The cortical homunculus is a physical representation of our body in our brain. There are two types of these neurological ‘maps’; one for sensory pathways, the other for motor. The area a body part takes up on the map depends on how innervated it is, not how large. If our bodies actually looked like our brain’s representation, we would look very strange indeed. What these maps look like also varies from person to person as they are dependent on the information the brain receives. My hands probably have a larger representation than average due to my music and crafts, whilst my legs are likely to have a smaller representation than average as a result of the movement symptoms of my FND.
Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change, was only discovered with any significant evidence and understanding late in the twentieth century. Before then, it was believed that the brain developed during early childhood, then remained relatively static throughout the rest of life. If you weight train at the gym, muscles engaged increase in size and strength. The same thing happens when different parts of the brain are used. As the saying goes, ‘use it or lose it,’ or even more appropriate for this, ‘neurons that fire together wire together.’
Neuro-rehabilitation makes positive use of neuroplasticity by changing the brain through the use of therapeutic tools and techniques. In neuro-physiotherapy, this means laying down and strengthening neural pathways through movement. By feeding my brain with fluid, symmetrical, healing movements (for example, by practising side to side weight shifting and a perfect sit to stand) and by avoiding reinforcing unwanted movement by changing maladaptive behaviours that have come about due to symptoms (for example, twisting as I sit down), I can change my brain’s body map. I can make use of neuroplasticity to develop and strengthen the automatic movement patterns that have been lost over the course of my FND.
Within the context of my condition, the knowledge of neuroplasticity feels incredibly empowering. But it’s also got me thinking; what are the wider implications? Our thoughts, actions and experiences shape our brain, thereby influencing how we feel and function. Perhaps then we need to be a little more mindful about what we feed our brains?
I wrote about using neuroplasticity to address the negativity bias and increase feelings of well-being in ‘The Treasure of Pleasure – Rewiring the Brain for Happiness.’
There’s a fascinating documentary I recently watched, ‘The Brain that Changes Itself,’ available on YouTube.
George is a middle-aged man who lives in the States. He has a severe, progressive condition that affects all aspects of his day to day life, yet he is functioning on a higher level than many others with comparable disease. George practises mindfulness and is included as a case study in ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn. ‘Within the limits of his disease, he is actively meeting life’s challenges rather than sitting at home and bemoaning his fate. He takes each moment as it comes and figures out how he can work with it and stay relaxed and aware.’ An example of this is how George does the weekly grocery shop for himself and his wife. He takes his time. He rests. He asks for help when necessary. He gets the shopping packed into light bag loads which he is then able to lift from the trolley to the car. The daily tasks he completes in this way bring value and meaning to his life as he is able to contribute to the running of his household, whilst self-managing his condition. Read More
Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu – May all beings be happy and free.
The chanting filled the space. Twenty-five people had entered the studio alone or in small groups only thirty minutes earlier, yet now we had become one, living the true meaning of yoga, ‘union’.
It was a chilly Sunday evening and the first satsang, or gathering, of our Thaxted Yoga community. The studio space had been transformed, full of cosy corners to relax. There was a plentiful supply of refreshments; hot chai, vegan hot dogs and tacos, raw chocolate brownies and energy balls, popcorn, even cupcakes iced with the Thaxted Yoga logo, yoga poses and tiny rolled up mats. People curled up in blankets, resting on bolsters and cushions, bathed in the soft glow of candles and dimmed lights.Read More
I move from side to side, shifting the centre of gravity in my chest, left, right, left, right. My knees bend softly, my feet start to lift up, left, right, left, right. I look ahead in the mirror, left, right, left, right. I hold the rail, the sturdy support, left, right, left, right. There’s an unfamiliar jolt beneath me; my body twists and I fall on my back. Read More
Little Niece D was five yesterday. Five years since I saw my baby niece and Goddaughter come into the world. Five years since I first held her in my arms before her Mummy had the strength to. Five years since I bought her first dolly. I instantly fell in love with that baby girl, her dark eyes looking about her and her little lips searching for milk. That love has grown with each day and year I’ve been blessed to have such a special little person in my life. Read More
“Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
(‘Peace is Every Breath’ – Thich Nhat Hanh)
In mindfulness training we often talk about formal and informal practice. Formal practice involves sitting for an allotted time, using an audio or self-guiding your way through a meditation, for example a breathing anchor or body scan exercise. It is when key techniques and concepts are learnt and experienced as a mindful way of being is nurtured. Informal practice takes place in ‘real life’. It involves bringing mindful awareness, developed in the formal practice, into the activities of everyday living. It is no less essential than the formal practice and is often where the magic happens. I frequently experience ‘a-ha’ moments at this time, perhaps when a seed I planted in my formal training comes to fruition in my day to day life.Read More
The air has turned chilly. Golden leaves are starting to flutter down. Autumn is here. I wrote in Spring about how I like to reflect the seasons in my life. It helps me embrace change whilst feeling grounded in my environment. Spring is a time of hope and fresh starts, but autumn is a time of settling down and letting go. Read More
“There’s going to be some controlled chaos,” announced Matthew as the class began. There was, but the energy in the room noticeably shifted as he spoke thoughtful words of wisdom and guided us through our practice. “My story is your story,” he said, as he explained how the inner sensations, or prana, he’d discovered whilst practising yoga as a paraplegic, were relevant to us all. People often focus on the outer shapes of yoga, but what happens on the inside? That’s what we were about to discover. Read More
“Hey,” said Matthew, wheeling past me as I arrived at Triyoga. I felt star struck. I’d been re-reading his book, ‘Waking’, the night before; an intimate glimpse into a life I found so inspiring. Now I was sitting chatting with Matthew, about to participate in his all humanities yoga class.
The description had made me tingle; ‘this class explores universal themes within asanas for all levels of ability and disability – from someone paralysed and confined to a wheelchair to the most advanced asana practitioner. Asanas will be taught in a manner that reaches everyone simultaneously. Participants will perform their own poses, help each other, and learn from each other. When ability and disability authentically show up and share universal vulnerability, the releasing humanity is transformative and life changing.’ I had eagerly booked my place for Matthew’s class in London. Read More
I couldn’t believe my luck when I drove past and saw the fresh green and blue sign, the windows draped in soft white voile with tiny mirrors catching the sunlight. It was early 2015 and whilst I was preparing to move into my new home nearby, Thaxted Yoga opened. It didn’t take long for me to join a class. Each time I stepped into the little studio, I felt enveloped in a calm, gentle energy, topped up with the warmth of a big Casey hug. I discovered a different part of myself in each class I took, the ‘Be Mindful’ artwork on the mantelpiece reminding me of my intention. It quickly became my happy place. Read More