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The Joy of Integrated Motion

One of the qualities of Anusara yoga (See “Melt Your Heart” for more on Anusara) that I deeply appreciate is its focus on internal alignment. The experience of finding ones alignment is interesting. At first I find myself expending a lot of effort engaging different muscles while I try to shift to the point of balance, and this effort can become quite intense. But, when I can find the balance point and I can relax into an easy graceful engagement of the alignment, the pose often suddenly opens up, becomes easy, and is full of a deep joy. Where does this joy come from? Why do we experience it when we bring our bodies into engaged alignment?

As discussed in an earlier post, the primary purpose of the brain is to direct and coordinate motion of the body (“The Brain is for Motion”). While it is an oversimplification to talk about the brain and body as separate systems (they really are one integrated dynamic system), it is convenient here to talk about how the body feeds information into the brain. A visualization I use for this experience of joy is to attribute it to the clarity and simplicity of coherent integrated sensor data feeding into the brain.

Basically, our bodies provide all of the primary inputs into our brains — everything from external stimulus as captured by eyes, ears, noses, etc, to the internal proprioceptive senses which drive information about the position and condition of our muscles, ligaments, etc. Our brains (and spines!) process all this raw sensory data and extract higher-level information like letters and words, and objects and friends, and emotional expressions. This higher order information feeds into complex mental processes and complex physical actions. Talking, for example, takes an enormously complicated coordination of many muscles to perform. It’s rather amazing and very physical.

As our sense (both internal and external) feed information into the brain, they feed into complex interlocking feedback loops and signal processing loops that have non-linear dynamics. Complex systems like the brain tend to be very sensitive to initial conditions — meaning that slight changes in the input dynamics can have sudden and profound changes on the entire system. For an example, consider how differently you might react to the same social situation depending on your state of hunger and blood sugar levels. A change in your internal senses can radically alter your thoughts, emotions, and physical actions.

When we purposefully engage our bodies in full physical actions one effect is that longer complex chains of muscles need to coordinate together in order to achieve the desired motion. Sitting here and typing on the keyboard it is easy for large parts of my body to become passive and only a short chain of muscles in my arm needs to coordinate in order to achieve my desired keystrokes. But when I’m doing something fully physical, like dancing, or climbing, or swinging a sword, or extending deep into a yoga pose, I need to coordinate long chains of muscles from my feet all the way to the ends of my arms.

What effect does all this coordination cause? Well, without it when I’m just sitting and typing, the input to my brain in non-coherent. Think of it as many voices talking at once. I’m getting data from many parts of the body but they have no correlation — they are not synchronized. For example, there is no meaningful relationship between the rhythms of data coming from my legs with the rhythms of data coming from my arms. But as we use our bodies in increasingly integrated ways, the input into the brain becomes more coherent — there are fewer voices and a cleaner stronger single input pattern. This drives the mind in a simpler pattern and can lead to a more grounded centered and calming state of mind (which is joyful). Of course, the mind and body are not really separate, but feedback to each other in a closed loop system, so a calm mind can lead to deeper calming breathing, which can further calm and settle the mind, etc.

Thus, my vision of the moments of deep joy that well up when I find expansive alignment is built around this concept of coherent synchronized full-body input to the mind. This strong input signal can drive and settle the mind, and thus enable awareness of the joy that is always present in us but which is often hidden behind the noise of our thoughts. Another way to think of it is a more cleanly unified experience. When the body is disengaged and many voices are feeding into the mind, ones experience can become busy and the mind can get really distracted — itself disconnected from the physical experience of the moment. But, when the body is integrated, and the mind is fully engaged with the physical act, there is unity of purpose and clarity in that moment of experience. We experience that as joy, and it tends to be a very centered and grounded joy. However one views it though, the fun thing here is that there is joy in our bodies, and we can unlock that joy through motion.

Posted in Bodies, Brains, Joy.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Another 1,001 Reasons to Avoid Sitting – BeingHuman linked to this post on June 25, 2011

    […] payback for all this motion – our emotional self frees up and finds joy in motion!  (See “The Joy of Integrated Motion”)  As Dr. Levine says: “Go into cubeland in a tightly controlled corporate environment and you […]

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