A New Year’s Transformation: From Survival to Freedom of Learning

Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D.

Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D.

It’s New Year’s Day again—that time of year in which so many of us reflect on what’s working in our lives, then making a list of promises to ourselves about how we will live better in the year to come. Did you ever notice that we make resolutions every year that soon are forgotten as we live our lives today the same way that we lived them yesterday and the day before that?

I was recently reminded of this when a young man I’ll call Steve came to me for an Edu-K balance*. He explained that he had been trying over the last couple of years to shift out of the stresses in his life. He was concerned that, in order to keep up with his job, he was becoming a workaholic. He kept promising himself that he’d soon slow down and begin taking care of his health, and take a vacation to spend time with his wife and children. Each January he had resolved to do this, beginning the year with new health goals, exercise routine, and so on, resolutely resetting his intentions throughout the year. And each year, he said, he had continued down the same old path of anxiety, exhaustion, and self-neglect.

I explained to Steve that, most often, we cannot create change by simply making a resolution; we must actually transform ourselves. The way I understand it, when we’re in a cycle of fear and stress the brain is hard-wired to keep doing the old familiar things, not to seek change. Our habits, patterns of movement, and learned modes of functioning are deeply interconnected in a long-term survival-based system that works to keep us alive and safe. The deep, older, part of the brain (in the brainstem) works by automatic pilot. Under perceived stress, it repeats the routines that keep us doing the same thing again and again. Our thinking mind, the frontal lobes of the new brain might see a logical solution to our search for something better, and resolve to make a shift. Our limbic emotional brain might feel good about the lifestyle change we envision; however, if the old brain, by default, is continuing to keep us safe—we must stay the same. Survival, at the level of the brainstem, is the only priority.

I shared with Steve that there’s also good news out there for folks like us who really want to do things differently. It’s called neuroplasticity. In the cycle of fear and stress, we react from default movement patterns of fight-or-flight. In order to make change, we need to engage imagination to create specific new movement patterns for daily life, via the frontal lobes, which can shift us from a stress cycle into a learning cycle.

In the learning cycle, the old brain can learn new habits, new patterns, and new ways of being. The old network of survival habits can dissolve and fall away as a new intentional neural network replaces it. The key is to do more than to state a resolution with words alone. Building new neural patterns requires a goal that is informed by personal experience, by feelings, and by the body physically moving and sensing in new ways.

I asked Steve, as a pre-activity, to describe what he would be doing day-to-day if he were taking better care of himself.  He replied that he would be walking more, going to the gym, maintaining a better diet—planning ahead rather than always feeling overwhelmed and falling behind, then being irritable with his wife and kids.

We role-played each of his desired activities as best as possible, as if he were already doing them everyday. I then asked Steve to tell me about how he pictured his quality time with his kids. Steve imagined playing ball with his son, reading a bedtime story to his little girl, and playing games together with his wife and children. We role-played these scenarios, as well. This was a difficult moment, as Steve could now see that, although he was committed to having good experiences with his body and his family, such behaviors weren’t yet comfortable or easy for him to imagine or physically access. That is, he hadn’t really internalized the physical habits of relaxation and engagement that he could call on when the time came to put these intentions into action.

Steve was now clearer about his goal, and I had him state it in first person: “I take care of myself and spend quality time with my family.” As he spoke the goal aloud, he was able to recognize that it wasn’t yet quite true.

I coached Steve by explaining, “Your movement system gives you access to your innate intelligence, the part that is hardwired for survival. Can you get that, by experiencing what’s working and not working about this goal, you’re already beginning to realize it? As you physically experience each part of your goal, you’re already creating new neural networks along which to move and interact as you live into your future. As you notice and affirm through action your successful use of these pathways, the old habits will let go of their former hold on your lifestyle.

I used Edu-K’s priority system to facilitate Steve’s goal balance; the first learning menu called for in the balance was Dennison Laterality Repatterning1. At first, Steve was unable to coordinate the left and right sides of his body. As always, I found it an honor to watch learning take place at the level of whole-body awareness. I used the repatterning process, in this case, to help Steve further deepen his awareness of, and then to integrate, the polarity he had been experiencing not only between his physical, lateral sides, but also between what he did everyday and what he wished he was doing.

Through priority, the learning menu next called for doing Hook-ups and the Positive Points2 while reviewing a situation he had experienced when he was only age 7, when he wasn’t able to make choices for himself. On hearing the age and the word choice, Steve immediately remembered having difficulty keeping up with his schoolwork. At the time, he couldn’t understand why his parents insisted that he give up outdoor play with his friends in order to first complete his homework. Not grasping the possible consequences of school failure, he had continued to resent their discipline of him regarding his homework throughout his school years.

Now, in the security of the Hook-ups activity and with the simultaneous pulsing of the Positive Points at his frontal lobes, he took only a minute or so to revisit those years of constant push-pull around sitting still to work and think, and revision himself as someone who now chooses to balance work with movement and play. He quickly relaxed, his shoulders dropping and his ribs expanding as he began to breathe deeply. He opened his eyes and said to me: “It’s funny: I started to see myself taking the time to be with my friends and family in a different way: moving and playing, then getting my work done. I realized that what happened back then wasn’t anybody’s fault—my parents just wanted what was best for me.”

The Cross Crawl showed up as the next priority. Steve now did this whole-body activity with rhythm, confidence, and fluidity, and with none of the downward stare of stressful trying that I had seen during the repatterning.

As we did the post-activities for exercising, taking a walk, and making plans to move and play with his family, Steve was calm and connected with each detail. As he role-played catching a ball and reading with his children, this time he was present and even teary-eyed. He was connecting with himself and his feelings—even with his thoughts about his family—in a new, relaxed way. By focusing on specific physical and sensory skills, Steve had connected his goal with a sense of autonomy, physical competence, and increased relatedness to his family and experiences–all basic elements of intrinsic motivation. 

This completed the balance. As Steve restated his goal, his words now rang true. We revisited the different role-playing experiences, which he now did with a hearty laugh and a spirit of play. “I think I got it!” he said.

Steve called me a week later to express a genuine gratitude for our work together. As I had suggested, he was doing his Brain Gym homeplay, and had been keeping a celebratory list of each time he made a positive choice for himself and his family, letting go of the old, self-bullying behaviors that had caused him so much anxiety. I’m grateful to be able to facilitate such transformation in my work.

And for those who are setting their New Year’s goals for this year, I encourage you to call in your imagination and make them physical, as Steve did, and as I do also. The more we can embody new learning through movement, the more we can experience the freedom, fulfillment, empowerment, and mind-body congruency that comes from accessing our sensory and movement patterns in support of our best intentions.


Photo Credit: ID 2349814 © Elena Elisseeva | Dreamstime.com

1An experiential, movement-based approach to learning, including the Edu-K balance process, Dennison Laterality Repatterning, and the Learning Menu of 26 Brain Gym® activities, are taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life. 

2Hook-ups, the Positive Points (click to see description), and the Cross Crawl, are three of the 26 Brain Gym® activities described in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, © 2010. 

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in your area.

Re-educating Our Movement Toward a Goal

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-walking-family-image16811355This past weekend I enjoyed teaching a lively and exciting three-day Movement Re-education workshop here in Ventura, with warm weather the backdrop to our rediscovery of flexibility and ease. For 20 years, the Movement Re-Education work has proven its value as an effective tool for releasing postural compensations and reestablishing whole-brain (two-sided, whole-body) movement patterns.

Edu-K is a structure-function model, recognizing that learners sometimes compensate their bilaterally symmetrical human structure when doing one-sided tasks. We use integrated side-to-side, back-to-front, and up-down movement patterns to re-educate for such diverse activities as communication, organization, and focal attention.  In this course, I explore with students ways to notice and balance the muscles and skeletal alignment in terms of daily-life goals and functions. Learners are often surprised to experience how discomfort in one area can lessen when they balance for a goal, without directly working on the tension. As they discover how to use their muscles as a whole system to move in better alignment, their thinking, feeling, and actions can also work together more efficiently and effectively.

In the workshop, students chose such goals to balance for as more fluid dancing, creating a business network, more intimacy with friends, and walking with greater ease (after a surgery). During the course, the participants discovered how to use movement to relax and stimulate tight muscles, rediscover mobility and stability, and awaken their senses. As they worked with partners, I enjoyed hearing such comments as “I didn’t realize it could be that easy to regain agility,” “My feet feel more flexible,” “My hips feel really stable and integrated,” and “Wow! Now I have a butt!”

As students did a slow-motion version of the Cross Crawl, I could see a big difference in overall balance and in stability of the standing leg. And as muscle length was restored in the hips and posterior chain, some were able to automatically stand and walk with the outsides of their feet parallel, instead of pointing outward.

One participant said, “I can walk up and down stairs now without holding on to the banister. Wow!” After balancing with a goal to think clearly, another student commented, “I can remember what I’m doing when I walk into a room. It’s a miracle!” These are just a few of the results shared by the participants. At the end of the workshop, two of the students offered these testimonials:

Paul explained the muscles and how they relate to our body challenges. It was so easy to understand. When I started the course, I was ready for a nervous breakdown, yet I felt completely different afterward. When I left I felt light as a feather—happy. I stopped a couple of times today and did some Brain Gym® activities. I also took a very long walk at the beach, about an hour. It seemed like I was moving so fast, and my body felt very light. Walking felt fantastic!!! It was enjoyable, comfortable, and very inviting. I felt a huge desire to do it. I also jumped on the rebounder a couple of times. I noticed all day how easy it was to do my work. Then I started to notice other things, like when I went to bend down, it was so easy to do. Then, before I knew it, I was organizing my desk till I had everything in order. This course is so fantastic. Everyone in the world needs it. I feel like a new woman. —L. P., California

Paul’s careful demonstrations and explanations for each muscle were very clear and informative. And, of course, the balances and openings of the various muscles have been expansive and wonderful. I am taller, and I walk, sit, stand, and get up and down with much more comfort and ease. I’m going to tell others that chronic pain in neck, back, shoulders, and knees can be relieved by simple structural re-education. —R. L, Oregon

(C) 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

Listening to the Body

The three-day Language of Movement course has long been an important one for me. The thesis of the course is that the body’s nonverbal language is as potent as words—sometimes more so—and benefits from finding acknowledgment. This graduate level course gives learners the opportunity to notice the layers of expression in their body language and see how these impact their goals and functioning.

To simplify this important concept: I find that the reasoning part of the brain can easily set a goal, yet for achievement such a goal needs to be aligned with the needs of the brain stem and autonomic nervous system. Otherwise a personal intention can activate the fight-or-flight or fight-or-freeze mechanisms of one’s most hardwired movement patterns, such as thrusting the ribs in aggression or tucking the tailbone to hold back in a “freeze mode.” In class, participants balanced daily and experienced the release of patterns they had hardly been aware of beforehand!

I enjoyed building community with these active, curious, and enthusiastic learners. I’ve have often thought that the phenomenal changes that can occur for people in a course like this are possible because of the high level of safety created in community.

Gail and I have long included in our courses forms of interactive play from The New Games Book: Play Hard, Play Fair, Nobody Hurt (New Games Foundation). In the late 1980s, borrowing from activities that our children were doing in the progressive Culver City schools, we expanded these games to include some of the cooperative learning methods. Later we learned firsthand about Spencer Kagan’s Cooperative Learning work when we took a two-day workshop to deepen our understanding of how playful collaboration supports learning.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Word from Down Under

G’day, mates! I’m enjoying being here in Melbourne, Australia, with many friends old and new. It’s summer here, and very hot, and I’m teaching a two-day postgraduate Movement Re-education workshop to a lovely group of eighteen people. Julie Gunstone, my sponsor, makes sure I have whatever I need for this series of courses, including good company, good food, time for R&R, and lots of laughter.

My first trip to Australia was with Gail in 1986. We brought along a rough draft of our book Brain Gym®: Simple Activities for Whole-Brain Learning, conceived as a homeplay reminder, which was enthusiastically received and has since become a best seller, translated into more than forty languages. I love working with the Aussies, and always learn from them. They are lighthearted over here and don’t take things too seriously. They never seem to have problems, addressing concerns with a cheery “No worries, mate.”

I teach Movement Re-ed by doing many balances (Edu-K’s process of “five steps to easy learning”), each balance highlighting a different way to notice and release compensatory movement patterns. Now more than ever, I’m emphasizing alignment, and getting great feedback from students on this small yet important enhancement of the course. I appreciate the way these Brain Gym graduates bring their awareness into every new balance. As they set goals together, they jump into any opportunity to advocate for one another. They balance  to expand their movement and sensory modalities for each goal, and, in a friendly, collaborative way, hold one another accountable for following through on intentions.

There was one highlight that I especially enjoyed. A young woman I’ll call Jill said that, as she initially thought about her goal, she noticed that her breathing became tense and short. After the balance, she said her goal now felt more accessible, and that she was excited to be able to breathe more fully and even feel the ribs in her back move with each inhalation! It gives me great happiness to be able to support people in embodying their dreams and desires and the longings of their heart in this way.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.


Vision Organizes Whole-Body Movement

October 26: Today, the last day the Creative Vision course, participants explored using the balances with one another, applying the activities for such daily-life skills as to see and hear at the same time and to distinguish the diverse visual elements of color, form, shape, and contrasts. The Brain Gym® and Vision Gym® activities, as well as other menu items provided a spirit of play and synchrony. I find that setting goals and doing the balances and activities provides balance and restoration for me, as well. Many of the students had immediate vision improvements, and three people discarded their reading glasses as no longer necessary.

© 2012 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

Brain Gym®  is a trademark of Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

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