Strengthening brain and body responses
If you’ve ever tried patting your head with one hand, whilst rubbing circles on your belly with the other, you’ll have experienced cross-lateral (CL) connectivity. The nervous communication that is in play for you to create these asymmetrical movements simultaneously is left-right brain integration; both hemispheres of the brain working as a partnership. In this example, the CL movement is a limb from one side of the body doing something different to those on the other side, but it can also include any movement that crosses over the midline, right hand touching left knee for instance.
It’s well worth practising this exercise – yes on both sides – to keep those neural pathways firing off. If you’ve done this recently it may feel more smooth and integrated, but if it’s been a while, you may need a few practice sessions and some serious concentration to get the flow and to be able to swap from one side to the other as you reawaken pathways that easily atrophy if not used. This isn’t just a game, these movements, often referred to as “mismatched and defying expectation”, draw our attention to our bodies strongly – they demand focus to be executed with even the most basic skill, let alone grace.
The inclusion of exercises that challenge us in this way have long been included in therapy programmes for both physical re-integration and to support brain and learning capabilities in both adults and children, but the science remains quite elusive as neuroscientific research is in many ways in its infancy. Whilst physical, meditative traditions such as yoga, t’ai chi, qigong and martial arts include such focus-training movements as part of honing embodied awareness and clarity of thought, modern science is more reticent about confirming the validity of CL movements in the field of brain-training and learning development. Supporters of systems like Brain Gym claim that exercise sequences including CL movement increase learning capacity in children, detractors are quick to point out the lack of research to back their claims.
What we do know 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 a “dysfunctional integration among neural systems”, suggesting that optimal balance between the hemispheres is vital (Nature, 2006; 160-7). With new imaging techniques, a condition called agenesis of the CC (ACC) has come to light, where 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 (Ital J Pediatr., 2010; 36:64).
The ancient Chinese mind-body movement practice of T’ai Chi includes many CL movements and has been proven to reshape the patterns of brain structures and functional connectivity (Front Aging Neurosci., 2014; 74). The high degree of awareness needed to follow movement patterns with effortless precision has shown to increase volume of cerebral cortices in 22 T’ai Chi practitioners compared to 18 healthy age-, gender- and education-matched controls (PLoS One, 2013; e61038.).
The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the brain which is attached to the corpus callosum (CC), 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 (Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2002; 1071-1079).
Bridging the gap
The belief that the right brain is more creative and the left brain more analytic has never been confirmed by neuroscientists, but we do know that the different hemispheres have different function and need to work together for both cognition and movement. Very simplistically it is believed that the left brain is better with familiar movements, but the right brain is better with new things and they switch over dominance continually.
Yogis have long worked with these ideas and the need for right-left body integration, most notably in alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana Pranayama). A study using EEG (electroencephalogram) to track brain activity, showed that when breathing through the right nostril is dominant, activity is greater in the left cerebral hemisphere (Human Neurobiology, 1983; 39-43). As each hemisphere of your brain controls the opposite side of the body, this showed what yogis have long believed; when nostril dominance switches, so does the activity of the brain and body. Another study observed that this practice “positively influences cognitive processes which are required for sustained attention” after testing the auditory responses of 20 male adult volunteers with more than three months’ practice of the technique (BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 2013; 7-11). See the practice below.
Back to the beginning
Our first CL movement is crawling as this requires opposite-limb movement – right leg with left arm and vice versa. This is a big move from belly crawling which moves bi-laterally, leg and arm from the same side together. It’s a new phase as previously the right side of the brain has been controlling the right and the left side, the left side of the body. Crawling builds bridges across the two, allowing information across the CC to pass freely and coordinate our spinal muscles and bodily movement up to standing and walking. Without this development, we could only move awkwardly with the same side jutting forward together and no relationship across diagonal lines of the body, but babies who do not crawl may well find other CL methods to create this effect (Child: Care, Health and Development, 1984; 317–330).
Whether you crawled or did not, this movement is highly useful to replicate primal movement (that from which we evolved) and undo any disorganisation through nerve impulses that can result from trauma, shock, 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.
Modern life commonly lacks the level of whole body physical movement that keeps left-right brain integration firing. Most of us are using our arms separate to our lower body in an average day, let alone lifting, building or throwing anything to any great extent like our ancestors would have done. All CL movements can help everybody regain natural movement and find ease in navigating how we move through life with grace, but can also be of particular benefit to those experiencing:
• Lack of coordination
• Poor balance control and associated vestibular conditions such as vertigo and nausea
• Difficulty reading
• Learning disabilities, such as dyslexia
• Coordination issues, such dyspraxia
• Clumsiness and poor spatial awareness
• Saying things backwards or spoonerisms – swapping words in sentences
• Sports and other injuries that require re-learning of motor skills
Not just for babies
Simply practising crawling around your living room and getting back in touch with your inner baby is highly beneficial for both your body and your brain. The integration between left and right sides of the brain that this promotes, helps us make decisions that sit comfortably between rational and emotional responses, the best balance of coming from heart and head. Starting the day or any fitness warm-up with this movement helps move the spine in a lateral undulation – a side-to-side wave more like the spinal motion of our distant fish ancestors, which frees up our ribs, hips, shoulders and neck, as well as the spine.
Crawling #1: Start knees down (like the baby in the picture above) and simply experience reconnecting mindfully with a movement that is still in your unconscious patterning. Let your spine, hips and shoulders move as they need to find a rhythm bringing the left arm forward as the right knee propels that leg forward. Knees down means they need to move further out to come forward, rotating the hips outwards to bring the leg up.
Crawling #2: In this version that an older baby may do, with the knees further under the hips, the knees and hands swing forward closer in towards the mid-line. Keeping the hips and core central is sometimes called the leopard crawl. Like a four-legged mammal, this movement has less sway from side-to-side and therefore more efficient, but don’t miss out stage one, which loosens tissues ready for this more muscular version.
If you feel silly crawling or even think it’s not 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 parts of the body, getting power from the ground, through the hips and the armpits. These patterns can also be seen in rock 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 golf.
The Cross-lateral Exercises
Taking these patterns into stronger motions where we hold the body up from gravity adds in a dimension of spatial and postural awareness. Most exercises and the best sequencing include a mix of our whole range of reaching motions, as well as side-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 exercises 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 aids brain reorganisation more effectively.
After crawling, come back to all fours and feel secure on the ground, wrists under shoulders, knees under hips. Find a steady gaze fixed on a spot forward and down so your neck is long at the back and sides, but you are prepared to balance. Then take your right leg back out behind you with the foot flexed and toes pointing to the ground, so that hip stays alongside the other. Then reach the left arm forward – palm in towards the midline – and reach back to feel long from the front fingers to right heel, drawing up the belly to support where top and bottom body meet.
Hold the pose for as long as your breath can stay easy and allow the combination of CL activity and balance to register in a calm nervous system.
Bridging through symmetry
Between CL movements, coming back to symmetry can help the brain reorganise and assimilate the effects. If you are familiar to yoga, you can do a downwards-facing dog pose or do any stretch that feels right.
Cross-lateral arch and curl
Laying onto your back with knees bent, place your feet on the ground, hip-width apart
and interlink your fingers loosely behind the back of your head. Then lift the right knee in towards the right side of the chest, whilst lifting the head up off the ground with the hands to move the left elbow in an arc towards the right knee. Depending on your core strength, you can either keep both hands behind the head or support the lifting leg with the hand on the same side (see picture). Move from side to side, resting out when needed and stopping before exhaustion.
Cross-lateral locust pose
After engaging the abdominal muscles, now lengthening them. Lying on your front in a star shape, forehead to the floor, simultaneously lift the right leg and left arm from the centre of your body. Exhale to drop fully into the ground, then inhale to the other side, moving across the diagonal on each in-breath. Lift the head only in line with the height of the lifted arm, lifting the breastbone rather than the chin. Rest to breathe into the belly when you feel in any way tired.
Standing Cross-Crawl exercises
Standing takes the CL activity into the full human bilateral phase, as the endpoint all of our development is heading for. In these exercises, finding your full range of motion ie how high you lift your leg and arms is most engaging for brain development as it creates most challenge and the storing of new and more effective modes.
1. From standing feet hip-width apart, breathe to feel a sense of grounding. Then begin simultaneously lifting the right knee and the left arm, then bring both down together to their starting position. Then lift the left knee and right arm, alternating this movement from side to side, focussing on synchronised movement of limbs.
2. After re-grounding, now taking the movement across the midline, as you lift one knee bring the elbow of the opposite arm to meet it as close as you can. The other arm can lift to where it feels comfortable for your range of motion. Move side to side as before, focussing on quality of movement.
Do as many of these motions as you can without tiring or before any intensity where your heart is racing. This is about new brain pathways, not a high intensity workout.
Cross-lateral breathing exercise – Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Traditional alternate nostril breathing involves hand manipulation of the nostrils to restrict breath, but a visualised version can have a similar effect by shifting our attention from left to right continually. You can do this sitting or lying, but if staying upright ensure a comfortable uplift for the spine, sitting on a chair if you need and lifting up from the back of the head to draw the chin lightly into the throat.
• Settle into your breath, feeling its effects into your belly.
• Imagine yourself inhaling through just the right nostril and exhaling through the left, then inhaling through the left and exhaling through the right. Then move from side-to-side so you exhale, then inhale at the same nostril.
• Keep the eyes and jaw soft, practicing for a few minutes to starting and building to 5-10 minutes if you can remain feeling relaxed and calm.
• After finishing stay lying or lie down for 5-10 minutes to assimilate the effects.
Deepen your practice
Charlotte runs a monthly yoga workshop, each centred around a particular theme, on Saturdays 2-5pm at the Brighton Natural Health Centre.
To book onto any of the workshops simply visit the BNHC website or call 01273 600010.