The human brain is truly magnificent. Not only do your brain cells regulate your mood, thoughts, cognition and every one of your bodily functions, they also activate your behaviors and actions, like breathing, solving problems or choosing a romantic partner. The brain also has an incredible ability to take on new shape and reset its neural connections as you engage in new experiences and adapt to new stimuli, a process called neuroplasticity. It is this very process, because it happens throughout life, that allows you to always have the ability to grow wiser, smarter and happier, and ultimately, access your genius. On the flip side, if you don't engage in new experiences, stay active physically and mentally, you don't end up stimulating these neural connections and in the end, you could lose them.
When you engage in a wide range of activities that require engagement of different muscle groups, the plasticity or ability to grow and change of the synapses and neurons in your brain is positively influenced. This includes physical activity, especially the kind that challenges your aptitude, balance and strength. And since physical activity also improves mood, while decreasing stress, as endorphins levels rise and cortisol levels fall, it has the added benefit of reducing stress response reactivity, which guess what? That's right. Gives you more access to your creative genius, like Leonardo Da Vinci.
I don't know about you, but usually when I think about a typical artist or an absent minded professor or scientist, I usually don't envision someone who is particularly physically fit. Interestingly, Leonardo was exactly that -- very physically fit! In his time, he was known as the strongest man in Florence and revered as a great athlete, juggler and fencer.
Before the advent of mind-body medicine as we know it, Leonardo advocated a healthy diet, regular exercise, spending time in nature, finding time for relaxation and the importance of positive thinking. He wrote:
Michael Gelb, in his book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, says that accessing your creative genius like Leonardo Da Vinci involves not just working with your mind, but also taking care of your body. He points out that Da Vinci believed we should take responsibility for our health and wellbeing, not be dependent on doctors or medicines and that a sound mind exists in a sound body. Gelb says that diet, aerobic, strength and flexibility training are key for achieving and maintaining your well-being, but so too are body awareness, poise and ambidexterity, as Leonardo had.
He calls this process Corporalita, the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise and here are a few ways to achieve it:
1. Start with self-acceptance: Many if not most people find a lot of fault with their bodies, while in constant search of perfection that seems to exist only in magazines or through photo shop. In truth, if you do not view your body as the temple that houses the one and only you and instead put it down, you are less likely to take care of it and honor its needs. To start changing this attitude you can start by keeping a gratitude list of why you are thankful for you body.
2. Develop body awareness: Are you even aware of where you are holding your tension, what your body structure is like and how your body moves?
Make a sketch of your whole body in five minutes or less.
Then stand in front of a full-length mirror (naked, if you are brave) and without judging or criticizing, observe your reflection lovingly and record your answers to these questions:
• Does my head tend to tilt to one side or the other?
• Is one shoulder higher than the other?
• Is my weight distributed evenly on my feet, or am I leaning on one side more than the other?
• Where do I appear tense?
• Is my pelvis, torso and head in alignment?
3. Power breaths and movement for balance and poise: Turning off the stress response enables better access to self-acceptance and when you add movement to it, you can work on finding your center and balance. Techniques induce relaxation while also involving movement, poise and balance, include The Alexander Technique, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Yoga or Feldenkrias, to name a few. Here is a modified Qi Gong (an ancient Chinese discipline that enhances one's life force) movement.
• Stand upright, feet shoulder-width apart, shoulders relaxed, and knees slightly bent.
• Breathe in and count 1-2-3.
• Breathe out and count 1-2-3-4-5.
• Hold your arms out at chest height, palms facing down.
• Breathe in.
• As your breathe out, sink straight down by bending your knees.
• As you breathe in, straighten up again.
• As you sink down and rise up with the rhythm of your breath, imagine you are drawing the energy of the earth through the soles of your feet so that it moves into every cell of your body.
• Breathe in and out for pulling in the energy of the earth for 8 cycles.
• Then as you exhale on the 9th cycle, reach your hands straight out from your chest, palms opening out as if you are reaching for the sun so that when you inhale, you are drawing in the energy from the sun while drawing your hands back toward your chest, filling your body with golden light.
• Breathe in and out pulling in the golden light for 8 cycles.
You may wish to do your mirror observation after practicing such movement exercises to see if you notice a change.
4. Get a move on. Do different activities to engage a variety of muscle groups. You may choose to jog one day, practice yoga another, and juggle on the side. Walk outdoors where the terrain is not so predictable, so that you are perfecting your balance. Get your heart rate up to the appropriate level for you for 15 minutes a few times a week. Have fun too, because if you don't, you won't go back for more.
5. Have fun with ambidexterity: Leonardo regularly switched hands when working on his masterpieces. You may not want to use your non-dominant hand when writing a grant proposal, but you can practice having fun by experimenting using your non-dominant hand while signing your name, brushing your teeth, eating your food, or unlocking your door. Pay close attention how it makes you feel.