Occasionally before a patient can be fully pain free I find myself teaching them one or two key “proprioceptive rehabilitation” activities. These are home exercises designed to help them restore proper body function, so it’s not about strength or speed at this stage. The intention is to re-train the brain and body for better collaboration between the two. Proprioceptive retraining leads to more efficient and safer motion. It’s an important part of injury rehabilitation because of how it will buffer against future re-injury, by breaking patterns and learning new ones or re-learning old ones.
Often these types of exercises are very subtle activities that some people might not even think of as exercise. They tend to involve coordination and balance of some sort. Sometimes for example, it involves making a small circle with the leg in a specific position. The interesting thing is that very often no matter how hard we try, the desired outcome of an actual smooth circular motion is not possible. But exactly therein lies the benefit!
Proprioceptive retraining demands that we set goals that will never be fully realized. You see, it’s the action itself that triggers the desired neurological re-organization. Striving to reach that ideal mythical outcome is exactly what provides the appropriate “re-education” of the structures in question. How these structures re-configure their dialogue with the brain is where the true benefit lies. Refining the call and response-like relationship between body and brain is not an activity that can have an endpoint. These relationships are constantly changing and adapting for variations in body, circumstance and environment all of which are ever changing of course.
My instructions to patients generally goes something like this:
“Notice that your leg is not actually making a smooth round shape but don’t worry about it. That’s not the point. It’s by you trying to get your leg to move in that smooth circle which will make you start using muscles that you normally don’t or have forgotten how to.”
So your success is not in making a smooth circle, because you probably never will. You succeed simply by trying to make that smooth circle.
Don’t Succeed. Strive
What occurred to me this week is what a fitting metaphor this is for how effort – not unlike the therapeutic effort of a proprioceptive rehabilitation exercise – is what deeply matters most in just about every aspect of life. Effort is what creates change and drives life.
One day this week during yoga class I found myself in Eagle pose with both arms and legs wrapped and on one foot – balancing, wobbling, focusing and sweating when it occurred to me that the entire practice of yoga is exactly like that proprioceptive retraining: effort is the goal. We’re all striving for what we think that yoga pose or sequence should look like or feel like yet none of us are actually there. The whole hour of class time is about trying to get there – wherever “there” is for each of us. It’s easy and natural to get lost in the externals and become disappointed or frustrated by not attaining, measuring up or “succeeding”.
This further brought to mind a parallel in human relationship. We strive to be known and to know, to be seen and to see, to be heard and to hear and yet none of us can truly do that for another human being. We think we can and we hope others will and so we do often spend a lifetime making the effort – we try. And we hope that others make the effort for us. I propose that it is inside these efforts of others where we feel the closest to being seen and heard and loved. Making that effort for another is the closest we can come to doing that in return. Our effort at love does not bring us the desired ultimate outcome. No one can truly know another human the way that person may crave to be known. We can only see and understand from the context of our own experiences and so we make assumptions about how others are either like us or different from us and we try to listen with the template of our own lives guiding the way, doing the best we can at making sense of it all.
Learning how to try for love and how to welcome someone else’s effort at loving us, is the closest we come to the fantasy of truly knowing others and being known and seen for who we are.
In our effort lies success.
While our limbs are clumsily making the effort to trace smooth circles our brain is remembering muscles we’d forgotten.
While we make the effort to breathe while faltering and sweating in our yoga poses, our minds reach for that smooth circle and are reminded to let it go.
While our hearts are trying hard to make that smooth circle for love and acceptance, we are actually learning to love deeply and in ways we would never have been able to without the giving and receiving of effort… and yet that smooth circle will still always be just ever so slightly out of reach…