The beauty of yoga asana practice (the physical postures and movements) compared to other physical exercises is that it makes us fitter, stronger and more flexible but if practiced correctly it also works on much deeper level than our visible physical body. It helps to open/unblock energy channels (nadis) and energy centres (chakras) within. These channels carry prana/chi (life force) and if the channels are not congested, they enable prana to freely flow throughout, keeping us at good physical and mental health, helping us to live longer and to be more mindful, contented and peaceful. All these three “don’ts” (don’t overtense, overstretch and overbreathe) are very important in our practice. In this little article, I would like to share with you a little bit more on why not to overtense our bodies and why it is so essential for creating a “yogic” experience. Soon, I will write more about the other two, why not to overstretch and overbreathe.
We need two opposing qualities in our practice which are “sthira” (meaning steady, firm) and “sukha” (meaning easy, soft, relaxed). You may have heard me saying in class “see if you can find the balance between effort (firmness) and ease (softness) ” - sthira sukham asanam, often translated as "yoga posture (asana) [should be] stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha)", as it is mentioned in Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (sutra 2.46) (one of the most important yoga texts). In our yoga practice, we are supposed to use only as much sthira to be able to find stability in yoga poses and movements but then create a lot of softness, especially in parts which are not actively involved in keeping us stable (like our face or our throat). The balance between effort and ease will change with every pose, every movement, every practice and every person. As everything in life, apart from our inner light of awareness (purusha, also called the Self, pure consciousness), everything changes constantly. Some days we may feel tired or injured and we will need to use more effort to tense our bodies more to find stability and strength in our practice. Other days we may feel anxious or overwhelmed by everything happening in our lives and we will need to actively find more softness in our bodies. By finding the balance between effort and ease, we find comfort in yoga poses and movements and we feel a sense of lightness and freedom. Tensing our bodies (sthira) should never create pain. If the pain is created, we cannot be at ease and won’t be able to find the balance between sthira and sukha in our asana practice. If we are not at ease, our mind will be distracted and we won’t be able to find a quiet focus and experience meditative aspect of our yoga practice.
How much to tense our bodies and to learn to create the muscle control to only tense what we need takes a bit of learning and time (so stay kind to yourselves when experimenting with it, it gets easier when we practice longer). With some injuries, tensing the muscles around a particular joint may work as a protective bandage for that joint and may keep that joint stable and help to recover. From the physiological point of view, by tensing a particular part of our body, blood and energy will be pushed away from that part. This is totally ok and healthy if we also know how to relax this part when it doesn’t need to be engaged anymore. The blood and energy will be pushed away but after releasing new blood and energy will enter this space and will help circulation and healing. However, often in our practice and through the lifestyle we lead, we keep way too much tension in our bodies for extended periods of time and we actually discourage the flow of blood and energy. Unfortunately, this can eventually manifest in some kind of illness or injury. This is also one of the reasons why I have started to teach to keep our bellies soft throughout the practice as much as we can. Especially our bellies are often overtense and it is so important to have enough blood and energy circulating through this part of our bodies to keep the inner organs nourished.
Through the training I have been doing with Yoga Synergy, I have found out that the reason we have been taught to keep our bellies engaged in all the different fitness areas is because of a study done by a group of physiotherapists in 1970s. They studied two groups of people, one with lower back problems and the other one with healthy backs. They found out that when these people were asked to lift a heavy object, the people from the healthy group would see the object, engage the belly and then reach for it to lift it up. People from the other group with lower back issues would see the object, reach for it and then engage the belly. Since then, the news spread into the world and everyone was instructed to engage their bellies in all sorts of fitness industries to keep their lower backs protected. It was a very well meant advice, however, engaging the belly is quite a vague term in a way. Physiotherapists later realized that different people will engage their bellies differently, some lower belly, some whole belly and sides, some more, some less and it has led to a lot of other health problems. There will be definitely situations in everyday life and in our yoga practice when engaging our belly (maybe with a bit more instructions) would be beneficial. But keeping our belly tense throughout the whole practice seems to be doing more harm then help, by discouraging normal diaphragmatic breathing (I have mentioned the 5 main characteristics of the natural (diaphragmatic) breath in the June/July newsletter, you can find it here (at the bottom of the newsletter).
Why do we want to keep natural diaphragmatic breathing? Natural breathing into our bellies stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which relaxes our bodies, compared to the sympathetic nervous system, also called fight-or-flight, which prepares us for high intensity activities that require a quick response. If you had a chance to come to our movie night last year where we watched “The Connection: Mind Your Body” or you watched it on your own, you may remember that one of the doctors was comparing fight-or-flight response to seeing a tiger. The only thing the body wants to do in that moment is to survive. So only the systems that are necessary for us to fight or flight will be bursting with energy, whereas other ones we don’t need at that moment, like digestion system, immune system and reproductive system will be shut down. The problem is due to our fast lifestyle, being stressed, anxious, our nervous system is overactive and our bodies are in the fight-or-flight state even when the real tiger is not actually there. It is very taxing on our bodies and we often realize when a real damage, manifesting itself as an illness or injury, appears. We really need to learn how to relax our bodies and our yoga practice is a beautiful place where we can do so.
When we learn to find balance between sthira and sukha, we find a lot of comfort in our practice. The practice should be a beautiful experience, leaving us feeling relaxed and energized. See if you can take time over the next few weeks to experiment with the above. Notice how you feel after your practice when you tense your bodies a lot throughout, and notice how you feel after your practice when you create a little bit more softness. Also, as with every new experience, see if you can stay gentle and kind to yourself in your thoughts. Whenever we start creating a new habit, it may take a little bit of time for the body to relearn what it has been doing, for some of us for years. Take it as a beautiful learning experience, learning about your body and what makes you feel good in your practice.