Last night, at my amazing Pilates class (cf Now You See it, pp. 256 ff), the remarkable Joy was teaching five of us, three men, two women, different ages, different bodies, from the high athlete to someone rehabbing after an injury, and so forth. As we were gently but boldly stretching and pulling and extending and breathing, we had one of the most remarkable conversations about "kids today" that I've ever been part of. I pass it on because anyone reading this can learn something today that will help your day. If you have kids, you can pass it on. If you want to skip right to the exercise, it's at the bottom of the post, two simple exercises that are great for anyone who spends a day in front of a computer screen. No exertion required. One requires standing, the other breathing. Done. You can skip to the end and do that now.
Or you can read and think first, and then do the exercises. In fact, you can think about what it all means while you are learning what it means to exhale deeply, and think about our society, the splits we make between mind and body, the ease with which we "blame technology" without necessarily responding to it in a responsible, responsive way. For this is a conversation about the way changes in society alter us, even the way we stand and breathe, and how, if we fall into technodeterminism, we lose our ability to adjust to our adjustments. What I love about Radonna Patterson's BodyWorks studio, is there is no norm. We start with where we are, in that moment, in an individual life, and then work towards improving from that point at that moment. That seems easy but it is deeply situated and requires an introspection that I rarely see in the world. The opening "How are we doing today?" is not to be answered "fine" but with specifics based on an inventory of our life, our week, our stresses, our work, that all enunciate in our bodies and that, in the divine hour that is Pilates class, might enunciate better if we put our minds and bodies to it. We usually then work fairly quietly but sometimes, if everyone is in the right mood, there's a conversation as insightful as the actual physicality of the movement. Last night's conversation about alignment opened a conversation about society and the soul and about kids. Although our schools pretend that is not the case, those things always go together, for kids and those of us who pretend to be grown ups too. So I pass on this conversation to all. And, yes, it relates to the "brain science of attention" and "technology" too. It always does. You cannot separate one from the other.
What I learned last night came from a dance teacher, Annie, who often comes to work out on the equipment during one of our small classes at BodyWorks even as she also helps out, another pair of eyes to make a tiny correction or adjustment in our posture that changes everything. Probably more than any other art form, dance is collaborative in the sense that dancers are always seeing things in one another that they cannot see in themselves and learn early how to rely on one another's vision which is to say that, when you train as a dancer, you are not only training your own body but also training your eyes to help someone train their body. The conduit of mind and body, feedback and response, my body and your perceptions, your perceptions and my body, is constant and often wordless. Dancers will lay a hand on another dancer's shoulder and suddenly that shoulder moves back an inch and the whole line changes.
I wish every school, at every grade, from preschool to law school (I mean this sincerely) required dance movement. I wish every workplace did. ("I can't dance" is one of those very Western statements that, in some cultures, just draws a shocked, uncomprehending stare. In many cultures, to say "I can't dance" is to say "I can't move." That's the crux.)
So, what Annie said last night is, after teaching for something on thirty years, in the last ten she has noticed that little kids, first graders, stand differently than they used to. She doesn't criticize them for it, she doesn't blame it on technology, she sees it as a learning challenge (yes, she is a fantastic teacher for me, as an adult, and if I had a small child I would be so happy to be delivering her into Annie's classes). She notices kids are driven places. They rarely walk. Playdates often circumscribe play time to a small space closely supervised by adults. The time of kids jumping on their bikes and just taking off for three hours is over. So is the time of kids just running and jumping or freely playing sports. We helmet our kids, body and soul. We teach them to avoid pain and we restrict their movements to protect them against pain and injury (or, actually, against possible litigation in case injury is inflicted on someone else's property or using some company's equipment). We pre-litigate our children and think that means we are protecting them. From the point of view of a dance instructor, what it means is that the kids coming in to school no longer know how to use all the muscles of their feet to balance themselves, to stand correctly, to anchor their movements.
So, before she teaches dance she does these things which you can teach your kids tonight and you can also do for yourself. I'm not a dance teacher but I woke up this morning and did these myself and I cannot tell you different the day begins. And it only takes about 3 minutes of the day. I could imagine doing it with small kids and having a delicious three minutes of calm and fun together. Try it.
1) To teach balance and what in Pilates is called "neutral spine" and using all of one's muscles in one's feet and legs, Annie uses yoga spots but I did it this morning just visualizing. Yoga spots are three spots you put on the floor for each foot and then you use them to help spread and plant the feet and balance evenly across your entire feet. What I do, learned from Radonna, is a variation where you stand with your feet about two feet apart, in what you think of as your best posture, comfortable but erect, and then close your eyes and work hard to balance your wait on each foot and, on that foot, evenly between the little and big toe and the center of the heel. It's not hard but it takes concentration and, once you achieve it, you then let your posture realign to feel the balance. Stand there as long as you want.
2) Annie says when she tells kids to breathe in deeply, they often panic and can't do it. First, lots more kids today have asthma than previously. No one knows why but some suspect it's half environmental, half about drug resistancies from too promiscuous prescription of antibiotics (to mothers and infants and small kids), and some wonder if the lack of physical exercise means kids aren't learning to breathe in deeply. Good questions all. But it makes "breathe deeply" difficult. Second, we often try to calm kids down by telling them to "breathe deeply" so in the sign system of kids, when they hear "breathe in" or "take a deep breathe" it is often because they think they have been doing something wrong, they're being regulated. That's exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve with deep breathing. So Annie (backed by Chris, the athlete in my Pilates class), suggests the reverse and she does this with her kids and you can do it right now: exhale deeply. With kids, you can make this fun because exhaling forcefully allows for energy and strength and you can make funny noises and make it last as long as you can so, instead of being about regulation, it is about freedom. Try it right now. Breathe out as forcefully and for as long a period as you can. Do it! Try! Really. Okay (I feel like Mr. Rogers right now). Now notice what your body does automatically. If you breathe all the air forcefully out of your lungs, your body on its own breathes back in just as deeply. If you did this, if you breathed out as forcefully and long as you could, you also, without thinking about it, took in what may well be the deepest breath you will have all day. Chris says that, when he's in an Iron Man competition, he often does this lying on his back and it helps relieve back pain, the force of his own lungs swelling.
Okay. That's it. Two very simple ways to start a day that, if you are like me, will be mostly spent at a desk, writing, looking at a computer screen, making mental decisions, or in meetings, talking, sitting in a chair, making other decisions. That sitting, concentrating, mental, intellectual life shapes us, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our bodies. For balance, perspective, and fullness, sometimes we need to stand, neutrally, our weight balanced beneath us and we have to exhale strongly and forcefully. So simple. And it helps to face the embattled, crazy world we all live in together.
NOTE: BOOK LAUNCH: AUGUST 18, 2011
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011). below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.
A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes: "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season. In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . . One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."