So the other night, I made a reference in our Beginners Yoga Course, to a technique with which I’m familiar, blindly assuming everyone knew what I was talking about.
Blank faces! How egoist of me to assume everybody knows what I know, thinks how I think etc etc … I realise I gotta get out more! So anyway, I thought I’d post a little about it here … its not a bad starting point to understand more about it, and a bit how I like to work it for me.
I often use this technique when I’m feeling overwhelmed or when I am in a resting space and my mind fixates on a number of tasks that are facing me, when I’m ‘supposed’ to be relaxing.
So I go through the motions in my head, step by step, then I am able to return, more quiet-mindedly, to the task of resting.
I can’t remember where exactly I heard about it … I do remember seeing a documentary on a gymnast who was competing at a high level, who employed the technique – perhaps called something else, there are a few ways to refer to it – and so this gymnast broke down every micro movement that needed to be made in order for her to reach her target. When she visualised it that way – broken down into micro movements, she hit her target, when she just sort of ran into the move without thinking too much about it, she wasn’t able to reach her goal.
Then I came across it again with my yoga teacher Simon Borg-Olivier, who described the same technique without labelling it, in directing us how to move from one position to the next, safely, and with a view to start the beginning of movement from a certain part of the spine – which, I have to tell you, seemed impossible to do. Impossible when just in words, but together with these words, my thinking it, seeing my spine in my mind’s eye, then making the action, there was a tiny shift! A real difference in how it felt. Which is EVERYTHING in an intelligent physical yoga practice!
Since then, I have looked back over the past few years, and watched as I manifested my visions. I am aware this sounds quite hippy trippy. Care not I how it sounds, because I have created exactly what I wanted. Along the way my thoughts definitely got in the way, but there was a constant scene or vision present in my minds eye, and a whisper in desperate times to ‘trust the process’. It didn’t leave me and I’m living in it now!
During this time, my study and practice of iRest Yoga Nidra® intensified. This yogic modality also uses the ‘Mental Rehearsal’ technique in a way – where we assert as already fact and in the present tense, what in the old days we might have prayed for in the future, . So swap things like ‘May I be healthy’, for ‘I am healthy’, ‘May I find love and acceptance’ for ‘I am loved and accepted by those around me’, May I feel peace and wholeness’ for ‘I am peace itself and already whole and complete, just as I am’.
A little simplistic you might think? Well it IS simple, but it’s not easy! However, the science tells us that this is how we create new neural pathways and therefore change our brains – which guess what … changes our reality! Yeeouw!
There are some similarities between iRest and Desenstitization Therapy (which is mentioned in the article below). But iRest goes a little deeper and uses more protocols, including the use of ALL the senses, not just visualisation, to create, and importantly, more easily access, that sense of ground required to step off of to face our challenges.
I will be running an 8 week introduction to iRest Yoga Nidra course in March, and will let ya’ll know more about that in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, for my students and anyone who wants to read a bit more about it, this is a juicy enough article from Forbes magazine that explains the science a bit, and it has some links for those that want to get into the nitty gritty a bit more. (Please mote this is the direct link to article as it’s transcribed below.)
Tapping The Power Of Mental Rehearsal
In a fascinating recent Forbes article, Andréa Morris reviews groundbreaking neurological research from Stanford University demonstrating how the mental performance of a task can lead to actual learning and performance improvement. Monkeys with brain implants that enabled them to manipulate a cursor with motor cortical activity became more skilled in actually moving the cursor using arm movements. Morris notes the similarity of this research to mental rehearsal methods in performance psychology, where visualization of athletic performance can facilitate performance in real time conditions. In this article, we’ll take a look at what is happening during mental rehearsal and how we can best tap into its potential.
How Mental Rehearsal Works
One evidence-based technique in psychotherapy for overcoming anxiety is desensitization. By repeatedly facing threatening situations under calm, controlled emotional conditions, we learn to respond in desired ways, free of threat. A good example would be someone who is paralyzed with germ-related phobias, washing hands, showering, and changing clothes dozens of times daily. By encouraging that person to rehearse cognitive reframing and relaxation methods while gradually exposing themselves to sources of germs, a therapist helps build the sense of safety and mastery. Step by step the work proceeds to tackle greater challenges, from looking at germ-laden objects in the toilet to quickly touching doorknobs to shaking people’s hands and beyond. Quite literally, desensitization reprograms our emotional responses by rewiring our brains.
Interestingly, desensitization typically begins with virtual, “in-vitro” exposure to sources of threat and only later proceeds to “in vivo” real-life practice. During the in-vitro exposure, the anxious person vividly imagines a threatening situation, such as touching a doorknob in a public place. Once the visualization arouses anxiety, the person practices their relaxation methods and mentally rehearses reassuring self-talk while visualizing themselves touching the knob. The mental rehearsal generalizes to real life situations, providing a sense of mastery even before actual doorknobs are tackled.
As Morris notes in her article, the secret sauce in mental rehearsal is motor preparation. The anxious person in desensitization treatment doesn’t merely imagine themselves to be calm. They vividly imagine engagingin threatening acts (thereby arousing anxiety) and then they activate effective coping strategies. This motor preparation enables them to create new mental pathways, connecting actual life performances with new emotional consequences.
At a broad level, we can think of mental rehearsal as a vehicle for state-dependent learning. A wealth of research suggests that we are best able to process and retrieve information when we return to the state in which we originally acquired the information. Quite literally, what we know and how we experience ourselves can meaningfully differ from one state to another. This is most dramatically seen in traumatic stress reactions, where a person feels totally secure in one situation and then falls apart in another circumstance that triggers a past, traumatic event. Not surprisingly, the mental rehearsal of desensitization is also an evidence-based treatment for traumatic stress.
Making Mental Rehearsal Work For Us
So how can we best harness the power of mental rehearsal? Too often, we associate mental rehearsal with positive self-talk or imagining scenes that make us feel good. That misses the secret sauce of motor preparation that Morris talks about. Effective mental rehearsal is a gateway to action via state-dependent learning. To change our emotional reactions to situations, we need to actively evoke the very emotions we dislike through visualization and/or re-enactment and then radically shift our state through positive coping.
Let’s take an example from my recent work with traders in financial markets. A young trader has experienced early success and is now encouraged to increase her returns by taking larger positions in markets. Although this makes sense to the trader, she finds herself fearful of taking more risk and thus undersizes her market positions. She subsequently feels frustrated when her ideas work out and she makes little money, undercutting her confidence. The more she pushes herself to take increased risk, the more she falters when it comes time to enter positions.
The mental rehearsal approach would have her vividly imagine coming to an opportunity point and feeling nervous about sizing up her trade. While she feels that anxiety and re-experiences all the worry associated with risk-taking, she uses meditative techniques that she has practiced to focus her mind and slow her breathing. In her more calm, focused state, she talks to herself about integrity, sitting up straight and vowing to do the right thing for investors, for her career, and for her family. As she feels the empowerment of acting with integrity, she vividly imagines placing the trade with the proper size and being at peace with the outcome.
Notice what is happening here. Under conditions of enhanced experiencing (evoking the nervousness of the trading situation), the trader shifts her physical state (slowing down); emotional state (calming herself); and cognitive state (enhancing focus and reframing the issue away from risk and toward the fulfillment of professional responsibility). Then, in the new state, she rehearses engaging in the desired action. The motor preparation is facilitated by the radical state shift. From that perspective, change occurs via state-dependent learning.
It doesn’t matter what the problem is: procrastination, negative thinking, frustration. We can vividly evoke those experiences, shift our state, reframe the situation, and rehearse desired actions. When we do this again and again and again, we build novel brain pathways and new, positive habit patterns. Without motor preparation, we remain stuck in old action patterns. In our usual states of mind and body, we gravitate to our usual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Every great performance–in theater, on the playing field, and in life–is preceded by rehearsal.