Reawakening the body

“It’s not over,” he said. “There’s always a chance to change. You should not — you dare not — give up.”

Gregg Mozgala, actor and dancer with cerebral palsy

In yoga classes, I’ve notice some students’ difficulty moving their ankles and toes. Point, flex. Easy enough. Rotate them in synchronized circles. Okay. Now flex only the toes back, in tiptoe position (some call it “floint” or the amusing but apt “Barbie”). More struggles here. Now spread the toes wide apart. Half the population can’t seem to separate their toes.

Having grown up in a no-indoor-shoes culture (which I enthusiastically support for the whole world), I’ve spent most of my home life barefoot. So my toes splay like an amoeba and can retrieve fallen socks and writing implements with minimal effort. (Of course, I have other weak spots.) But the frozen-toe syndrome made me wonder: can immobility or “deadness” in our bodies be corrected?

Regarding feet: One of my first yoga teachers (and still a favorite from long distance), Sandy Blaine, couldn’t move her toes much when she was a beginner. So, upon waking in the morning, she would look at her toes and just try to move them. By the time I met her, a decade later, her toes could spread like a hand. She conjectured that trying to move her toes (perhaps even mentally directing them to move) spurred new neural connections.

Yesterday, I read a fascinating story, “Learning His Body, Learning to Dance,” New York Times, November 24, 2009, about Gregg Mozgala, a man with cerebral palsy who at age 31 is relearning how to move his body through dance. Due to his disability, he’s always struggled with basic actions, such as walking; when choreographer Tamar Rogoff tried to teach him new forms of movement, he’d either fall or be incapable of even trying them.

So Rogoff started from scratch with him, to “‘find’ individual bones, muscles and tendons that he had had no command of before.” According to the article, “[t]hey started at the top and worked down—sternum, sacrum, knees—with Mr. Mozgala’s body and brain opening paths of communication that had not existed.”

In the article, Dr Stephen A. Paget, chief of rheumatology at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan states, “In the past, people thought that a neurological deficit was fixed and immutable. Now there’s this whole concept of neuroplasticity: the neurological system has this ability to change itself and constantly grow.”

Wow. Sandy was right. We can teach our bodies new tricks. I’m not talking simply about strength and flexibility, the more straightforward and common limiting factors. Rather I’m talking about whole new connections. Moving body parts that seemed frozen. Or moving with improved coordination and posture. Or balancing on limbs (or a limb) once too wobbly. If Mozgala can reawaken his body and transform his gait, it’s a lesson to us all.

Mozgala’s step-by-step learning reminded me of Iyengar yoga, which requires constant observation of the entire body, from crown of the head to fingers and toes. Likewise, he employed specific instructions to help maintain awareness in daily life, off the dance floor. (Of course, his cues, “sternum down, tailbone up,” are the opposite of ours!)

Bottom line: if you can’t move your toes, arch your thoracic spine, or balance in handstand … don’t give up.

Image: yvetteAL

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7 thoughts on “Reawakening the body

  1. I always love when I drop something small and I can pick it up with my toes and bring it up to my hand without bending down at all! Yoga pays off in little ways, too : )

    PS I also enthusiastically support the barefoot at home rule. I take my shoes off when I enter someone’s home, and usually they protest and try to get me to leave them on. But I prefer them off!!

  2. There’s a fantastic book all about brain plasticity called “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD that you may enjoy. As a student of Iyengar yoga and a soon-to-be Physical Therapist Assistant this has provided food for thought on many levels.

  3. Funny, I just took a class focusing on the relationship between our feet and our toes and the rest of the asanas. (In which I heard “floint” and “Barbie” for the first time.) I’m like you, my feet have always been flexible, but really thinking about the subtle connections is amazing. That it helps to balance in half moon if you push down on the standing big toe.

    And yes, if we all keep getting on the mat, or trying something new, the changes can be remarkable.

  4. I thought that was a fascinating article and I’m glad Greg had the opportunity to work with Tamar. What a wonderful project!

    The combo of yoga and two small boys means I can do most basic tasks with both my hands and feet (picking up stuff, opening doors, turning on lights, etc.). Not writing yet, but maybe I’ll start working on it…

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