Mind over muscle?

I went to a pilates class last night (I know, I know…). I expected I’d be very bad at it – after all, I don’t usually do any exercise other than cycling, which means most of my muscles are hideously contracted, none of my joints moves further than is required by pedalling and steering, and my whole skeleton is lopsided, thanks to carrying around an asymmetric bag full of heavy objects for three years.

To my surprise, the instructor, although she didn’t deny any of this, also didn’t condemn me entirely. Apparently I have “good muscle memory” and, even though I’m not remotely flexible, I picked things up quickly, and was OK at getting into positions and holding them once I’d figured out what they actually were.

I was fascinated by this. I’ve only really been paying attention to my body for the past three years, so I’m still getting used to how it works and what it can do. Because I spent most of my teens and early twenties sitting at a desk, the processes both of moving physically and of learning how to move are novelties – which means I notice them, and can analyse the hell out of them.

And I’ve been thinking about muscle memory, and how it’s learned, a fair bit lately. Ever since I started riding Evelyn, in fact, and noticed my body and riding style slowly adjusting to fit the new bike, in tiny little increments. It’s still happening, even though I’ve been riding it for months now. And this is how it’s been with cycling generally. I’ve found that I never stop learning or getting better. I got the hang of all the basic stuff – like staying upright, and riding at speed between two lanes of traffic – long ago, but the learning doesn’t stop there. Every now and then I become aware of some little tiny skill I’ve recently mastered, which I didn’t even know existed before.

For example, over the past few weeks I’ve been noticing how I balance the bike (and myself, and the-bike-and-myself-as-one) when I’m going round corners. As soon as I started riding Evelyn I found I could corner at a much sharper angle, and could lean the bike much closer to the floor than I’d been able to do on the Condor. (I don’t know why this is – probably some combination of Evelyn being more my size and my having been too worried that the Condor was about to fall apart under me to take many risks with it. Mind you, I built Evelyn myself, so I don’t particularly trust him either.) Once I’d been doing this for a little while I started to analyse it as it happened, to try to understand what my body was doing and feeling and thinking to be able to pull these new manoeuvres – because I certainly hadn’t thought them through, or consciously planned them in advance. My conscious mind had had nothing to do with it.

So my brain and I started playing catch-up, and watching what my body was doing. When I pull one of those tight corners, I:

  • flick my hips away from the direction I plan to turn, in order to turn the bike from the seat tube rather than the head tube
  • tighten my inner arm, by pulling my elbow in or back, and dipping my shoulder, making the inside edge of my body much smaller than the outside
  • tilt my neck slightly to one side, so that I effectively pivot around the crown of my head

There’s more to it than this, but I haven’t figured it all out yet. I still want to know how it is that I manage to stabilize the bike so much on the outside edge of the curve that I feel comfortable leaning so far over into the centre of it. I suspect my thighs and hips have something to do with it, but for all I know it could have something to do with my ribcage or my triceps. Nothing surprises me any more. I’m already amazed by what my body comes up with when I leave it to its own devices. After all, who would have thought I’d use the crown of my head to balance?

I’m reminded of this post, on one of my favourite blogs, where the author (a dancer) muses on “the differences between conscious thought and body memory”. Reading what she writes about dance, I keep finding parallels with the way I cycle. There are some crucial differences, of course, but there are so many similarities. She writes:

You have to focus on being present […] and on controlling your movement, but you can’t be intellectual about it. […] You have to know. And the knowing comes from your body. […] You can’t intellectualize the centre of gravity or push it too far. If you do, you will splat. So, you don’t. You just do it, somehow, and there you are.

Yes. Exactly.

Except there are differences. Her movement is based on a planned routine, the music, the rhythm, the choreography. Mine is improvised in response to dynamic and highly unpredictable factors such as the traffic, the weather (I will approach the same corner in a different way if the ground is wet, for example), the weight and bulk of the packages in my bag. (Nonetheless, the power and grace and control and discipline I feel when I cycle often reminds me of what I imagine to be the exhilaration of dance.)

I’ve been assuming that, whereas my unconscious movement is belatedly followed by an attempt to intellectualize the process, for a dancer it would be the other way around; she would understand a movement rationally, and drill it repeatedly, so many times that it eventually sinks from her conscious mind into her muscle memory, and she can do it without thinking – much as I find my way around London instinctively, without picturing the map, or remembering the street names.

But, when I reread what she says, I find that it works both ways. She starts from drilled ‘principles’ (“Sit this way. Initiate from here. Inhale on the up.”) In time these become hardwired into the body, so that balance and movement happen the way they are supposed to without any conscious intervention. But then, when she tries to correct moves that have sunk to the level of muscle memory, much as when I attempt to understand what part my neck muscles play in keeping my balance as I corner, she runs into problems. The body has its own ideas, and it isn’t necessarily going to share them with the mind. At least, not without a struggle.

Perhaps it’s not so much ‘muscle memory’ we’re talking about, as ‘muscles with minds of their own’. As I become more and more accustomed to the way my body negotiates the bike, the road and the traffic, I believe less and less that all movement originates in my conscious mind. There are certain tricks I’ve consciously taught myself (e.g. when passing through a tight gap, first assess whether you will fit, then concentrate on getting the left bar end as close to the lefthand vehicle as possible; forget about the right one – if you try to focus on both you will wobble), which have now sunk into muscle memory and become second nature. But there are even more tricks that my body has evolved on its own, and with which I occasionally surprise myself. In this case my conscious mind lags a long way behind.

But this is actually restful in some ways. I’ve learned to trust my body, and its ability to manoeuvre me through the tiniest gaps at the most awkward angles. There have been several times lately where I’ve misjudged the size of a gap, or the movement of a vehicle, and realized that I have to put a foot down, or graze my shoulder against the side of the bus I’m passing – and then my body surprises me, by finding a way to wiggle through it after all. Back in the days where I used to size up each gap mathematically (“Will I fit? Can I turn at an angle that tight?”) things went wrong much more often. Now I just relax, and let my body do its thing. And enjoy the surprise when it succeeds.

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4 Responses to “Mind over muscle?”

  1. Peter F Says:

    good to see you mentioning WCD!

    I’ve surely told you to read /Body and Soul/ by Loic Wacquant? It’s pretty damn good, and devotes itself to exploring the issues you raise here.

    Email me your address and I’ll send you a copy. Read it ASAP

  2. Tim Says:

    It’s a great feeling when you do flow. There’s also that nifty little weave of negotiating opposing wing mirrors on vans without putting a foot down and I quite like leaning on buses and sliding down the length of them. I have to say I marvel at how far my cycling has come since I started couriering. I do wonder how I’ll be riding in one, two, three years from now.

  3. Cudzoziemiec Says:

    It certainly does go both ways – you’re acting by instinct, but then intellectualising and understanding it!

  4. wheelchairdancer Says:

    love this piece. Wcd

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