Which Muscle Do You Engage to Learn?

4346440352_fbc642a579_o Every Saturday afternoon, I exercise with a Pilates instructor. And when she asks me to do something, I am often unable to do it not because I don’t have the strength or the mobility, but rather because I don’t know which muscles to engage. Once she shows me, the exercise becomes possible, and I feel the benefits almost immediately. Just like a dancer or an athlete, to move properly, you need to know what muscles to engage. It is a real physical intelligence.

It was a surprise then to read Michael Jones recent blog, Finding a Musical Intelligence; Chopin and The Art of Touch, Michael says “I discovered that to master Chopin’s language of touch involved less focus on performing from the wrists and the forearms and instead allowing the sound to begin in the center of my back. … This shift in orientation from playing from the wrists to playing from the whole body [was] not just piano technique but a way of living. It was an orientation to the piano that allowed me to more naturally move with the full weight of fingers along the keys creating both a depth of expression and a lightness of touch at the same time.” Once again, I saw the link of physical intelligence with seemingly different, musical intelligence.

When we talk about learning, it is so often focused on reading or talking or observation or reflection – so much of it focused on our minds and the words that dominate our thinking. Yet, this reminded me that so many of our lessons are learned through and in our bodies. Learning to play Chopin as Chopin wanted means being in touch with our whole body. Learning to do an exercise is not about the description but about knowing the right muscle to engage and which to not. Learning how to facilitate a meeting is about knowing what facial expressions and body postures mean – none of them ever articulated in words at the moment in time.

It set me to thinking about learning intelligence and the potential link to the physical. We all know that practice is essential for the athlete, the musician, the dancer, the painter, the carpenter, or the cook to become masters at what they do. So, what is it that we must practice to be master learners? Which muscles do we engage or disengage? How much of our muscular body is part of the learning we do even when the lesson is purely conceptual? How many of our physical senses are engaged when we are learning? When I talk about riding the current, I am usually talking about how to handle the overload of information that bombards us all the time. While this is essential in today’s world, we must never forget that our bodies are learning all the time. And with practice, we become elegant performers in our normal lives.

I rarely talk about the Practice Principle that underlies what I call Radical Learning. Here was a perfect example of how subtle this principle works in our lives. So, what muscles do you use when you are learning? What practices are essential for you to obtain mastery? I’d love to hear your thoughts here on these apparently silly questions.

Photo by Werner Moser