Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Randomly Asked Questions: Why Do We Repeat the Same Sequences Over and Over?

I recently had someone ask me to change one of our sequence because, after two classes, she already knew the sequence and wanted something new.

I understand this impulse. I often like to do different things too, and this is partly why we have the different kinds of classes on our schedule - so students can experience different things in their practice throughout the week.

But there are also several good reasons why we keep the sequences basically the same, and so I thought I would speak to that today.

Learning Yoga

Practicing the same sequence of postures again and again facilitates learning yoga in terms of both the nuances of the postures and the underlying process of sequencing theory (how the postures fit together).

Yoga postures often look simple but are actually quite nuanced. When we first learn them, we learn their basic, gross elements. In fact, we learn modified versions suited to our unique needs. Which means that, over time, not only do we learn the details of the posture in terms of quality of feeling in the body and mind, but also how to deepen the posture as our agility develops.

Likewise, sequencing is not just choreography. It is a process of connecting together postures in an order that will create a specific outcome. Each of the sequences in our classes is designed for specific purposes; practiced over time, those purposes are revealed in the body and mind. If the sequence is constantly changing, then the body-mind doesn't "grasp" what we are doing. Even if you don't consciously know what is going on, the body and mind are learning this process and allowing it to guide and carry you through the practice.

Progressing in Yoga

One of the real benefits of the same sequence of postures is that you get to see and feel your progress. Remember your first class at Healium? Do you remember where you felt tight, where things felt particularly challenging and where things felt easy? Now, consider your practice today. Even if it's only your third class, you are practicing with more confidence because you have a sense of what is coming.

Beyond this, you can notice "Wow, on Monday, my hamstrings were really tight, but today they feel really open!" You'll also notice how things are progressing in total -- where your ranges of motion are expanding so that you have better quality of movement in day-to-day life.

What's exciting about this is that you get to test and retest. If you observe how your body and mind are going class to class, you can begin to see the pattern of progress. When you notice something that you really want to work on - where you feel like you are stuck in your progress -- we can talk about it and emphasize that in your practice, given through hands-on assists and specific instruction as the teacher makes her way through the room!

You then take that specialized instruction forward too, knowing with certainty that the sequence will be basically the same. You can work on those elements going forward, achieving the physical and mental benefits you desire.

Repeating Yoga

There's this thing out there in the fitness world that is pretty common knowledge. It's called volume training, and it's great for learning and practicing a skill (for example, increasing the number of pull-ups you can do). Essentially, it means repeating the same movement over and over and over - at a higher frequency but lower intensity. When you do the movement, you don't go "all out 2000%!!!!" You just do the movement calmly and with focus, doing as many as you can in the time allotted, doing it day after day.

Volume training works so well because it develops the nervous system through a process called synaptic facilitation.

Synaptic facilitation is the development of new synaptic connections in the brain and throughout the body. Synapses are the primary communication device of the neurological system - they allow the electrical and chemical currents of information to pass from neuron to neuron.

As we move in certain patterns (and for that matter think in certain patterns) - our bodies create specific connections between neurons. Neurons create special bonds when they communicate with each other. The more one certain neuron talks to another certain neuron and doesn't talk to other neurons, the more the connection is strengthened between the chatty, friendly neurons and weakened between the non-communicative ones.

The thing about yoga is that it works on both body and mind specifically - it trains both. Physically, it's connecting neurons that live out there in the body, in the nerves, with the brain. In the brain itself, the new kinesthetic awareness is creating new pathways, connecting parts that may not have been connected before because of their sudden need to communicate in order to move the body effectively through the movements.

In addition, our yoga practice is a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a technique of developing awareness around (or new ways of experiencing) how we are thinking about the information we are consciously perceiving. Our common reactions to information is our common synaptic pattern - how parts of the brain "light up" and speak to each other. Through mindfulness, we not only see our normal patterns of thinking, but we also begin to consciously create new ways of thinking about that which we are perceiving.

What really makes this work is repetition. The more we practice these things, the more those new pathways are established in the nervous system. We start to notice not only new body awareness, which provides us with an incredibly agile and sensitive tool for perceiving and acting in our world, but also that the way we are thinking is changing. How we approach struggles and problems really adapts as more diverse synaptic connections are made. We begin to realize that when Mom says X and that usually sets us off, we could simply observe the process and then perhaps see a new way to respond to it that is unique to the moment. And in practicing that we might entirely change our relationship with Mom and with whatever X button Mom may be pushing or we feel is being pushed.

By practicing the same sequences over and over, we are creating these new pathways consistently.

Changing the Sequence

There are, of course, reasons to change sequences.

First, our practices do progress and, as such, our needs change. Over time, we have one sequence well integrated in our bodies and minds, and we need to go a bit deeper. We want to create new awarenesses, new strengths and balances in the body, and new synaptic pathways in terms of both physical, perceptive being and also emotional and intellectual development.

Second, all sequences have gaps - things they prize and things they leave out to pick up at another time. This is why we currently have four sequences plus Pilates on our schedule - it allows us to fill several gaps, progress individual students' practices and help develop different physical and mental pathways of being. It helps to cultivate a more holistic, well-rounded experience.

Third, a sequence may have outlived its purpose for an individual or a community. There are times when it is just the right thing to let a sequence go. Maybe it isn't working - or maybe it served its purpose for the community or individual for that time. Yoga is a process of learning and growth - not just for students but for teachers as well. We are always learning more about the practice of yoga, and we learn the most through the direct interaction of our students.

We may discover that, in the future, a sequence that we have "always used" no longer serves you, our students. When this arises, we will change the sequence to better suit the needs of the community. Because that's what yoga is about. Yoga is here to serve us - all of us - and so long as a sequence provides the benefits we require, then it's good to use. And if it doesn't, then it's time to change and adapt!

Yoga's adaptability is what makes it such a beautiful practice.

No comments: