garner through life is often contradictory. In psychology, we’d call this cognitive dissonance. The mind doesn’t like to hold contradictory realties, so it alters perceptions and reactions in a way that allows the ideas to co-exist peacefully (in accordance).
One way we do this is with cognitive bias. We create filters in our mind that bias our understanding of a construct, idea, event, etc. And so, we remember things that match our beliefs more saliently (more robustly) than things that don’t. In a way, we mentally stack the deck with evidence that supports our own beliefs so that we can move through life simply and happily without confronting our belief system.
When we become mentally passive and allow for the mind to function this way, yoga and/or asana will make us more of what we already are. It is going to reinforce physical, mental, and emotional patterns that already exist within us. The good news is our minds, bodies, and circumstances are not fixed. If we want to create change we have to do something different, experience something old in a new way, or create a new self limit. Whether they know it or not, this is why most yoga teachers tell students to make each pose new again, to experience it like a beginner each time. Drawing our attention into the present moment allows us to concentrate on what we are physically feeling and the task at hand in a way that changes our physiology and restructures our brains.
I think this is why yoga becomes so complicated and refined as we move deeper into asanas. Our minds need enough to do in a pose that we can’t fixate on anything else. There are so many cues in yoga that don’t initially make sense to the student and even when they do we can’t command our bodies to execute the movement properly. Do you remember the first time a teacher told you to float your back kidney ribs up, move the baby toe independently of the other toes, or soften the skin off the underlying fat (thank you Rich Logan)? I thought these things were absurd and impossible in my body until one day I felt a spark of sensation and eventually tiny movements. Over a decade I’ve learned to consciously control and refine such movements. But where did that first spark of conscious progress emanate from? I wasn’t doing anything different, so what changed?
Part of the answer is related to neuroscience. Mental rehearsal is almost as effective at creating new movement patterns and strength in the body as actually executing and performing the movement. Neurologists have done studies in which they teach novices to play the piano by either practicing playing a song or just imagining they were practicing. At test time, the group that only mentally rehearsed played almost as well as the people who physically practiced. When the “thinker” group was given only a single instance to practice before the assessment, they did just as well as people who physically practiced for weeks. Other studies have had people think about vs. actually perform exercises to strengthen their fingers. The “thinkers” had a 22% increase in strength and the “doers” a 30% increase. That’s pretty remarkable! Merely thinking about lifting weights isn’t going to transform anyone into a body builder, but it will refine movement, build strength, and increase coordination. All because, when you think about doing something your brain fires off the motor pathway as if it were going to actually carry out that action.
Coming back to yoga, this is why we place so much emphasis on awareness and on sensing our way through the practice. It is an overgeneralization, but think of the nervous system as a two way highway. Sensory information (touch, taste, temperature, vision, etc) comes in and motor commands go out. There is a direct correlation between how much someone uses a body part and the relative proportion of neurons dedicated to it. The somatosensory cortex (the part of the brain that receives touch related information) and the motor cortex (the part that executes movements) are each mapped out as a little man, called a homunculus (see picture). We all rely on our hands to gather information, so on average everyone’s sensory homunculus has big hands. Now take a pianist, the relative part of their brain designated to their hands is even bigger. Our brains can’t grow endlessly, so oftentimes sensitivity in one area comes at the expense of others. Different brain regions and functions must compete for resources. Although brain maps are relatively fixed, they still change subtly from hour to hour and day to day as ones activities and demands on the brain change. More drastic changes can occur under more extreme circumstances. If we look at a PET (brain activity) scan of someone before and after amputation, the part of the somatosensory cortex once devoted to the amputated limb is most often invaded by whatever bodypart is closest in the homunculus. For instance if you were to lose your arm, your face is probably going to take over those neurons. This is why some people experience phantom limbs. Those neurons have been re-mapped to receive information from the face, but the process may be incomplete. To over-simplify, the brain gets confused and you interpret an itch or sensation on the face as coming from the lost limb.
In yoga when we start thinking about feeling a given area, it eventually becomes more sensitive. The somatsensory cortex for that body part will have more neurons and/or more neuronal connections between those neurons and other brain regions. The more neurons you have, the less nerves (that is to say skin area) each neuron has to cover and the more sensitive that area becomes. One way to measure sensitivity, is called the two point discrimination test. You blindfold someone and prick them simultaneously at two spots. In regions such as the hands and face, we have lots of nerves that are handled by lots of neurons, so you can discriminate two pins that are nearly touching. Now take the upper back, many people can’t discriminate two pinpricks that are inches away from each other. No wonder it is such a hard area of the body to bring under our conscious control. Thus, in yoga when we plant our feet firmly into the earth and really attempt to feel each corner of the foot, we get better at sensing whether the foot really is balanced on the floor in the way that we want it to be.
The same thing happens on the flip side, the more we think about doing something the more you create new neuronal connections and fire off these pathways to strengthen the command circuitry in the brain as well as its coordination to motor nerves in the distal muscles. For instance, start in a lunge and transition to warrior 3. Did it work? Maybe. Now do it ten times and see how much smoother it gets as the brain works to refine and coordinate all the actions required to execute this movement.
So go ahead and believe you can float up into a handstand, fantasize about it, and practice it. Practice makes progress long before perfection. The point is, don’t be discouraged because something isn’t happening in your body. Your body is working these things out under the radar, so trust the wisdom of your body. All you have to do is focus, feel, experience, and imagine and progress will come.
Picture taken from http://www.movementislife.be/uncategorized/feeding-your-homunculus-food-for-thought/