Despite advances in neuroscience, much about our brain and body and how they connect remains a mystery. What appears irrefutable, however, is that movements including stretching are generally beneficial for our physical, emotional and mental health. Yet how can we workout and stretch to more specifically boost the cognitive benefits?
Think of a piano player - let's call her Sue. Sue starts by hitting a finger on a key. This involves specific hand and arm muscles that control that particular finger. As she uses other fingers in both hands to hit the keys, she engages more muscles.
Imagine if Sue hits her thumb on the Middle C three times, then repeat with each of her other nine fingers. She has now exercised those finger and arm muscles evenly.
Now instead of hitting the same Middle C key, Sue hits each finger three times on a different note. She is still engaging the related muscles evenly.
Next, Sue learns to play a simple tune that involves each finger hitting a key a total of three times. But each successive note involves a different finger. Like the first two examples, Sue has worked all her finger and related arm muscles to the same extent.
Which of the three examples would you say confer the biggest cognitive challenge and benefits for Sue?
The same analogy applies to stretching. We can choose to repeatedly bend and straighten our knees to stretch our calf and Achilles, which will help us on the physical level. Indeed, in many conventional workouts, this simple approach is frequently used to warm up or release those muscles. But the benefits remain more confined to the physical.
Essentrics, on the other hand, isn't just simple stretching for warm up or release but rather a dynamic stretch workout. It might sequence an Achilles and calf stretch with, for example, a heel lift to strengthen our ankles, balance reflex, and our quadriceps (the front of our thighs). Instead of repeating simple stretches we repeat stretch sequences. Doing so demands neuromuscular coordination, focus, balance, learning and memory. This requires much more mental input but in turn generates more cognitive benefits.
Let's return to our example. Sue now learns to play the tune with techniques instead of simply hitting the keys in the correct sequence to produce sound. She learns how to position her fingers, but also how to maintain good posture. She incorporates breathing and her whole body into her playing to achieve different effects. Some chords come out as forte, some pianissimo.
In Essentrics, as we attend a class and repeat a workout, we also go from executing a dynamic motion sequence to refining it with techniques through alignments, breathing, sensory integration, and reflexes. An instructor might vary the techniques for a sequence to achieve different objectives. This further challenges us physically and mentally.
Just as Sue would learn to play different tunes, in Essentrics we rotate through different sequenced routines to create fresh demands for our body and brain. By staying in motion, by executing dynamic sequences instead of simple, robotic stretches, Essentrics engages many muscles - and muscle chains - at the same time. This rebalances our body efficiently and effectively.
Going from hitting a note to playing a chord and a tune is very rewarding. In the same way, going from simply stretching to doing a dynamic stretch workout is immensely satisfying and beneficial!