How Harnessing Neuroplasticity Upgrades The Brain And The Lives Of Differently-Abled Kids

It was an ordinary day in August 2017, as I was driving down Edsa, caught in traffic as usual and listening to podcasts to keep my brain from atrophying in the cacophony of horn blowing, engines revving, and the occasional shout outs from street vendors. Bulletproof podcast was my usual go-to, since Dave Asprey was my mentor in the Human Potential coaching certification I had just completed a month before, and it was his internet presence, whether he was interviewing podcast guests, introducing new biohacking gadgets or machines, or citing scientific articles to back up his anecdotal experiences, that served as my North Star. Driving from Tagaytay where I used to live, I spent the long drive toggling between podcasts and gleaning bits of interesting information that caught my ear.

“The brain makes 1.8 million connections per second, 100 million per minute, so that’s billions per ten minutes.” was what I heard this podcast guest say. Huge lightbulb moment. Something sparked in me that I couldn’t explain. “Not just mindfulness,” she continued, “that’s too vague. The question to ask is, what do I feel? we must be able to feel in order to perceive differences and the perception of differences is when the brain makes connections.” The strong, unwavering voice was that of Anat Baniel, founder of The Anat Baniel Method Neuromovement, based on the work of one of the pioneers of neuroplasticity and the mind-body connection, Moshé Feldenkrais. She advocates a brain-based approach to assisting kids with special needs in upgrading the use of their body, and thus their quality of life. I had no idea why but I knew in my very being, that I had to sign up to become a practitioner.

On the first day of our 2-year course, I walked into the room and observed a ballroom full of strangers, blankets strewn side by side on the floor in perfect alignment. I asked myself, “what the heck am I doing here?” I had no idea what this worked entailed, and yet I had this unquestionable certainty I was at the right place at the right time. Then I saw the loudest sign post that confirmed it: Jill Bolte Taylor was in that ballroom, taking the same course. For those who don’t know her, a simple google search will bring up her Ted Talk, which is the second most popular one at almost 26 million views to date. Jill suffered a stroke about 30 years ago and lived to tell the tale. Her long, arduous recovery took eight years to complete and when she experienced Anat’s work first hand, she knew this was exactly what sharply shifted her trajectory from becoming an invalid for life to the wonderful probability that she was in now: living life as a normal, thriving, thinking, feeling human being. My own mother suffered a stroke in 2010, and there was one thing that kept a candlelight of hope amidst the grim darkness:  A book entitled, “My Stroke of Insight,” written by Jill Bolte Taylor.

We were about 110 students in our class, and each one had to come to the front to state our whys. 95 percent of the class comprised either a parent, a guardian, or a caregiver of a differently-abled child. Each person wore their heart on their sleeve, and we all came together willingly as a community to hold space for one another. The stories were heart-wrenching, from parents whose child contracted a brain infection in his 3rd year of life, to another whose wife just passed from cancer and thought he owed it to his special child to continue this difficult journey, albeit alone. Another young mother whose daughter contracted a brain injury at birth leads her to question her worthiness of being a mother and having more children in the future. Then also, an elderly gentleman whose heart is breaking seeing his son suffer after a massive stroke took away his ability to walk or talk. In between falling tears, I knew I didn’t just want to do this work, I needed it. I needed to help children in my beloved country find a better way to be in their bodies.

It’s been 2 years since that day and as I ponder my journey in retrospect, I know I’ve come a long way, but have reached crossroads that suggest the real journey is only just beginning. Learning the work entailed embodying how it feels to engage neuroplasticity and what that means somatically and intellectually. At first I had a hard time wrapping my brain around a concept that was so nebulous and vast that I couldn’t imagine interpreting it in a 3 dimensional format that would make sense to me. And then I realized the brain is on a quantum level that supercedes 3D processing. 1.8 million connections per second: Right. Quantum level indeed: Just let it spontaneously express what it expresses and then prepare to be surprised. Slowly but surely, I felt myself transforming in ways I didn’t expect. I felt more connected to my body, while being in my body. Many of us disassociate from our own bodies as a protective mechanism from either chronic or acute stress and because of repetitive patterns, we fail to remember to go back in. My journey back “in,” allowed me to understand the natural, organic, evolutionarily-designed placement of the anatomy. Being in this right placement blew in a soft but powerful wind of calm that told my nervous system I was putting myself back together in the way nature intended. Being in this state also increased my intuition and I just knew when something in me was being “auto-corrected.”

At this point, I felt I had embodied the work enough so that I actually felt it in my cellular makeup. It had deepened my sense of self-awareness, my body-mind connection, and only then did I know I was ready to receive children on my table.  My first child was an 11-month old beautiful baby girl named “Katarungan” with Down Syndrome. Her parents are lawyers who are staunch in advocating inclusion for their child and all differently-abled children, hence her extremely powerful name. I had no idea what I was going to do, which was quite ironically, the right way to approach the work. However, I remembered the one condition we were required to meet: Connect with the child. The first time we made contact, I felt an overflowing sense of love for this beautiful human being, so full of love and joy. She was a tiny little thing and was gleefully engaging in this energy exchange, completely oblivious to the condition that was believed to limit her. As I engaged my central nervous system to connect with her, I could sense a real joy in her getting to know more of her Self that she might’ve not been privy to due to her condition. Her father, previously skeptical, needed to attend her second session because he couldn’t understand how a method of touch could be attributed to the progress she had made after our first session. I still continue to see her today and she always lights up my room with her beautiful smile and effervescent personality. I can’t wait for her to dance at her wedding.

The next child was a 12 year old boy diagnosed with Lennox Gastaut syndrome and autism. He was non-verbal and didn’t have full control of his own body so he frequently needed to be assisted by his parents.  This wasn’t an easy task since he was already almost the size of his dad. It seemed daunting to try to connect with his nervous system, since it seemed overactive. He would walk from one place to another, displaying expressions of “stimming,” repetitive motions common to children on the spectrum. Nevertheless, I made sure I followed the first rule, which was to connect with the child first, everything else comes later. So I spent the whole hour trying to sneak in a touch or a move here and there, always respecting where he’s at and never forcing my way through. At this point, even one or two meaningful connections would be considered a breakthrough. I knew I was able to make a connection when he finally settled into the chair and seemed to calm down so much, I thought he had fallen asleep. I worked on his legs and pelvis and mapped them to the brain, having a silent but powerful dialogue with it. After that session, his mother reported that he didn’t have any seizures for three days and he seemed calm when eating his favorite snack, where he would otherwise be eating it voraciously and with little control over his emotions. Unfortunately, due to logistics, his parents found it difficult to see me on a regular basis and from what I’ve heard, his seizures have returned. The work must be done in a series of sessions in order for benefits to “lock in.”

Another child was an almost-4 year old little girl with Down Syndrome. She was also non-verbal but she seemed to have great control of her body. She was very shy and would be easily irritated by the slightest touch while giving me a ”thumbs down.” Clever as she is, she managed to “cage” herself under my table where I would find it difficult to reach her. Instead of trying to force her out, I focused on connecting with her by bringing her different toys while under the table. When she managed to crawl out, I would run after her and make a funny gesture. It would capture her attention momentarily, then I would sneak in a push of her greater trochanter and iliac crest or land a light touch on the base of her feet. Though the session didn’t have much breakthrough in terms of applying the work, I knew I was able to win a small place in her heart when she gave me a shy hug after her mom coaxed her to “say goodbye to teacher.” It was a few sessions later that I made a breakthrough. I managed to grab her full attention while working on her feet. I played a game with her, asking her to count her toes and count all the lines that she could see. She seemed absolutely enamored of her own feet. I knew I was. Then, I shifted her legs with knees to one side and asked her to look back at her feet and count the lines there. After that session her Mom sent me a video and told me she never sat that way before. And I asked her, “how?” she said, “sitting with her legs to the side.”

Another 1 year old boy was diagnosed with athetoid cerebral palsy and could not hold up his head and had spasticity on the left side of his body. This adorable little boy was always crying. Whatever I did, wherever I touched, he would close his eyes and open his mouth wide, at first noiseless, and then a small squeal would push out slightly, then with rapid bursts, a great big bawl would come barreling out and big tears would drop onto his nanny’s clothes. My only goal that day was to find a way to soothe him and then perhaps, make a connection. I was successful but only for two minutes, where I tapped his face and he seemed curious and then calmed by the sensation. I took the opportunity to work on his feet, his pelvis and his ribs as much as I could sneak in. Before you know it, the cries would come back with renewed vigor. I was thankful, however, for the fleeting moments we made a connection. Three sessions later, I made a real breakthrough. I don’t really know what made a difference that day but he allowed me to touch his feet and his little toes and his legs and pelvis without crying. In fact, he was very intently looking at me, surveying my actions and seemed to be giving his full attention to the event. I couldn’t believe it was happening but I was making the most of the gift as long as it would last. His next sessions weren’t as smooth, but his grandmother mentioned that he’s become much more alert and socially interactive and she attributed that to the Anat Baniel method. I was on Cloud 9!

For me, there is  nothing more meaningful in this world than to be of service for the greater good of others. This holistic option hasn’t become available in the Philippines until now, and I’m honored to be able to serve my country in this way. Becoming a Human Potential coach means I fully believe that the way our bodies were cosmically designed shows signs of being able to transcend current “believed” limitations. My dream of unlocking new possibilities for the human race to reach the next step of evolution might just come true in this lifetime. Well, I aim to live until 200 years old, so I think I’ll have enough time to prove this theory.

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Eli Abela