In the book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head, neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford writes, “Integrated movement accommodates all learning styles, enhances myelination between the two hemispheres and balances the electrical energy and integrative processing across the whole brain.” She explains that movement “is now understood to be essential to learning, creative thought, high level formal reasoning, and our ability to understand.”1
I’ve seen this whenever my students bypass cultural beliefs or vocal patterns through purposeful movement in our play rehearsals. They get both their bodies and voices involved, especially in an atmosphere of creative play. They are suddenly able to short-circuit old patterns such as “it’s not safe to be loud” or “when I talk, I cannot look a person in the eyes.”
Alex Korb, PhD, a researcher at UCLA, writes that simple exercises like yoga or short aerobic movements, can boost serotonin levels as well. Serotonin can elevate mood and help with memory. I saw this every time we added purposeful movements to our rehearsals or warm-ups in class.2
Movement and Munni
Munni, from Cambodia, was a shy student of about twenty-four, with a gentle demeanor and voice. The role that he chose for his dramatic presentation in my speech class was Hally from “Master Harold” and the Boys by Athol Fugard.
The play takes place in apartheid South Africa, and this early scene is light-hearted with hints of the class and racial conflict that will come later. Hally is a seventeen-year-old white South African boy and plays opposite Sam, a black South African man in his mid-forties. They are debating who is the greatest man who ever lived. The character Hally is a self-assured, overly confident, advantaged boy, so his body and his voice need to show this assurance for the audience to believe the conversation.
Munni approached the front of the class in rehearsal with his partner, Kwaku from Ghana, who played the older gentleman.
Munni began, “It doesn’t have to be that way. There is something called progress, you know. We don’t exactly burn people at the stake anymore.”
Munni knew his lines and understood the historical references, but there was a problem: He believed in his bones that it was not polite to speak loudly, especially in a know-it-all tone. But he needed to do this to tell this story, and to allow the other actor to fulfill the role of calm humility.
“Munni, do you play soccer?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said.
“Do you like to score goals?”
He grinned, nodding. Kwaku watched us, his forehead crinkling.
“Will you try something just for fun? Will you think of the words as soccer balls?”
Munni gave me a blank stare, so I went on.
“I want you to try to kick a goal in the imaginary net over there next to Kwaku as you say your lines. Imagine you have to be quick and forceful to get it by the other players coming at you to intercept.”
He shrugged his shoulders, gave a small kick, and spoke his line, “I don’t know about him as a man of magnitude …”
A little more of his sound eked through as he occupied his mind and voice with movement.
“Good, now try it again and really try to score a goal.” I stepped back to give him more room.
He tried a few more lines, kicking and talking, and within seconds words came out of his mouth strong and loud. Munni looked up at me with raised eyebrows.
“That’s great, both of you!” I cheered them on.
With his bellowing soccer sound, Munni emerged into the room. And his partner, Kwaku, could now respond in a quieter way because this tone played well against Munni’s loud voice.
They spoke a few more lines, with Munni kicking and Kwaku playing off his powerful sounds. We were all smiling by the end and having more fun. Munni’s final performance was louder, though he had a little trouble duplicating the force of sound he had with the soccer kicks.
Carla Hannaford, author of Smart Moves, says that “learning comes in through the body and its senses first.”3
Hannaford stressed the importance of physical movement and the Brain Gym exercises developed by Paul Dennison, a pioneer in applied brain research. Dennison focused on connections between physical development, language acquisition, and academic achievement.
Research on the positive effects of Brain Gym shows that “a coordinated series of movements, done slowly with balance, produces … a greater number of connections among neurons and even new nerve cell growth, especially in the hippocampus and frontal lobes of the brain.”4 These simple movements have been documented to show improvements in reading and math, and an increase in self-esteem and focus, among other factors. Many of these simple movements are “contralateral”—that is, they use arms or legs from opposite sides of the body moving together.
Exercises from Brain Gym
Cross Crawl: One of my favorite Brain Gym exercises is the cross crawl. I do this before tests, performances, or oral presentations. I have noticed that often there is a correlation between those students who cannot do this simple exercise and those who
suffer severe anxiety or reading difficulties.
This exercise is short, easy to do, and can best be described as “marching in place.” As your left leg rises, touch your left knee with your right palm. Then, as your right leg rises, touch your right knee with your left palm. It’s important to do this exercise slowly.
This exercise helps alleviate stress right away. When doing this exercise, be sure to breathe in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth.
Place the middle finger of one hand on your third eye (between your eyebrows, above the bridge of your nose).
Place the middle finger of the other hand in your navel.
Gently press each finger into your skin, pull it upward, and hold for 15-20 seconds. Often a spontaneous sigh or deep breath signals that the energies have “hooked up.”5
Unexpected Benefits of Cross-Body Exercises
Emotional stressors in my life caused my short-term memory to fail me some years ago. It got so severe that I had to draw up detailed lesson plans for each two-hour class and cross off each activity after completing it in class. Finally I got an MRI, but the doctors found nothing wrong. (They didn’t mention stress could be one of the culprits). At the time I didn’t know how to help myself, and I tried many things: nutrition, alkalizing the body, therapy, and exercise.
About that time, I started going to a new gym in my neighborhood, which had thirty elliptical machines and little else. Elliptical machines require you to pedal while you swing your arms in opposition to your legs—opposite leg to opposite arm motion. This cross-lateral movement is the same type of movement found so beneficial in the Brain Gym exercises.
I used the machines four or five days a week for thirty minutes each day.
My bout with memory problems disappeared after a few weeks; I returned to teaching and could make it through my two-hour classes without copious prompts. I felt such relief to have control of my mind again. I continued to go to the gym each week. After several more weeks of cross-lateral exercise, I felt less stress and sadness too—a side bonus. The few weeks of memory lapse seemed ages behind.
There may have been other factors as well, but this cross-lateral body exercise nourished my brain and nerve cells, and altered the stress response of the brain—in effect short circuiting the cortisol release. Long-term stress can actually shrink the hippocampus—the part of the brain that helps with memory. Short-term stress can also have a detrimental effect on memory retrieval and brain function. But the brain has great regenerative power, too. Cross-lateral exercise proved that to me.
Now when I see my students on hyperalert with fidgety feet and fingers, I know they will benefit from short bursts of movement to calm the brain and produce oxygen, to help bypass vocal and cultural limitations.
Tuning into rhythms is another powerful tool.
If you want more ideas on transformation, accelerating learning or moving past anxiety and PTSD, check out my award winning book, “Why Zarmina Sings” at http://thereseaylakravetz.com/book-why-zarmina-sings/
1. Carla Hannaford, SmartMoves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head (Salt Lake City: Great River Books [formerly Great Ocean Publishers], 1995), 235.
2. Alex Korb, “Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits,” Prefrontal Nudity (blog) on Psychology Today, September 7, 2011, https://cdn.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201109/yoga-changing-the-brains-stressful-habits.
3. Carla Hannaford, interview by the author, Summer 2013.
4. Hannaford, SmartMoves, 125.
5. Donna Eden and David Feinstein, Energy Medicine for Women (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008), 62-63.