I'M DANGLING UPSIDE DOWN from the "Yogasizer," a pyramid-shaped metal frame that allows you to contort your body in gravity-defying, and sometimes humiliating, ways. Though it might sound as if I've wandered into some dominatrix's discipline dungeon, I'm actually at a gym in Santa Fe, New Mexico, getting "neurologically reprogrammed."
"Is this right?" I croak, attempting to perform a move called the Sponge, which entails hooking a leg around one of the Yogasizer's struts and then twisting my midsection as if it's a foam brick getting wrung out after washing the car.
"You're getting it!" says Kele McDaniel, who, with her husband, Fred, owns this small gym, the Human Performance Center.
The Yogasizer is one of half a dozen unusual tools at HPC designed to help me bend, balance, and twist in ways I'm not used to. The idea is that by moving slowly and repeatedly through complex and dynamic movements, we can rewire our minds to perform those movements more efficiently. The unfamiliar movements get the brain reacquainted with muscles that it rarely calls on (or may have stopped calling on in the wake of an injury) but that are quietly waiting in reserve. "By training your brain to move your muscles in a more optimal way," Fred told me, "you're unlocking power you already possess, rather than having to develop it through things like high-intensity intervals, which can lead to overtraining."
I signed on for a few weeks of neurological reprogramming and quickly discovered what I was up against: "quad-dominant" legs (my quadriceps overpowered my hamstrings), "lateral hips" (my pelvis rocked from side to side when I walked, sort of like a runway model), and a "largely immobile" spine. Fred and Kele reassured me that it was all fairly common, and that the problems could be fixed by teaching my brain to operate each part in a more balanced way.
"As we develop as athletes, we spend a lot of time creating a strong firing pattern," Kele explained. "That's where the programming comes in. Your body always wants to move through the path of least resistance, but that's not always the most beneficial or efficient path. You have to really work at correcting it."
The McDaniels' approach is a hodgepodge of disciplines: yoga, Pilates, flexibility exercises, core strength, and balance training, among other things. In one of the initial sessions with Fred, he had me "turn on" my abdominal muscles by lying on a mat while he slid a partially inflated blood-pressure cuff under my lower back.
"OK, now I want you to draw in your stomach and tilt your pelvis so the gauge moves to about 75 psi," he said, placing his hand near my crotch. Were we having a moment? "I want you to become aware of your transverse abdominus your deep abs." Perhaps sensing the awkwardness, he added, "That's why my hand's here."
This "awareness," he said, was the first step in improved movement, because I'd be able to recognize the feeling of engaging these muscles as we progressed to the actual exercises. The movements were slow and deliberate, requiring intense focus on muscles I didn't even know I had. After a few weeks of channeling my deep abs, it began to feel more natural and automatic when I used them during exercises a subtle pulling in and backward tilt of the pelvis that helped stabilize my core. With the McDaniels' help, I began to incorporate my newfound muscles and movements into more familiar workout circuits things like cable pulls while seated on a stability ball, or leg raises while lying on a wobble board. Some seemed simple when I did them with my right arm or leg but were nearly impossible to do on the other side a sign that some movements still needed neurological attention.
After about six weeks, I began to notice that my sense of balance in motion was improving; I was blasting up technical climbs on my mountain bike with less wobble, and I didn't feel quite as worked over by longer rides. A month or so later, I was stunned to place fourth in my field (out of 20 or so) at a local mountain-bike race, without focusing too hard on training. I couldn't quite put my finger on anything that had changed, but I also couldn't dispute how I felt. Perhaps I'd gotten stronger, but then again, maybe it was all in my head.