With a bit of body awareness we can begin to hone a skill that can be extremely useful in our Yoga practice. Being able to selectively engage some muscles while at the same time relaxing others can save energy, help with proper alignment, and allow the practitioner to achieve progress towards mastering complex, multidimensional poses. Plus, exercising this level of control over one's body and experiences delivers unsurpassed satisfaction: studies show that what makes us happy is not how much money we have or even the state of our relationships, it is the amount of self control, and controlling our own bodies is a major part that, I believe.

For example, with breathing, we can direct the breath into different parts of our body. Breathing can be organized to inhale/exhale from the top down or from the bottom up, for example, if we tap into controlling certain breathing muscles. In our movements it is all too common to tense unnecessarily in the face, jaw, shoulders, while performing actions that require no strain whatsoever in those areas. Those are our habits that we bring with us to the mat from our daily lives, lives with poor self-awareness, and poor self-control. In Yoga, we can learn to keep a relaxed face and steady breath while performing extremely challenging poses.

This is the skill that is directly transferable to your life off the mat. Yoga, essentially, is a controlled response to stress - we put our body through unusual and sometimes challenging shapes, we attempt movements and poses that we are unsure we will be be able to do, that are novel or difficult, we try to stay focused and present. All of that is rather stressful, and by selectively relaxing areas of the body that do not need to be tense, we are sending a signal to our nervous system that we are in control, there is no need to "help" by tensing up. In times of stress at work or social situations, we can rely on this skill to help us keep a clear head.

And clear head means choices, informed decisions based not on knee-jerk reactions but on actual analysis of facts (I am unable to sustain the contraction in my erectus spinae so I am going to exit the pose right now). This keeps us safer in the practice by letting us know when to stop, when to rest, but it also allows us to grow in our practice, by letting us know when it is appropriate to go on deeper into a pose.

Here is an exercise to try: Bridge Pose, Dwi Pada Pitham, with different degrees of participation from the gluteus maximus (buttock muscles). Lying on your back with knees bent, feet hip distance apart (good body awareness test - can you tell without looking if your feet are hip distance apart?), bring your pelvis into neutral. Inhale and lift the pelvis off the floor into bridge pose. Stay in Bridge pose and assess how much your gluteals are working. Can you relax them a little? A lot? Now, there are three buttock muscles in there - gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus. Maximus is the largest muscle in the body and plays a great role in leg extension, which is what you are doing here. If gluteals are weak, you will be unable to lift the pelvis very much. However, many of us have a habit of overusing the gluteals, some of us have heard that squeezing the glutes hard while doing the bridge pose is a good thing to do. Some will experience a "charlie horse" cramp just by thinking about it, as the nervous system is receiving conflicting messages.

Being able to selectively relax/engage gluteals to the degree that they fulfill their function yet leave room for other muscles to participate is a tricky business. By engaging the glutes just so, we should be able to feel our inner thighs that try to keep the thigh bones parallel, and our core muscles that keep the pelvis level and neutral in bridge. If the glutes are working too much, they will, in the end, create tension in the low back, limiting the degree of extension of our thoracic spine. Can we feel the bottom tips of our shoulder blades and can we engage them to open up through the chest a little more? Some will find themselves tense in the shoulders and face, which only restricts blood flow to the brain, which is one of the main reasons for doing the Bridge Pose in the first place.

So, again we come to the age old mantra of Yoga: it is not what you do, but how you do it. Stay tuned for more on Yoga skills in future posts, such as playing with the edge and left/right sides coordination.


Anna M.