A popular study done by David Libet showed that when we make a decision to move, unconscious parts of the brain are activated before we even make a decision. This tells us that most of our actions are not determined by our rational conscious mind, but by our subconscious. Does this mean that we don’t have a choice over our actions? Is everything predetermined? This study brought back the age old question, do we have free will?
I wouldn’t jump on the determinism band wagon right away. As a personal trainer, I have learned that if a person doesn’t believe in their ability to change, they have nothing to motivate them. A large study in New Zealand showed that people who believed in their own free will were much more likely to be successful in any undertaking.
The truth is, much of what we do is determined by our subconscious, but if we force ourselves to be aware, it becomes conscious. For example, some clients come to me with incorrect muscle movements. For any number of reasons, they move in ways that can be harmful to their bodies. While they may not be aware of this, something in their subconscious makes them think it is okay to let’s say, hunch their shoulders while doing a deltoid lift. When I try to correct them, their first reaction is to say, “This is the way I am. I can’t change.” Unfortunately, being content with this line of thinking will lead to shoulder impingements later on in life. I know many older adults who have shoulder issues because they have been doing exercises wrong for so many years.
When a person trains with me for a few more weeks and I make them concentrate on ways to use the correct muscles so they can change their incorrect and dangerous movements, they succeed in moving a different way. With practice, they start subconsciously moving the correct way. This proves that even subconscious movements can be changed to conscious movements if we apply awareness. Once we do this, we change our subconscious habits. This is good because we can change negative habits that sabotage our health into positive ones that feed our health. We can change our habits.
Even the act of breathing, once thought of as an involuntary movement can be made into a conscious movement. The yogis have proven that control of the breath can even give them the power to change their own heart rate and blood pressure.
More on breathing here:
The other day, I was listening to a lecture by Bruce Lipton on epigenetics. This is a new science that explores how our genes react to our environment. For example, if we feed our cells certain foods, they either become healthy or intoxicated. How we breathe, move and think greatly affects our health and our genes. Many times, it is our attitudes and perceptions that make us healthy or unhealthy and we can see this when we look at how stress affects our body.
Stress is caused by perceived fear. When we are afraid, our body secretes hormones that cause us to fight or run from the danger. All the blood in the body is rushed to our arms and legs for survival purposes. The body takes blood away from digestive organs and the organs that are used to fight disease. While this helps us survive a dangerous environment where predators lurk in every corner, our body was never meant to be stressed on an ongoing basis. Taking blood away from other functions makes our immune system weak and more susceptible to all diseases. It also takes blood away from rational parts of the brain and puts it into more primitive parts of the brain, lowering our I.Q. Stress seems to be a catch term in our modern day society and people are constantly complaining about it.
People perceive dangers in every corner. Is there someone at your job who rubs you the wrong way? Does she bring you stress? If we think of her as an evil witch who can take away our personal power just by looking at us, then yes, she will. She will make our stress hormones release every time we see her, markedly lowering our immune system. But if we realize that she is just human and has no power to hurt us just by saying the wrong things, then we won’t be stressed. We can brush off her attitude and move on with our lives. So, our perceptions have a great influence on our health.
We may not be consciously aware of the reasoning behind our perception. Perhaps we were abused by a family member who looked like her or said the same things that the person who rubs us the wrong way does. Maybe we were bullied by a kid that said the same things she did and whenever we hear her words, we want to run or fight. Subconsciously we see her as a threat and become stressed by her even if we don’t want to. Unfortunately, many people can’t help the way they react in life because of how they were conditioned growing up. People ask themselves, why can’t I change my situation? Why can’t I stop the negative thoughts in my mind? Why can’t I end my addiction to food, drugs, television or video games? The reason is because they are subconscious reactions to how we were taught to perceive the world. We never made a conscious choice to be stressed, overweight, addicted or weak in the wrong muscles. We are just reacting to our environment.
This is where awareness comes in. If we can end the chatter in our minds that is nothing but a subconscious recording of how we were conditioned to act in life, we can start to consciously make changes. Yoga teaches us to still the mind and bring awareness to what we are doing right here and now. Even doing physical yoga poses, and teaching ourselves to bring awareness to how we feel in the poses teaches us to use our conscious thinking to guide us. When I teach my regular yoga classes, I try not to preach. What I have to say doesn’t matter. My main goal is to help the students still their minds, be aware of their breath and bring awareness to how the poses affect their bodies, so they can be aware of their own habits and tendencies. Only then will they be able to change anything.
Taking the time to practice awareness can literally change a person’s life. It teaches us to stop reacting to what is going on in the outside and pay attention to who we are on the inside. What do we want? How do we want to live our lives? What makes us happy? What feels good? What doesn’t? Why?
So in the end, yes, much of what we do are just subconscious reactions, and if we were ever raised on any negative ideas, that isn’t very good news. However, through awareness, we can change those patterns in our muscles, our brains and in our cells. There are many resources out there to help us do it. Guided meditations help because they help us tap into that subconscious state so we change our unconscious patterns of thinking. In fact this is the idea behind hypnosis and this is why it is often used to help people lose weight and end addiction. We can take yoga or pilates class that emphasizes awareness of the body. We can find a personal trainer who will make us aware of how we move our bodies and help us change our habits. We can also learn to meditate or try neurolingquistic programming techniques. These are coaching and psychological techniques that teach us to ask specific questions and replace old perceptions and habits with new ones.
For more information on relieving stress, check out these posts:
For more information on using meditation to help change our habits check out these posts: