Imagine moving your toes one by one...
During yoga practice I often suggest that you imagine making a physical movement and being aware of what that movement would feel like. Sometimes students ask me why, and do you want me to actually make the movement or just imagine it?
Well, yes. Quite. That’s a good question.
Both if you can. Imagine if you can’t.
Why imagination and awareness are important in yoga
A gymnast can squeeze themselves into all sorts of shapes, they can balance to perfection and support their weight in jaw dropping postures. Does this mean that they are doing yoga?
This could become a huge philosophical debate. So I’ll answer from my own personal perspective and experience.
Yoga is something that happens on the inside. You don’t just impose the shape of a posture from the outside like a gymnast or a dancer, physical yoga postures sort of ‘grow’ from the inside along with gentle, mindful awareness and curiosity. You don’t just move your arm. You are noticing and aware of the whole of yourself as you move your arm – including your intention to make that movement, your mind anticipating what that movement might feel like, your opinions about that movement and your emotional reaction to that movement, all the way to your body actually moving – or not moving, and how that feels.
How imagining movement makes a difference in your body
When a person has a stroke, circulation is cut off from a part of the brain causing damage. As a result they might lose the nervous system connection to a part of their body. They may not be able to move their right arm or hand. Studies have shown that -
‘There is evidence to suggest that mental rehearsal of movement can produce effects normally attributed to practising the actual movements.’
If someone has lost movement due to a stroke, imagining the movement can start the process of rewiring their nervous system to restore the movement – even if they can’t move the limb at all. In time they might be able to make a small movement in the affected area and with practice could slowly recover movement of the limb. They literally rewire their brain and reconnect their nervous system to move that part of their body.
Everyday ‘patchy’ wiring
Actually, we all have places in the body that aren’t wired into our nervous system so clearly.
We might block an injured part of our body or place where we’ve experienced pain from our awareness to damp down our experience of pain.
We might simply hold a place physically still to avoid pain.
We might not move or use some areas of the body in a particular way. For example, some people can use their toes like fingers, but most of us can’t.
We might withdraw awareness from areas of the body associated with trauma or shame.
This process is often unconscious and is aiming to protect you. I'm not discussing nerve damage here as that's a different situation.
Your body does its best to be efficient. If you’re not using the pathway to these movements in your nervous system, then it will prune them away. You literally ‘use it or lose it’.
There’s no difference to your brain between real and imagined movements
I didn’t make that up. That’s what science says. You can read one of the studies about real and imagined movement in your brain.
That can be very useful. If you’re sick and have to stay in bed, then you can imagine clearly moving through your yoga practice and keep those nervous system connections firing and strong.
If you can’t get down to sit on the floor, you can start physically strengthening the body, but you can also imagine in detail how you make the movement to get down onto the floor to help recover the ability.
Bringing awareness and imagination to your physical yoga posture practice
By gently bringing our awareness to the places that we don’t sense so clearly (I find feet and toes fall into this category for many people) and imagining them in action, we can reconnect with those places and wire them back into our brain’s ‘map’ of the body.
This awareness during yoga practice is called embodied or somatic practice. Practising yoga with your mind IN your body not practising yoga with your mind perusing the contents of your fridge for a snack later!
Now you’ll begin to notice when I gently nudge you to bring your awareness and your imagination to your practice. For example - feel the texture under the soles of your feet (because you probably lost touch with them while they’ve spent the whole winter wrapped up one way or another) or to imagine your big toe lifting on its own (when your individual toes all seem to be just one lump on the end of the block of your foot).
Your awareness and imagination are powerful. Use them to be helpful!