Criss-cross body movements to boost your brain

movement yoga Jun 24, 2022

How we can stimulate neural connectivity through cross-lateral movement patterns. It all starts with crawling…

Back to baby basics

Our first cross-lateral movement ­– when a limb from one side does something different to its opposite, or any movement that crosses over the midline, such as right hand touching left knee – is crawling. This is a big evolutionary shift from moving on our bellies, which moves bilaterally  – leg and arm from the same side together during which the right side of the brain controls the right, and the left side, the left side of the body. Crawling builds bridges across the two, allowing information to pass freely across the corpus callosum and coordinate our spinal muscles and bodily movement up to standing and walking. Without this stage, we could only move awkwardly with and no relationship across diagonal lines of the body. Babies who do not crawl may well find other cross lateral methods to create this effect[1].

Whether you crawled or not, coming back to this movement as an adult is can replicate primal patterns (from which we evolved) and undo any disorganisation through nerve impulses that can result from trauma, shock, or damage from conditions like strokes or development issues in early life. Neural plasticity means we have the capacity for new organisation by growing new nerve pathways through repetition at any time of life.

Why is cross-lateral movement is so important?

Modern life, where we sit a lot, commonly lacks the level of whole-body physical movement that keeps left-right brain integration firing. Most of us use our arms separately to our lower body in an average day, let alone lifting, building, climbing or throwing anything to any great extent like our ancestors would have done

If you feel self-conscious or find it too physically challenging, just think of the low crawl for stealth soldiers are trained to do. This replicates the strength that babies need to change their movement capabilities so profoundly: cross-body connection, connecting upper and lower limbs, getting power from the ground, through the hips and the armpits. These patterns can also be seen in climbing, swimming and even running and walking; crawling is a great loosening exercise for all of these activities. You’ll also feel they also benefit other cross-body movements such as throwing and swinging a racquet or bat.

Brain training

Cross-lateral practises keep our neural pathways firing off, equally mapping across both directions. Where the movement pattern is familiar, it may feel smooth and integrated, but if it’s new and unfamiliar, practice and focussed attention may be necessary to get the flow and to be able to swap from one side to the other as new pathways awaken that easily atrophy if not used. These mismatched movements which defy expectation draw clear attention to our bodies, demanding focus to be executed with even basic skill, let alone grace.

Such exercises have long been included in therapy programmes for physical rehabilitation and to support brain and learning capabilities for adults and children, but scientific data is elusive as neuroscientific research is still in its infancy. Modern science is more reticent about confirming the validity of cross-lateral movements in the field of brain-training and learning development despite the fact that ancient physical, meditative traditions such as yoga, t’ai chi, qigong and martial arts all include such focus-training movements as part of the toolkit for honing embodied awareness and clarity of thought. The awareness and focussed attention needed to follow such movement patterns with effortless precision has shown to increase cerebral cortices in t’ai chi practitioners[1].

The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the brain which is attached to the corpus callosum, the thick band of nerve fibres bridging the left and right hemispheres. Both play roles in how our somatosensory nerve cells respond to changes to the surface or internal state of the body, so include our sense of touch and proprioception – how we sense our position and movement in space[2].

What is known is that left-right brain communication matters for full cognitive function. Developmental diseases and abnormal information processing (such as autism and schizophrenia) have been linked to dysfunctional neural integration, suggesting that balance between brain hemispheres is vital. Those with underdevelopment in this bridge between right and left hemispheres experience intellectual disability, seizures, feeding problems, developmental delay, cognitive problems, learning difficulty and poor motor coordination[3]. Systems like Brain Gym[4] claim that exercise sequences including cross-lateral movement increase learning capacity in children.

Cross-lateral practise

Taking crawling patterns into stronger motions where we hold the body up from gravity adds in a dimension of spatial and postural awareness. Most effective movements and sequencing include a mix of our whole range of reaching motions, as well as side-to-side connectivity to continually challenge our sensory perception and hone our motor skills for balance, precision and awareness. In this way they, encourage focus and whole brain functioning, but also spare us energy used up when the body is continually dealing with a sense of disorganisation and confusion about its current position in space.

Except for the sunbird and tiger poses here, all other postures are continually moving. Rather than just rushing through them and using momentum to direct movements, slow down to a pace where you can feel each part of the journey and you can drop into a rhythm with steady breath and full exhalations. This keeps your nervous system from becoming over-excited, so even if your heartbeat becomes raised, your brain isn’t registering the movement as a stressful event where beneficial new pathways are less easily formed. Slower movements require more precise control, which more effectively stimulates brain reorganisation.

Access the free recording of Charlotte's Therapeutic Movement class on Cross Lateral Movement below. This is taken from Charlotte's Whole Health platform.  You can become a member here for more related content, including online classes, meditations, natural health webinars and more, 

This blog completes our series on Cross Lateral Movement. See below for the other blogs in the series:

Exercise for cognitive function

Left-right, right-left