- Pearce Cucchissi
Developing a Corporate Athlete: Training physiology and function of the brain
I’d like to continue to look at operators within different professional sectors as metaphorical “Athletes.” When we utilize this term it puts an emphasis on the fact that no matter what the primary function of a professional is (Physical athletics, leadership, mental agility) we need to make sure that all bodily systems are optimized. If we neglect these actions we tend to degrade overtime, and as we go through life there are increasingly more negative effects that are had on the human system as a whole. Things like injuries, both physical and mental, trauma to the brain, chronic stress, poor food, poor air quality, and tension, all of these things reduce our performance in the workplace.
One of those systems that we aim to work on is the actual functioning of important brain systems run by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and pineal gland. I recognized this initially through study of the effect of brain injury on tactical athletes as well as NFL/NHL players. Brain injuries directly affect these areas of the brain and have a negative impact on everything from executive functioning, to hormonal secretion, neurotransmitter balance, and more. Essentially creating an internal environment that causes many of the downward spiraling issues we hear about with these demographics.
It was my observation and confirmed through scientific research that this is not a phenomena that exists only within people that experience acute brain injuries such as head trauma. It also exists in those who deal with chronic stress, which I would say affects just about every leader within a high performing organization.
Dysfunction of these areas of the brain can show up as mood issues, we can see problems on hormone panels, our ability to make decisions, our ability to regulate sleep and wake cycles, and reduce our ability to process emotions properly which blocks the use of intellect in a decision making process.
So what do we do about this? There are a number of things that correlate with brain health such as diet, exercise, sleep etc. But what is often not talked about is specific training we can do to stimulate these areas of the brain to work properly.
As I’ve started to play with and practice these techniques I felt an increasing sense of resilience, brain activity, focus, clarity, etc. The effects when done properly can be seen immediately, no drugs needed for this one, just what you have readily available, movement, oxygen, and energy.
This practice is a bit advanced but for those interested in giving it a shot I wanted to explain it.
The two keys here are hyper-oxygenation of the blood and movement of cerebrospinal fluid. Oxygenating the entire system and specifically the blood helps us to purify the body and turn on many of the systems that we need for optimal brain function. Meanwhile, cerebrospinal fluid is use to “wash” the brain, a cycle that typically takes twelve hours to complete in a normal day.
By utilizing movement of the spine as well as specific contractions of the muscle (which I will explain shortly) we can utilize the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and electrical energy to push on and stimulate the pineal and pituitary glands. If you think of a leg muscle, when will it be stronger and more resilient to injury? The first step after you wake up, or after you have warmed it up and activated it with some light activity? The same goes for the brain, and this is why it becomes an important practice to brain optimization.
You can find much of this as the basis of Kundalini yoga, but I have modified some of these practices slightly, mostly because not all of us have 2 hours to meditate each day.
Put on some of your favorite meditation music and begin with a minute or two of cat cow (you can find this easily on youtube), really practice going to full extension in each position, inhale when you look up, and exhale as you round your spine. This helps mobilize the spine and intercostals which will help us move cerebrospinal fluid later on.
Next we start with breath of fire, taking a comfortable, upright posture, focus only on exhaling through the nose very rapidly. Your body will automatically complete the inhale. You should feel your diaphragm pumping rapidly as well. You may feel a tingling sensation throughout your body, that is normal just keep going. Go until you feel your diaphragm muscles fatigue as if it was a set of a workout.
Let out all your air and enjoy the stillness and notice how this sensation feels within the body.
Next we will begin stimulating specific areas of the brain. Slowly inhale filling your entire belly, as you start to get full of air, we are going to squeeze the internal muscles from bottom to top, helping to move cerebrospinal fluid upwards. As you hold the air in, squeeze the perineum (the muscles that stop you from urinating), then slowly move your way up and pull in your lower abdomen, then upper abdomen. Pull these muscles up and in. As you do this, we want to imagine energy moving straight up the spinal chord until it reaches the top of your head. Energy follows our focus, you should be able to feel the sensation of energy moving up the spine, as it gets to the top of your head your should feel pressure. Hold the breath for a little but release before you have a strong urge to breathe.
As you exhale you can do one of two things, either just control a slow exhale or for an increased effect, vibrate your vocal chords as you exhale. Use the back of your tongue to block you airway and essentially hum from the back of your throat. This vibration assists with calming the nervous system as well as stimulating our targeted areas of the brain. It also improves things such as heart rate variability and produces feel good brain chemicals such as oxytocin.
I then like to take one normal slow inhale and exhale and really feel the body relax. Then I repeat the process with our energy lifting inhale as we did in step 4. As we repeat this over the course of 5-15 minutes we move our brain waves into gamma patterns, which greatly increases awareness and brings a powerful feeling of euphoria and bliss. These gamma patterns have been directly linked to problem solving ability, information processing, improved memory and attention span.
When you feel complete with this section of the practice, just relax and enjoy a meditative state for as long as you’d like. You can use the time to practice expanding your energy, visualization, or just practicing an empty mind.
Personally I do not feel like I can access this level of brain clarity and activity without high flow activities such as surfing or skydiving, or powerful external substances. I find advanced meditation techniques to be a powerful tool that is wildly underutilized within most knowledge based professions.
P.S. If there are any physicians that would be interested in expanding ways to study this such as with continuous blood monitoring, I'd be happy to participate.