You are standing on the warm sands of a beach in Hawaii, looking out over the gentle waves. Underneath your toes you feel the sand, and when you look down, you see that the sand is a beautiful pale green. As you step forward into the small foamy wavelet, your toes leave tiny prints in the wet sand. The water is warm, and the waves are very gentle. You enter the water to your ankles, to your knees, and feel the warmth penetrate your skin, your muscles, to your very bones. The water reaches your waist, and you hover there, enjoying the buoyancy. You take two more steps, and the water softly rises to your breastbone, to your heart. Your arms float gently, effortlessly, across the top of the water. You are poised, balanced, suspended lightly on your feet, sensing the slow ebb and flow of the watery forces around and even through you…
This experience is an example of imagery I often use to help create warmth, balance, and ease. It works, but just how?
Imagery is the art and science of creating imaginations or visualizations. It is often used as “mental practice” or “mental rehearsal” by athletes and performers, and by others learning or practicing a new skill. Imagery along with physical practice has been shown to increase success in performing a movement or sequence of actions by up to 35%, whether you are a car mechanic putting together an engine, or an Olympic skater preparing for competition.
For those recovering from serious illness or trauma, imagery can be a powerful tool for health and healing. Studies of stroke patients using “motor imagery” have pointed to significant benefits, with imagery being viewed as a “back door” to accessing the body through the mind. Stroke patients have been helped with walking, other activities of daily life (ADLs), and in using robotic limbs, all through the power of their imaging.
Consistently, patients who worked with imagery in addition to physical therapy or movement practice showed greatest improvements. Likewise, people with severe pain have been found to benefit from “graded motor imagery” – imagery practiced with movement in a sequential progression. Studies of patients with spinal cord injuries show possible benefits, while those of Parkinson’s Disease patients are controversial (some are helped, some not). Other areas of applications of imagery for healing include asthma, heart disease, and cancer as well as substance abuse.
For seniors and caregivers of the elderly, the news is also good. Imagery has been shown to be valuable in improving balance and stability, two important factors in maintaining mobility and preventing falls.
Using our imaginations is not just pretending. Our bodies often can’t tell the difference between an actual experience or an imagination of one. Studies show that our nerves respond to our imaging as though we are actually doing the activity, to a degree. That means that the movements are actually practiced by the body, without the body moving. And, when we practice imagery along with actual movement, we get more practice and build new and stronger pathways. For example, an imagery and strength study by the Cleveland Clinic showed that strength improved 35% for the group that used imagery together with strength training versus the group that did strength training only!
For our general health, we can using imagery to create calm, energy, or healing responses. We can also use vivid imaginative pictures to give direction and changes of quality to our movements. Eric Franklin, who has developed an extensive practice in imagery called the Franklin Method®, offers imaginations for dancers and others to activate new gestures in the way a movement is done. We can imagine our arms as wings, our knees as springs. Jaimen McMillan, founder of the Spacial Dynamics® approach to movement education and movement therapy, uses imagery in simple, profound exercises that help to heal the emotional and physical body, with very practical applications as well. For example, while chopping carrots, rather than pushing down on the knife one can imagine a magnet on the other side of the cutting board, drawing the knife downwards. Instead of strain, one feels ease.
In our Agile Aging™ program, imagery is a vital component. Every “exercise” is actually a movement sequence or activity AND imagery. Rather than the mechanical “turn the head this way and that,” one follows the arc of a rainbow from this side to the other, for example. This approach takes time and practice, both to teach and to learn to follow and build the inner pictures, but the benefits of imagery are huge. It’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s connected to pleasant experiences in nature, and it’s effective. One elderly participant described a situation when she almost fell while walking her little dog. “But just as I started to lose my balance I remembered [a specific image from the class] and it worked! I stumbled a few steps but I didn’t fall!”
By using the mind’s eye, the body and soul can move in new and stronger ways – to enhance a feeling of well-being, maintain strength and mobility, emphasize our connection to nature, and give suggestions for a new approach to moving through all the days of our lives – with confidence and ease.
Now, back to our green sand beach and stress-free Hawaiian holiday – in our mind’s eye, of course!
Cowan, T, Fallon, S, McMillan, J. Healing the emotional body from The Fourfold Path to Healing, 2004, pp 41-86, 363-422, New Trends Publishing.
Dickstein R, Deutsch JE. Motor imagery in physical therapist practice. Phys Ther. 2007;87:942–953.
Franklin, E. Dance Imagery for technique and performance. 1996, HumanKinetics.