A Wiser Body Through Aikido

“The mountain lion was hunting and running towards me as I came around a corner,” Taylor explained.

He too was hunting when the animal encounter occurred. In the lavender blush of dusk, he spooked a couple elk herds, which in turn, may have prompted the mountain lion to investigate.

Now, the predator was perhaps a couple dozen yards away.

“I turned, full fight-flight. I went back the way I came,” Taylor said. He stopped to marshal his adrenaline. He pulled out a topographic map and the panicked animal center of his brain urged him to just run 11,500 feet down the mountain side.

Ultimately, logic prevailed over impulse. The best way out was the way he’d been going when he encountered the cougar. He’d have cut directly through the very spot where he knew a predator had been…and maybe still was.

“I was watching every corner and pounce-spot carefully, fully adrenalized,” Taylor said.

Taylor shared this story with me recently after we and several others assembled to move the dojo’s gear and mats into temporary storage due to the pandemic. With the move complete, everyone else had gone home, but we remained by the sidewalk, shootin’ the breeze. Naturally, our conversation ambled across various Aikido tangents. At some point, we delved into the many strange, auxiliary benefits one can derive from the mindfulness training inherent in Aikido, yoga, or meditation.

One such benefit is a keener physical awareness. This awareness applies to both one’s body and one’s surroundings. I’d wager the two are linked. Refining the awareness of one contributes directly to a better awareness of the other. Tune in to your surroundings and you’re naturally going to be more aware of your position in it and in relation to everything else. Attune to your body closely and you’re bound to notice more keenly how stimuli from the surrounding environment (lights, sounds, temperatures, the presence of others) generate chemical or muscular feedback.

Which is how Taylor and I wound up swapping mountain lion stories. His encounter was very direct and he had enough awareness to master the chemical impulses that could have sent him hurtling down the mountain either to his demise or to a bunch of broken bones.

My own encounter was much more indirect.

Me, prowling through a twisting stone artery.

I was hiking alone through Utah canyons. I was padding through sand as soft as crushed seashells when I saw the massive paw prints unspool along the dry riverbed stretching before me. I froze. I scrutinized the canyon ledges and topmost rims.

I had recently read Craig Child’s The Animal Dialogues, wherein he detailed the mountain lion’s evolved, specialized ability to pounce prey from behind and wedge its teeth between the neck vertebrae. Steady eye contact (or even the illusion of it) often prevented big cats from attacking. Child’s drew eyes on the back of his hat, in the same way African farmers draw eyes on the rumps of their livestock.  

I moved my sunglasses to the back of my head.

I had no other choice but to proceed and follow the fresh tracks. Canyons are one-way roads. The way in is also the only way out. All the while, the hair on the back of my neck prickled. Invisible ants crawled over my skin.

Was a mountain lion lurking overhead? (Image by Jenny Mason)

I could not see the cougar, but it sure as heck could see me. Just like Taylor, I was on high alert. Every sense and sensory receptor I possessed (eyes, ears, skin, nose, etc) seemed to tingle as they combed my surroundings, detecting the presence of a dangerous creature nearby.

I realize how easily these discussions involving heightened sensory awareness can veer into sixth sense, paranormal, woo-woo, Magic Eight Ball territory. Trust me, that’s not where I’m going. I don’t have to because ongoing neuroscience research reveals that the human body is a very perceptive entity. It can gather heaps of input which the brain can swiftly compute and interpret. Working in harmonious tandem, the body and the brain can accomplish nothing short of miracles.

Our tongues can receive electrical signals correlating to a visual object, such as a coffee mug. Without involving the eyes, the brain can interpret the signals from the tongue and translate them into: coffee mug. In other words, the brain can see the world through your tongue or your eyes. All it needs is the incoming data.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman discovered that the body does not need ears to hear and understand words. He tested this capacity through his research at Baylor University’s College of Medicine where he designed a vest equipped with 24 tiny motors identical to the ones that make our smartphones buzz. He called his invention the VEST, or the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer.

Ripples crawl across this rock face.

Eagleman had deaf individuals wear the vest under their clothes. Then, he used a tablet to relay spoken words to the vest. Each little motor buzzed, pulsed, throbbed, or vibed at different frequencies, intervals, and intensities. As a result, the spoken words rippled across the vest in a complex vibrational pattern. Each word converted into its own, unique ripple. The deaf participant could not hear the word, but could feel it on his/her skin.

After a few days, participants were able to determine when the buzzes crawling across their torso meant “hello” or “blue” or “camel.”

How?

In the exact same way Taylor and I sensed the mountain lion even when we could not see it. Over the span of my Aikido training, I have learned to be a better sensory sponge; to be more attuned to what my senses can detect. I have also learned to more fully trust how my mind computes and translates all this sensory data. As a result, I have—literally at my fingertips—a broader body of knowledge that I can access whenever I want. Not just when a deadly predator is breathing down my neck.

Learn more about Eagleman’s VEST:

“Translation” — a RaidoLab episode

Sensory Substitution Research

“Can We Create New Senses?” — a TEDTalk by David Eagleman

Image credits: Mountain lion on ridge image CC0 from Pikist. Featured image PD.

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