As some may know, the majority of the current postural Yoga (Asana practice) practiced and taught in the Western world are postural systems that stem from a job assignment given to Krishnamacharya when he was employed by the palace of Mysore to train Indian boys to grow stronger to be able to fight in the resistance to the English that occupied India (1850-1947). Krishnamacharya is considered the founder of modern yoga and is justly greatly appreciated and commemorated in the world of Yoga. The physical expression that Krishnamacharya taught to the young men in the palace of Mysore, was greatly inspired by body building and Swedish gymnastics, both coming from the Western world. The practice was meant to be a disciplinary, military and strengthening practice suitable for young Indian men. There were strict behavioral and alignment rules that were equal to all. This type of work was not necessarily in accordance with Krishnamacharya’s belief regarding the total Yoga practice. We can still see this in the teachings that he has passed on to his son: TKV Desikachar, in which ‘teaching yoga as a means to heal and making these teachings relevant to people from all walks of life and with all kinds of abilities’ stands central. This teaching method is based on Krishnamacharya’s fundamental principle that yoga must always be adapted to an individual’s changing needs in order to derive the maximum therapeutic benefit. In other words: every single body benefits most from a personally developed and self- explored Asana practice.
In our current Western world, we do see quite often that Yoga is being taught in a disciplinary, military and strengthening format with general alignment rules that should fit everybody.
The majority of Yoga practitioners in the Western world consists of women over the age of 30. It is important to realize that the body of a young to mid-aged western woman is designed differently than the body of a young Indian man. The amount of men practicing Yoga in the Western world is increasing rapidly too. The body of a western man is also designed differently than the body of an Indian man. Basically, all bodies are different. It is important to approach every practice in accordance to ones bodily structures. One rule may apply to one person but might not benefit another.
Our current lifestyle includes a lot of sitting, working on laptops, computers and smartphones, driving endless hours and involve very little physical effort in our daily lives to get food, water and other basic needs. Sitting in the same (poor) posture for long periods causes for the tissue in the body to dry up. We need to break through the ‘frozen’ and ‘fuzzed up’ tissue* (fascia**) in our body that has ‘dried up’ due to lack of movement and find more mobility again.
The human body consists of a skeleton, a muscular system, a joint system and organs; all held together by fascia. Fascia is a connective tissue that forms a three-dimensional web or matrix which supports, surrounds and intertwines with the muscular, skeletal, and visceral (organs) components of the body. Technically, our skin is our first layer of fascia, only since recently categorized as superficial fascia.
The study of fascia is relatively new to the world and scientists keep unraveling mysteries within the human body. Fascia has been determined to greatly influences our physical wellbeing, nervous system, hormonal constitution and it is known to be incredibly proprioceptive and sensory. It seems to transmit information within the body much quicker than or neurons in our tissue.
One thing is clear: our body is made of a great deal of fascia and we can no longer ignore its existence in our yoga practice. And guess what? Fascia, just every single element in our body and in nature, likes to be juicy, mobile and spacious and most importantly: approached without force.
Our body needs to be juicy and spacious in order to enjoy maximum mobility. We need space for the fluids to flow through. Creating space in the body results in experiencing more space in the mind. It is scientifically proven that breathing correctly (full cycles of deep, rhythmic, unrestricted breath) creates space in the spine. Space in the spine results in overall space in the body and overall space in the body results in more mobility. The breath is key element in any Asana practice. A direct student of Krishnamacharya, Paul Harvey, has shared with me that Krishnamacharya measured one’s progress solely by its capacity to keep a calm breath in a posture.
How come we still see so many injuries in the world of Yoga? Does that mean we are doing something wrong?
**Until recently fascia has been described as the connective tissue that keeps our muscular and skeleton system together. However, new studies have found that fascia is much more than that. We could describe fascia as our substance from bone to skin, just in different condensation. Scientist have so far made a difference between myo-fascia (muscle and tissue), neuro-fascia (nerve system and its communication lines), visceral-fascia (organs), osteo-fascia (connective tissue of bones) and our joint system. For example, our nerve channels transmit information through neuro-fascia. We now know that we are basically made up from one piece of tissue (fascia) that has unfolded, wrapped and spiraled itself into the complicated and intelligent body we are living in. And this body is still evolving!
We would benefit most from an overall healthy system in our body in order to enjoy good health in life. This means that our whole body should work together as one piece, rather than working on strengthening or lengthening certain areas only. For example: the idea that in our Asana practice one muscle contracts while the other releases seems no longer entirely valid, considering that our whole bodily structure always works together as one cooperating piece. This invites us to approach the body even more holistic than we have done so far.
Muscles, organs, nerve channels, connective tissue, skin and our joint system need fluid to be enjoy maximum mobility. Stretching muscles for longer periods can cause surrounding muscles and joints to lock up. This mechanism can get us in our fight or flight reflex as when one part locks, the whole system locks up. Locking up joints or muscles causes the fascia around the joint to harden and become less juicy, which can result in damage of the fascia when pulled too sudden, too long or too hard. Fascia, and so does muscle, recovers solely through fibers, which do not have the ability to absorb fluid. Not having enough fluid in the fascia may result in a lack of mobility in the joints and muscles, which can cause severe and life-long injuries. Damaged fascia cannot be fixed other than through these stiff fibers. This is the only way our body knows how to fix fascia. So once the damage is done, it is hard to repair.
Research, for example as presented on the International Fascia Research Congress, show us that
- Fascia works as a tensegrity model which shows us that all movement influences all parts of the body, even the smallest movement.
- Fascia is incredibly propreceptive and sensory and is our main communication tool to transmit information through our body, nervous system and to our brain
- Fascia, which (also) is connective tissue, communicates through the whole body its connections are very relevant in moving. For example, we know that our arms and legs connect to T12 (thoracic spine vertebrae 12), where also our solar plexus, our organs (including heart), our diaphragm (most important muscle for breath) and our digestive connection sits.
- We have 9x more connective tissue cells than we have neurons.
- Nerve transition of information is 50 meter per second while connective tissue transmits information 1500 meter per second.
- Fascia can harden up and even dry up and rip apart when it is not fluid (mobile) enough, Fascia (and muscle) heels itself solely with fibers which do not absorb fluid.
- When using the correct movement we can easily access the natural spring effect of our hands and feet due to their complicated joint systems. This can, for example, make it possible for us to jump really high like a quadrupedal animal.
- Our joints are like organs and like sponges: they like to be fluid and enjoy pulsing and pumping movements rather a bone directly on them.
- When we lock one joint, the whole system in our body locks up and there is no optimal transmission of fluid in our body.
- Our muscles, organs, bones, nerve channels and nerves and our joint systems connect from skull to foot, without interruption, spiraling from top to bottom and inside the muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments, even the bones.
For example: our muscles are made of layers of tissue spiraling into each other. Contracting and releasing a muscle, this includes the natural contraction of your heart when beating, is basically a coiling and recoiling movement of the muscle.
This science invites us to move through more spiraling and natural / animal-like movements where we keep our body unlocked and connect to its natural springs and waves while moving. We have forgotten how to move naturally as our society has taught itself to believe that challenge needs to be met by force. If we look at ancient movement methodology like in the East, we see great power coming from moving naturally without force, using spirals, waves, pulses and springs. To find our natural way of moving back, we can learn a lot from how our body naturally unfolds from embryo to standing man and from the way babies find mobility using gravity and the natural waves and spirals in our bodily system. Observe a baby learning to sit or stand up and see how (s)he circles his/her way up using gravity and how (s)he anchors the hands and feet to communicate movement through the body. Animals too are much more in touch with the natural spirals and waves in their bodies than humans are. If we look around in nature, we see that everything in nature spirals. Even our universe seems to spiral. Find a tree and have a look at its stem and branches for example.
If we look at quadrupedal (4 legged) animals we see that they never lock up any body parts, so they are always ready to move fast when suddenly in danger, even from a sleeping position. In our movement practices we are looking for that mobility and so also in our Asana practice. Always feeling light, fluid and loose and ready to move suddenly. No muscle or joint is locked.
So how does this influence our Yoga practice?
First of all we can consider ease, feel, grace, flow, mobility, stability, fluidity and universal core as central focus points in our practice. We can enjoy a challenging and dynamic practice without meeting it with force. Instead of looking for a great stretch or contraction, we are looking for those moments in our movement practice where resistance arises and explore movement within this resistance; gradually opening the body without meeting force.
- We can invite the body and breath to lead our movements rather than trying to fit in a shape that has been designed for a certain goal and body type.
- As teachers, we should observe our students’ bone structure and abilities and design a personal Asana practice that fits in this body type and its abilities. When teaching a dynamic / flow class in group form this would mean to invite the students to go for an exploration and negotiation of what feels right for them within the pose and while transiting from pose to pose. For this constant (micro) movement and mobility is necessary.
- The way we move into a posture or the way we transit from pose to pose could be much more natural: spiraling, coiling, waving and with an effortless effort to move, using feet and hands as anchors and as springs.
- Staying mobile even when still, allowing the bodies natural motion within the stillness to express itself and never locking up so that movement is limited.
- Our body needs rest to process movement and absorb the benefits of moving. Besides enjoyong a long relaxation at the end of the practice, allow for stillness in between transitions and postures as well. Hereby we talk about a state of relaxation that is not a state of collapse, but a state of intense awareness.
With this in mind MyInnerBalance believes in teaching movement and Yoga classes in which students are invited to
- Cultivate awareness of one’s own body and its needs and abilities,
- Breathe full, rhythmic and deep; using the breath to lead movement,
- Go for an exploration and negotiation in space and body; where joints never lock and muscles never tighten up or stretch for a longer period than a few minutes,
- Use spiraling, round, waving, pulsing and repetitive (big to tiny) movements to move in our posture and from pose to pose,
- Use hands and feet as claws and springs, rather than only as anchor points,
- Stay mobile as if you at any any given moment suddenly have to move fast,
- Implement stillness within the practice to allow the body to settle and absorb the benefits of our movements.
“My prayer comes in the form of my body moving through space, breathing, folding, flowing, pausing, stillness…”Sources:
- Mark Singletons (PHD) Book: The Yoga Body, the origins of modern posture practice
- Gary Carter’s Natural Bodies movement and anatomy training for Gyrotonic, Pilates and Yoga teachers
- Gild Hedley’s dissections online
- Quote above: This is why I pray, Poem from Bryonie Wise
*If you are interested in seeing what ‘fuzzed up fascia’ looks like in the human body and you are not resistant to looking at a human cadaver being dissected, please watch Gil Hedley’s fuzz speech here***:***please note that in the Fascia conference 2015 it has been determined that stretching for longer periods than 15 seconds to a few minutes (depending on person) makes the muscle go into ‘fight or flight’ which could cause for the fascia to harden and the nearby joints to lock. The science on the human body is rapidly growing and changing and we are required to stay up to date at all times.
All rights reserved – Nieke Franken, MyInnerBalance