The Hamilton Spectator
Health, Tuesday, November 5, 2002, p. D06

Thoughtful Medicine

Suzanne Bourret
The Hamilton Spectator

Brain Gym may sound like New Age hocus-pocus, but those who have tried it say it works. It is taught to preschoolers, football and hockey players, musicians, figure skaters and educators.

Nine seniors sit yawning in a circle at a Wellness Seminar program at the MacNab Street YWCA. They aren't bored. They are doing one of the 26 Brain Gym exercises they hope will increase their energy and improve their memory and concentration. The mental fitness workout for the brain is officially known as educational kinesiology. It stresses drinking lots of water to keep the mind alert and teaches certain exercises that can also reduce stress.

A self-induced yawn can relieve tension, according to Brain Gym instructor Marg Harris.

Soon after, participants put their fingers over their mouth with the other hand at the base of their spine and were looking up at the ceiling and then down. This is an exercise to get the body centred.

An hour later, Ada McGeary felt mentally energized. She came to the five-series program because she has arthritis and Brain Gym is supposed to help balance. "She's a good teacher. She's giving us facts and we can feel the good of it. It's effective."

After the second session, Joyce Hicks felt more positive and lighter, both mentally and physically. "It's very upbeat. I do come away feeling much better."

Brain Gym was developed in 1969 by Paul Dennison, an American educational therapist, when he worked with children and adults with learning disabilities. If you've never heard of it, it's because it is relatively new. Brain Gym has only been in Canada since the early '90s, says Harris, who points out it is taught in more than 80 countries world wide.

It may sound like New Age hocus-pocus, but those who have tried it say it works. It is taught to preschoolers, football and hockey players, musicians, figure skaters and educators.

Harris taught it to staff at Colin Macdonald Alternative School in Dundas to help students enhance their learning. She has taught it to teachers, occupational therapists, nurses, head injury survivors, those with learning challenges and balance problems and people who have chronic pain.

And she has also taught it to parents as a tool to keep their "cool" while dealing with their teenage children and to teenagers as a help to quit smoking. "One girl said she did hook-ups (a movement that helps to relax and integrate the whole system) instead of having a cigarette before going to bed," said Harris.

Harris often does some of the exercises to reduce stress, when she's stuck in traffic. She believes they can help reduce road rage. "When you're under stress, you move into the survival zone near the brain stem at the back of the brain. These exercises bring the energy back to the front of the brain, where creative thinking and problem solving can occur. They are simple exercises even for people with Alzheimer's. Brain Gym also helps those with Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's, she adds. She became convinced that movements to improve mental fitness were just as important as exercises to keep the body fit.

Harris had been a public health nurse for 20 years in Belleville and was looking forward to retirement, when she became aware of Brain Gym. She had taken therapeutic touch, a program that teaches people how to help to relieve pain. She wanted to help her husband, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Harris found the program fascinating and at the end, when she expressed regret that it was over, someone in the group told her that, if she thought therapeutic touch was fascinating, she should take Brain Gym.

About eight months after her husband died in December, 1995, she started learning about it. She has been hooked ever since. By March of 1998, she had become a certified instructor. The energetic movements helped her better cope through the grieving process. And now she sees that her new-found career was a gift from him. "The gift from him was the opportunity for new learning," she says.

Harris moved to Dundas five years ago to join her sister, Louise Pala, a social worker at St. Peter's Hospital. She is the only certified Brain Gym instructor in the Hamilton area.

"The more I got involved, the more convinced I became that it worked." She credits it with helping relieve her chronic hip pain. "I am a lot more flexible. I'm getting younger every day," says the 65-year-old, who is now renewing her skiing and scuba hobbies. She believes Brain Gym exercises re-educate the body to more effectively manage day-to-day stresses in a meaningful and lasting way. "I can do these movements anywhere, they are inexpensive, easy to do and they work." Harris says the bathroom is a great place to do them, after getting up in the morning.

Florence Meyer completed the program at the Seniors' Active Living Centre. She thinks it is an excellent program. "It takes a while to get into it and you have to have an open mind." She is hoping it will continue because she wants to do more of it.

"It was beginning to make more sense as I went on. I was sorry to see it was over. It provided a feeling of peace and tranquility. It takes time, it does relax you and the more you do the simple little exercises, you find they do help you with relaxation and discomforts you have. I've found it helped my breathing. It certainly is beneficial," Meyer says.

Harris's hope is the program will become mainstream throughout Canada in schools and homes.

Brain Gym will be offered again at the YWCA Jan. 9 to Feb. 6, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. The second series will be Feb. 13 to March 13. To register, call 905-522-9922. Harris will also present it starting next Tuesday, Nov. 12 to Dec. 10, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Colin Macdonald Alternative School in Dundas. Cost is $10 for each session.

She will also offer Brain Gym at The Gregory School for Exceptional Learning, Ancaster Baptist Church, 91 Carrington Court, Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m., which is open to the public.

Here are some of the Brain Gym movements:

* Rubbing the two pressure points below the clavicle is believed to stimulate the carotid arteries, allowing for an increased blood flow and more oxygen to the brain.

* Touching the centre of your forehead, something you have probably done many times, helps with the thinking process and relieves stress and tension.

* Pressing your tongue gently against the roof of your mouth helps to move the energy to the higher functioning area of the brain. The tongue movement accesses the limbic system, which is often described as the computer centre for emotion and the immune system.

* Doing energy yawns helps to relax the muscles in the back of the neck and the jaws and increases sensory perception.

* Folding yourself into a pretzel-like stance with legs crossed, arms entwined and eyes closed with tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth, will help concentration.

* Doing cross crawls-- putting your left elbow to your right knee and vice versa, helps to connect the right and left sides of the brain, while learning.

(c) 2002 The Hamilton Spectator. All rights reserved.

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