Research now proves what these experts already knew: that if you want to change your life, the place to start isn't in your mind, but in your body.
The idea of altering your mind through movement sounds almost metaphorical. Stretch yourself. Strengthen your core. Grow some backbone. Listen to your body.
Yet recent science has found not only that you can trigger a physical change with your mind but also that real transformation can start with your body: with movement, with breath, with shifting your physical habits, no matter what your age.
At first glance, healing trauma through yoga may not seem to have much in common with teaching hip-hop to at-risk teens―or any of the other forms of transformative movement profiled here. But the practices have this in common: Slow down, feel your body, and, as it moves, be aware of how it feels on the earth. And the practitioners are all living proof that many times, real transformation starts not with thinking, analyzing, or intellectual will but with movement.
Sarah Crowell: Walking Differently in the World
Sarah Crowell is the program director at Destiny Arts, in Oakland, California. The dance and martial arts center teaches at-risk teens to channel their experiences into performances and shows them how to prevent violence, build community, and stand up for justice. Destiny Arts serves more than 4,000 kids at 45 schools in programs and afterschool classes. Its violence-prevention protocol, included in every program, stresses using reason and words before fighting. Kids abide by a Warrior’s Code that includes such tenets as “A Warrior is skilled in body and kind in heart.”
Destiny, an acronym for “De-Escalation Skills Training Inspiring Youth,” has garnered wide recognition, including a Peace Builder award by the Northern California Campaign for Peace in 2009.
Destiny Arts was started in 1988 as a martial arts program called Hand to Hand by Kate Hobbs. She wanted to supply tools so kids could feel safe.
Hip-hop had just become a studio art. I was with Dance Brigade and hadn’t taught much, but she said, “Why don’t you teach? If you can get more kids off the street, great.”
Kate saw dance as a way to draw kids into the curriculum of martial arts and dispute resolution, but not necessarily as a violence-prevention method.
I thought different, that dance itself could do it. We gave them skills to gain confidence and a sense of self. That in itself is violence prevention.
We wanted to know: Can we take kids out of the emergency of life and show them a bigger view of their lives, communities? How can they positively impact their world with something they love?
Every rehearsal, every day, there is some kind of drama, because they are teenagers. They’re developing critical-thinking skills and grappling with growing up. I invite them, though, to use movement, to put the emotion into the movement and take control of it and not let the emotions control you. I give them physical experience to pass through a threshold, someplace they thought was impossible―fear, anger, sadness, hurt. I try to help them boil down those feelings and channel them into movement. If you’re really mad, use it in the dance. I watch them go from an imploded, hopeless place into their power and joy. It’s absolutely physical and visible.
The kids collaborate with the artistic director and a guest artist to create original material about their lives and passions. Our performances have become a new rite of passage or initiation: telling your story, moving your story, and having people witness this.
It’s like climbing a mountain in your body. There is a physical, emotional, and spiritual feat that’s been met. And then they can feel the exhilaration that they’re on the mountaintop, that they can do anything. When they can reframe their anger and negativity and channel it through the body in passionate expression and be heard―well, the kids can then dream of a world that is based on love and respect and peace.
To me, there are kids whose lives were saved by this, by the dancing. Then there are kids who really embody the idea
and become those who go on and teach other people.
Whenever you’re working your body out, you’re going to feel better. But Destiny’s different: We’re creating a place that feels safe and inclusive of people of different backgrounds.
The intangible is just this: How do you feel when you’re standing and moving and sweating next to someone totally different from you, and you’re laughing? How do you feel? I’m part of something. And that makes a big difference.
You walk differently in the world. I watch them. The kids walk differently in the world.
Ana T. Forrest: Listening to the Stories in Our Bodies
Ana Forrest, based on Orcas Island, Washington, is the creator of Forrest Yoga, a unique method that combines physical practice with Eastern and Native American teachings. Ana believes that our personal stories as human beings are archived in our cells and that if we listen, our bodies will always tell the truth.
Beyond teaching the ability to hold a pose, or to create strength and flexibility, Forrest’s “soul’s work” is to guide people―injured war veterans, those of us feeling afraid or numb, or abusing alcohol or drugs―through dramatic transformations, using the knowledge we hold in our bodies.
In her book Fierce Medicine, Forrest writes, “Emotions have to be in motion to be healthy. If . . . they get stashed in the cell tissue . . . they morph into emotional pus balls. When you’re processing a difficult emotional situation, yoga can be powerful medicine.”
Part of what inspired me to create Forrest Yoga was the incredible pain I was in. I was using drugs and alcohol and wanted something to alleviate my suffering.
Most of us have pain because we’ve fallen into bad patterns: physical, emotional, and spiritual ones. To heal, we have to break these patterns, which can be surprisingly challenging. Like fear, pain is a red flag that says, “Proceed with caution. Pay attention.” But it doesn’t mean “go numb and stupid.”
I’ve learned some of my deepest lessons from my students. One of them, now teaching students in Korea, had lost a baby and had had a hysterectomy. She said she felt nothing below her waist but also that it “hurt.”
I’d ask her to stay in a pose long enough that it would resonate. I had her shut her eyes and do a special abdominal exercise. I put her hands there and asked her to send her breath there and to feel the muscles push against her hands.
Then this whole emotional backlog: tears, stories would come. Jumbled and crazy floodgates, the story behind the trauma.
The pain began to fade, and she began to realize her numbness was blocking her from dealing with the deeper issue: her grief about not having children. Once she confronted her pain, she walked free of it.
I wanted to study, What do I do with the story? It felt like there was a huge opportunity there. And I started working with that myself. And that was one of the things I wove into Forrest Yoga.
The most important pattern to break and reset is how you breathe. An epiphany can be a big exploding memory coming up. Or finally feeling a full, deep breath can be a breakthrough.
One of the most important parts of my practice is relaxing the neck. Those of us who live high-stress lives often complain of a tight neck and jaw. Our body reads this sign of anxiety as fear, and the adrenal stress causes exhaustion and cloudy thinking.
Relaxing the neck helps release the claw grip of fear and sends a signal of relief to the nervous system. The brain is nourished by oxygen and cerebrospinal fluid, which means that a relaxed neck allows us to make better decisions and stop reacting out of sluggishness and anxiety and confusion. The intelligence of your brain communicates with the wisdom of the rest of your body.
The most important thing that I do is to help people learn to listen to what their bodies are trying to tell them.
Thinking is not the only gear we have.
Anat Baniel: Movement Is the Language of the Brain
Anat Baniel directs the Anat Baniel Method Center in San Rafael, California. Raised in Israel and trained in clinical psychology and dance, Baniel worked alongside Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais for 15 years. During a time when most scientists believed the brain couldn’t change after an early age, Feldenkrais, then Baniel, devised methods proving that movement and varied stimulation can restructure our brains, and revitalize our bodies, for as long as we live.
Before I started working with children with special needs, I worked with performers.
In Europe there was a famous quartet; their cellist was this German guy―big-chested and strong. And he played Schubert for me―a gorgeous sonata. He was rigid and somber; he was in pain and terrified that he was losing his career.
I said, “Play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ He was stunned. He played it of course perfectly.
Then I said, “Play badly.” He was stopped. His whole life he was trying to play well.
I asked, “Can you imitate your little students playing ‘Twinkle’ badly?” While he was playing badly, I was moving him, so there was no way he could play well. So I said, “Play badly in a different way.”
Then, I said, “Play the Schubert.” It was so much better, and he was pain-free. He needed variation in emotions and his belief system. When we introduce and pay attention to new patterns of movement, our brains begin making millions of new connections. His brain found a way when he changed his habitual movements.
Parents would come in to the center and say they were told their child “will never do this” or “This is impossible.” I would ask for the diagnosis to know what to be careful of, to not harm. But beyond that I had the freedom to ignore it. I knew the answer was in the brain.
An eight-week-old baby named Deborah was brought in by her parents. During birth, she had a brachial plexus injury. The nerve that moved her left arm wasn’t completely severed, but there was enough injury that communication between arm and brain was stopped. Her arm was lying there, purplish.
She’d had seven weeks of therapy and exercises to the left arm at Cedars [Cedar Sinai] in Los Angeles, and nothing. If the arm has never moved, what are you going to move? The brain hasn’t had the experience to know what to do. If the brain and arm weren’t working together in the usual way, the brain could find another solution.
I didn’t touch the left arm but worked with her right arm and other parts of her body. I also leaned her onto her right side, so her left arm didn’t have so much gravity to resist. In six minutes the left arm started moving and twitching spontaneously, the way infants move their limbs.
I let the brain do that. I just create the conditions in which the brain wakes up and does the process the way it does with healthy babies. If something is working not well, we have to do something different and it doesn’t exist yet. That’s where neuroplasticity comes in. We are built to do things different.
The main thing that happens for most parents is the realization that there’s nothing to fix in the child. It gives them permission to love their child as they are.
Izaak Tyrrell: Finding Your Fountain of Youth
Izaak Tyrrell, a certified personal trainer and massage therapist, managed several 24-Hour Fitness locations in California before moving to Maui several years ago. He bought a small gym, Upcountry Fitness, and built it into a facility that serves hundreds of members. Though he trains lots of clients, ranging from teens to the island’s best athletes, his personal quest is coaching elderly people to become stronger, more flexible, and pain-free, by training them in core strengthening and spinal stabilization. He’s determined to have his clients learn how to communicate with their bodies. Izaak’s clients prove not only that can you teach old dogs new tricks but also that you can change your mindset by delighting your body. It’s no surprise then, that the much-tattooed Izaak has more than once been called “the fountain of youth” by his youthful octogenarian clients.
First of all, I don’t like to call them old. We call them the “active aging.”
It’s hard to enjoy your life when you hurt. A lot of them [the active aging] have experienced the fitness world: bench presses, squats. But now they’re thinking: Why go to the gym if stuff hurts all the time?
My big challenge is the Western medical world. Their doctors say, “Don’t do things if they hurt.” If your doctor says not to squat, how’re you going to go to the bathroom? Squatting properly is the best exercise you can do. All those Asian people living so long? They’re squatting!
When people first come in, I find out what they hope to do. Getting down the driveway, checking mail on their own. Or, “I just want to go for walk without hurting.” I’ve had people come into the gym who can’t even walk. Their core is too weak, their hips out of line. So first I get to a baseline. For the next six to 12 weeks we address these issues.
Then, the floodgates open. “I want to hike this hill”; “I want to play basketball with my grandchildren.” Once they stabilize, and it doesn’t hurt? Then: “Hell! I can squat!”
One 70-year-old lady was 300 pounds when she first came to me. She was falling down in stores and couldn’t get back up. She looked at me and said, “How is this little guy going to pick me up?” I said, “I’m not going to pick you up. Let’s learn how to get up by yourself.”
Our first lessons were how to get up. Shift your weight; get up; get back down. That’s a workout. And no more falling. We gave her this confidence through movement. Now she’s 215 pounds and has the freedom to go back out to the community without being scared.
I teach injury prevention and reactive training. If you trip, you put a foot out in front―those are fast-switch neurons. Not such a sharp cat anymore? You gotta train those systems. Those life things are going to happen. Practice them in a gym!
“Don’t use it, you lose it.” That’s much better than “No pain, no gain.”
Keeping it exciting is important. I’ll have them do something with one foot instead of two feet. Every time you do something different like this, it imprints code into your brain and body.
The thing that drives me is teaching people to do things they say they can’t do. “Someday you’ll be able to kneel on this ball with no hands.” “You’re crazy!” they say. A month or three later, they’re doing it, and you hear this really good laugh.
Giving people their mobility back returns their lives to them. You see a whole new person. If you’re moving, you’re living, you’re alive.
I love that.