Just a couple of weeks ago, I could barely hold a forearm plank while propped up on my knees. I collapsed, shaky, after about one and a half seconds. It was not a pretty sight. Forearm plank was the pose assigned to me as part of our “Least Favorite Pose” assignment with Jonathan FitzGordon in the current Yoga Teacher Training class. Jonathan aptly assigned me a pose that requires well-toned abdominal muscles, glutes, shoulder and back muscles, as well as arm and leg muscles. Basically, every major muscle group.
I have never been particularly strong, nor have I paid much attention to muscles in general. I guess I always assumed if I ate the right foods, walked plenty, and stayed relatively active, my body would do the rest of the work and the necessary muscles would develop. I did not take into consideration that poor alignment and lazy postures would incidentally create weakness in my body, and that my body would compensate in less than favorable ways.
After attempting forearm plank, I knew it would be months of strengthening work before I could properly hold the full pose. I got started right away, working on accessible poses and exercises that would strengthen and tone the most important muscle groups (I focused primarily on the shoulder & back muscles, especially the rhomboids, as well as the abdominal muscles, especially the transverse abs). I could only afford a few minutes each day for this project. I also spent some time studying the function of the muscles involved and trying to get a sense of their location in my body.
Less than a week later, for the heck of it, I tried forearm plank again. I was baffled when I successfully got into the pose and held it for several seconds (without my knees). How could I have accomplished this so quickly?
In a recent class, Jonathan showed us a diagnostic exercise for testing the strength and tone of the multifidus muscle. If you haven’t heard of this muscle, you’re not alone. It runs along the spine from the neck to the tailbone and helps to support and stabilize the spine. This simple exercise involves getting onto all fours and lifting one hand and the opposite knee off the floor a tad (no more than an inch). The first time I attempted this, I wobbled this way and that. I switched sides and shook and wobbled even more. I was surprised how difficult it was. Jonathan assured us when we tried it a second time, it would be significantly easier. Sure enough, when I repeated the test on the first side, my body stayed much more stable. Clearly, I had not already strengthened the multifidus muscle! So what changed?
A dear teacher of mine, Dr. Claudia Welch, has taught that “wherever your attention goes, prana follows; and wherever prana goes, your cells follow.” An example of this concept can be seen when “breathing” into various parts of the body that may be neglected and consequently may be tight, stiff, cold, painful, or may have no sensation at all. By using deep breathing and awareness, one can focus attention on any particular challenge spot and bring prana (life force) into that area. This is a profound practice for breaking up stagnation and increasing blood flow, reducing pain, and creating suppleness in the body (download Claudia’s audio guide for this healing practice). What exactly is the mechanism at work here?
I’ve learned from my recent experience with forearm plank and the multifidus test that we can “turn on” neglected muscles relatively easily. Slight movements, breath, and awareness can awaken the body’s intelligence. By activating a muscle, we’ve brought consciousness and awareness into the tissue and it quickly responds with increased function. That is why I could find my way into forearm plank so quickly – I only had to introduce myself to the muscles. This is also why the multifidus test gets easier on the second try.
We have beautiful bodies that function in brilliant and complex ways, giving us access to all kinds of amazing experiences. Why not take a little time to get to know each part, each organ, each muscle, each system?
As a mother and a wife, I’ve noticed that our household functions much more smoothly when I spend a little time offering mindful attention to each person every day. It doesn’t even take much effort or time. Just a smile, a hello, a hug, a silent moment of listening and seeing one another. My body is not unlike my family. It doesn’t take much time to give each part a little bit of breath, attention, prana, and awareness. Why not boost your own cellular intelligence with a little love and attention? You may be surprised by the changes that unfold. For example, I’m now able to hold forearm plank for 45 seconds; a feat I would have thought impossible just a couple weeks ago.
"Anti-gravitation is levitation and levitation is the function of mamsa dhatu [muscle tissue].”
Dr. Vasant Lad
We tend to have an “upside-down view of the body’s design,” says Jonathan FitzGordon in his recent post at Corewalking.com. We are prone to thinking of the body as building upwards from the feet, “but the body is really a series of hanging structures from the head down.” If we think of the body as a puppet suspended by strings, we get a better vision of the way the body is constructed. To improve our perspective and our alignment, we can imagine a puppeteer is lifting us up out of our body by strings, suggests FitzGordon.
Muscle tissue is called mamsa dhatu in Ayurveda. According to leading Ayurvedic teacher Dr. Vasant Lad, one of the primary functions of mamsa dhatu is levitation. He describes in his Textbook of Ayurveda that muscle tissue is the bodily tissue that “best resists gravity.” The other dhatus (i.e. bodily tissues), including plasma, blood, and fat, have a downward moving action; they flow downward with gravity. Muscle, on the other hand, which is composed of the elements earth and fire, uses mechanical energy to lift our body upwards. I have heard FitzGordon say that we should maintain a sense of lifting up at all times, being very light in our feet and body (think: string puppet). This is the action of levitation provided by well-toned muscles.
Levitation is not the only function of healthy muscles. In fact, Ayurveda describes the primary function of mamsa dhatu as “plastering” or “holding.” Plastering or “holding” is one way that the muscles offer protection and support to the bones and organs. The Sanskrit word for “holding” is dharana. Dharana is a familiar concept to those who’ve studied the eight limbs of yoga. In yogic practice, dharana means to hold one’s attention steady with awareness – this is a significant step on the path to attaining true meditation. So, while the muscles’ job in the body is to hold and support the bones to allow the body to rest easily in its natural state, the mind’s job in meditation is to hold one’s awareness steady so that the mind can rest easily in its natural state.
Dr. Lad makes an interesting connection between meditation and muscles. He explains that in order to have good meditation, we must have healthy muscle tissue: “In meditation we hold, we have a grip on, awareness. This is dharana, which also means holding. To have proper dharana, we need healthy mamsa dhatu. The quality of healthy mamsa dhatu is a meditative mind” (Lad, 130). This concept recalls FitzGordon’s recent blog title that “We should always think up physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” When we think “up” physically, our muscles express their anti-gravity function. When we think “up” emotionally and spiritually, our mind is levitated to a state of natural clarity and awareness.
An important aside: Because the muscles love to hold, they may harbor the remnants of stale emotions in the form of neurotransmitters. “When a muscle is rigid, the flow of awareness is blocked. Emotions such as fear, anxiety, grief, sadness, and anger, in the form of neurotransmitters, become stuck in that muscle and create a neuromuscular block” (Lad, 130). Similarly, with regards to meditation, it is the mind’s job to hold steady focus & awareness, but not to hold onto desires and expectations of a particular outcome. This concept is reminiscent of my post last week about wei wu wei, or “doing not-doing,” otherwise referred to as strategic non-action. The muscles, when properly toned and balanced, can remain in a state of action while also being in a state of relaxation, without any clenching or blockages. Similarly, in meditation the mind is ideally both alert and aware while completely relaxed, sans attachment and desire. That is the true embodiment of wei wu wei (read last week’s post for more on wei wu wei).
Thus, we can see how the muscles and the mind are connected: both have the function of levitation, to bring our attention upwards and keep us light; both also have the function of dharana, that is, to hold. The muscles and the mind both function optimally when they are well-toned and balanced so they can remain in a state of relaxation while also being active. Dr. Lad summarizes this concept beautifully: “The mind in meditation is a muscle in action with relaxation. If you walk two miles while looking at the beauty of the cloud and the mountain, and birds are singing, even in that action of walking there is relaxation and joy. So relaxation does not mean inaction. Action and inaction go together. And that is the highest spiritual function of mamsa dhatu” (Lad, 131).
I first learned about wei wu wei when googling some basic qigong exercises. I was looking for a gentle activity I could do in my bedroom after abdominal surgery last year. I was experiencing significant weakness and had read that qigong may facilitate healing with minimal effort on my part. That sounded pretty good to me. I came across the term wei wu wei while looking up various exercises and learned that, ironically, it means: “doing not-doing,” or “strategic non-action.” This concept is a stretch for the Western mind. Doing not-doing? How is that even possible?
I explored this practice in my personal life over the next several months. Mostly, I began noticing that I am seriously addicted to "doing." In fact, I’ll do most anything to avoid doing nothing. One of my teachers, Dr. Claudia Welch, has referred to this as “hidden camera syndrome.” She explains that many of us suffer from the habit of quickly picking up a magazine or leaping off the couch when someone arrives, in fear they might catch us doing nothing. The pressure and addiction to busyness in our daily lives can present itself as a constant “clenching” (mentally, emotionally, and physically). We are always gripping, perhaps for fear that we might lose control. In Dr. Claudia Welch’s book, Balance your Hormones, Balance your Life, she explains that “[...] from an Eastern perspective, stress seriously interferes with our qi, or life force. Qi works best when it is circulating smoothly. When we are stressed out, we tend to clench parts or all of our bodies, constricting the natural flow of qi until it stagnates, leading to tissue, organ, or system disorders." (26, Welch)
What does this have to do with standing? As I’ve come to realize, a lot. I am currently participating in Jonathan FitzGordon’s Yoga Teacher Training. Our entire first class was focused on “tadasana,” the seemingly simple yoga pose that looks a lot like standing, but in this case hopefully in proper alignment and with ease. I am reminded of the words from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Sthira sukham asanam, which loosely translates to “the posture should be stable and easeful.” Sthira means “stable” or “steady.” In fact, the sthi in sthira is the same sthi that is found in the Sanksrit word asthi, which means “bone.” The function of bones in the body is to hold the body up, to keep us steady and stable. Sukha translates to ease, happy, or good. Su means “good” and kha means “space.” So literally, sukha means “good space.” Therefore, when in any particular posture, but perhaps most especially when standing, one should allow the bones to provide stability; if successful, one’s body will naturally fall into a “good space,” each part landing exactly where it belongs. This is the foundation for easeful standing.
I learned in our first class with Jonathan that I chronically clench my buttocks. I’m using my muscles to hold me up instead of my bones. And as a result, nothing is quite in the right place and my body is doing a lot more work than it needs to do. As Dr. Welch noted, this also happens to be blocking the flow of prana or qi, and is creating stagnation and pain as a result.
When I first started practicing wei wu wei (strategic non-action) last year, it felt like a lot of work. In fact, it still comes as a challenge many days. But over time, “doing not-doing” has gradually become more natural for me and has made a huge impact on my emotional, mental, and physical well-being. I can see that the same will be true of proper standing. Right now, as I push my butt out into “its own room” (as Jonathan likes to say), and push my thighs back so that my bones are bearing the weight of my body (instead of my muscles), I feel a bit like a stranger in my own body. I don’t have to clench everything to hold myself in space. New sensations are arising as I awaken parts of me that have been ignored. The art of doing nothing while standing is challenging at first, yes, but with daily practice, my body will be revitalized with prana or qi and my supple parts will become supple again. In the same way that wei wu wei has brought a sense of stability and ease into my daily life, so will standing in alignment bring stability and ease back into my body.
What does "doing not-doing" look like in my life?
Or, go to the source and pick up a copy of the Tao Te Ching.
What does proper standing look like?
Check out this article at CoreWalking to learn more about standing in alignment. Jonathan FitzGordon has tons of additional resources at www.corewalking.com.
Our friends at CoreWalking were kind enough to share this post on their blog. Check it out!
1. Welch, Claudia. Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2011. Print.