Welcome to the first in a series I’ve created on common movement blind spots! When we talk about restoring health and function to our bodies through yoga and movement, we often think in terms of two overarching categories: strength and flexibility. A third element of movement health that doesn’t always receive the attention it deserves, however, is that of “motor control”. Whereas strength has to do with our muscles’ ability to generate force (i.e. how heavy an object can you move?) and flexibility generally refers to our ranges of motion (i.e. how far at a certain joint can you move?), motor control pertains to how you do a particular movement - which muscles contract to move which bones at which joints, all orchestrated in the background by the nervous system. Put another way, motor control is the process by which our brain directs and coordinates our various parts in order to complete a movement.
Strength and flexibility are certainly important for us to cultivate, but they aren’t inherently useful qualities on their own; they need the direction that motor control offers in order to be truly meaningful for us.
WHAT IS A MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT?
There are many movements which we perform so frequently that our brain has created set motor control patterns for how we do them. Think, for example, of the way you brush your teeth, coordinate the gas and brake pedals when driving a car, or walk down the street using your own personal gait pattern. These are all activities that we don’t have to think about consciously - we’ve repeated them so many times that we can now perform them virtually on autopilot. Movement programs like these are a helpful and necessary part of moving smoothly through our daily life. But we all also possess other less useful habitual movement patterns that don’t truly serve us in the long run. We are generally unaware of these less-than-optimal, ingrained patterns, and this is why they are called “movement blind spots”.
NEUROPLASTICITY: THE NEW FANCY TERM FOR YOGA TEACHERS TO KNOW
Because motor control patterns are by their nature habitual, they tend to limit our potential for movement variety. Therefore if we only ever move our body in habitual ways, we create an environment in which our brain can fall into a metaphorical “rut”, churning out the same unvaried motor tasks over and over again. I like to think of this in layman’s terms as having a “bored brain”.
When we ask our brain to move our body in new and different ways, however, this unique sensory input causes our brain to create new neural pathways in order to perform these movements. In contrast to a “bored brain”, I like to picture this as having an alert, engaged brain whose interest has been piqued. This process of forming new neural connections in response to novel stimulation is known as neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt and change. Neuroplasticity is certainly a fancy-sounding word, but it’s a helpful one for us yoga teachers to know and understand. In fact, neuroplasticity may actually be an important key to the optimal function and long-term healthy aging of our brain.
The way that we bring awareness to our movement blind spots so that we can "break" these non-optimal movement patterns is through the powerful tool of neuroplasticity. And today’s common movement blind spot example will be an excellent start to this endeavor!
COMMON MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT #1: THE RIB CAGE & PELVIS CONNECTION
One of the most common habitual movement patterns that I see is the unconscious “glomming together” (my favorite technical term :) ) of the movement of the rib cage with the movement of the pelvis. Even though the rib cage and pelvis are two distinct body parts and they should be able to move independently of each other, most people always move them together as one big unit without realizing it.
I’ve included a video that fully addresses how to recognize and change this movement blind spot because it’s helpful to convey what I'm describing with a live demonstration. But I’ve also written everything I talk about in this video below in case you'd like to read about it as well:
HOW TO RECOGNIZE AND CHANGE THE RIB CAGE/PELVIS HABITUAL MOVEMENT PATTERN
Hands and knees is a great shape in which to explore this movement. If you were to ask most people to lift their chest forward and up in this position, they would happily comply, but as they lift their chest, their pelvis would also roll forward into an anterior tilt (their tailbone would tip toward the sky). If you were to then ask them to round their chest (upper and mid-back flexion), they would do so, but their pelvis would also roll backward into a posterior tilt. The same thing would happen if you asked them to move their pelvis instead of their rib cage - as they tilted their pelvis forward and back, their chest would also lift and round at the same time.
Do you see how this is a large, undiscriminiated movement pattern that is taking over what should be a smaller, more refined movement? Now moving the rib cage and pelvis simultaneously like this is not an inherently bad movement at all, but lacking the awareness that you move this way is not so great, nor is being denied the many other movement possibilities that you could be doing because you’re stuck moving in this one pattern all of the time.
Let’s now attempt to pique the interest of our “bored brain” by asking it to move our rib cage and pelvis in a way that is different from our habitual pattern. Come back onto your hands and knees. Do your best to embody a neutral spine and pelvis. Now try a very small movement of curling your tailbone just an inch toward the floor while your rib cage holds still (it will want to round, but try not to let it.) Then curl your tailbone back up toward the sky an inch. Continue this back-and-forth movement several times. With a bit of focused attention, are you able to stabilize your rib cage as you isolate this movement to just your pelvis? Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen right away - just keep playing with this movement until you feel some sort of change. Once you learn the motor control of moving your pelvis a small amount without the rib cage also jumping in, experiment with increasing the range until you can move the pelvis into a full posterior and anterior tilt without the rib cage also moving. Congratulations - you are changing your movement pattern, which is neuroplasticity in action!
Now let’s initiate the movement from the opposite direction. Come back to your neutral spine. Can you round your upper and mid-back into one inch of flexion without also moving the pelvis toward a tuck? Then lift your chest an inch toward extension without also lifting your tailbone toward the sky. As you become more skilled at this movement, slowly increase the range until you can move from full thoracic flexion to full thoracic extension while the pelvis holds still.
Once you’ve become a neuroplasticity master and have regained control of your rib cage and pelvis as separate entities, you might be interested in exploring your spinal movement and your brain-body connection in general more in-depthly in my recently-filmed online workshop Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection.
Working to change our movement blind spots requires slow, focused work that might seem “small” compared to the bigger movements that we’re used to in yoga and other movement systems. But an important takeaway message is that “small” does not mean “basic” when we’re dealing with human movement. Gaining control of our “smaller” movements is actually some of the most advanced movement work that we can do. And as much as we enjoy practicing the bigger movements that our bodies can do, these moves simply can’t offer us their fullest benefits unless we have a strong connection to our smaller movements as a foundation. The more we work on our motor control skills on and off the yoga mat, the more refined, graceful, and potentially pain-free our movements will become.
Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection