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Embodied Cognition

I started practicing yoga in the year 2000. I still recall thinking how big two millennia felt, and how small and insignificant my lifespan would be in comparison to that. I was thirty-five at the time and experiencing my first (of many) existential crises. This was when I took my first yoga class. Like so many others, I gravitated to the practice as a way of coping with stress. Uniting the ol’ body, mind, and spirit and all that happy, hippy sh*t! The yoga practice, new to my body, was humbling much of the time, even humiliating. I was a strong, healthy man in the prime of my life, and I was getting owned by everyone else in the room! How was this supposed to reduce my stress? As it turned out, my years in the gym and running trails had done precious little to prepare me for yoga.

Only months prior to my yoga baptism, the movie "The Matrix” was released in theatres. In the movie, the hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) has his brain plugged into a computer and has black belt level martial art skills downloaded instantly into his mind. That’s what I needed, I thought. Press a button and BAM! The power of a yoga god instantly flowing through my veins. Eat my Padangustasana b*tches!

Unfortunately, neuroscience slammed the door on my beautiful daydream. As it turns out, you can't download skills into your brain and expect your body to make that knowledge actionable. The concept central to this understanding is called ‘embodied cognition', a theory which states that our thoughts, knowledge, and cognition are not only rooted in our brains but are inherently linked to our physical bodies and their interaction with the environment. In other words, it is impossible to develop a physical skill without a corresponding physical experience.

To illustrate the principle of embodied cognition, consider the process of learning to ride a bicycle or swim. No amount of reading instructions or memorizing flash cards can make you adept at these activities. You could understand the physics of balancing a bicycle or the mechanics of a swim stroke, but to actually perform these actions, you have to get on the bike or in the water. This is because these activities require a complex interplay of balance, coordination, and timing that can only be honed through physical experience. No instruction manual, YouTube video or magic pill can give us grace, coordination, or agility. Hopefully this helps explain why despite seeing Michael Jackson moonwalk a thousand times, you still can't f*cking do it.

A study was conducted in 1963 by researchers Richard Held and Alan Hein which emphasized the crucial role of physical interaction and practice in learning. The experiment was conducted as follows: two kittens were placed in a room and connected to a carousel. One kitten (the active one) could walk around, thus controlling the movement of both kittens. The other kitten (the passive one) was placed in a gondola that would mirror the active kitten's movements, but it could not control its own motion.

Despite receiving identical visual inputs, the kittens developed different perceptual abilities. The active kitten, which could interact with its environment and thus associate its movements with visual changes, developed normal perceptual abilities. It could navigate around obstacles, showed a normal fear response to visual cliffs, and demonstrated the ability to distinguish between different sizes and distances of objects.

The passive kitten, on the other hand, did not develop these abilities, despite receiving the same visual stimuli. It showed no depth perception, and could not successfully navigate through the environment. Apologies to Keanu, but the brain requires more than just raw sensory input to develop proper perceptual abilities - it also needs active engagement and interaction with the world.

It's a well-established fact that as people age, they are more prone to injuries. These injuries often result from a decline in physical activity, which can lead to reduced strength, balance, and mobility. This decline not only increases the risk of injury but can also negatively impact longevity. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2016 found that older adults who had experienced an injury were more likely to have physical limitations and to die within five years compared to those who didn't have an injury. Break your hip after the age of sixty and you don’t even want to know the odds that you’ll be dead in a year.

This evidence underscores the importance of developing a robust movement habit that can be adhered to and enjoyed for a lifetime. By engaging with a wide range of physical activities, we can continue to wire our body, brain and nervous system together, equipping ourselves with the physical competency necessary to navigate the world around us at every age.

'"But I NEVER skip leg day!" I hear you say.' This isn't to suggest that traditional forms of exercise, such as weightlifting or yoga, aren't valuable—they are, but they're only one part of a very large picture. When you lift weights in a gym or stretch your hammies on the mat, you're working on specific muscles in a controlled environment, often with much of the body "unloaded." However, if you were to do some landscaping in your backyard, lifting and moving heavy objects on uneven terrain, the scenario changes drastically. You're using a wider range of muscles, your balance is being tested, and you're making complex, multi-dimensional movements. This kind of real-world physical activity requires coordination, balance, timing, and strength in a way that traditional yoga and exercise simply can't replicate.

If you've been glued to the "classic hits" of fitness like weighlifting or yoga, it's probably time for a remix. Try adding activities that mimic real-world movements—things like climbing, trail running, or even simple tasks like gardening or painting a fence. (you could even try that Punk Rock Yoga thing)

Just as Neo couldn't truly master kung fu through a simple mind download and you can't learn to swim or ride a bicycle by reading a manual, similarly, you can't build a resilient and capable body through isolated exercises alone. By engaging in a robust, diverse movement practice, you can fill the holes in your bio-mechanical game, creating an integrated body that functions as a single, seamless unit. That's Spider-man level sh*t, and I don't trust anybody who wouldn't want to be Spider-man.

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