سيحوا تطيبوا، فإنّ الماء إذا ساح طاب، وإذا أطال مقامه في موضع تغيَّر.
العمر، كل العمر سفر… نقلة من أرض إلى أرض ومن حال إلى حال ومن مقام إلى مقام فكراً وجسداً، قلباً وعقلاً. وإن استقر بالعمر المكان بقي الزمان فيه مرتحلاً أو يبقى هو المرتحل في الزمان من حاضر إلى حاضر.
والسائح المسافر أقرب إلى حقيقته كرحالة في هذه الحياة، وهو المسافر إلى فرح الاغتراب عن الشواغل وإن تعثر في رحلته بحبائل ما يأمل ويشتهي. لكنه بالحاصل شاهد في سياحته غير منغمس ولا متجذر في مكانه وزمانه الطارئين، بل كأنه مجرد قائم في اللازمان واللامكان. كأنه يطالع الجفرافيا ولا يمتد فيها، يعايش الزمان ولا يستهلكه، فهو أقرب إلى الذات الذي هو هو، سابحاً لا غارقاً، شاهداً لا فاعلاً. السائح منسلخ عن تربة ما كان يفترضه واقعاً يتماهى معه على أنه المنبت، وهو بعد غير متصل بالمشهد إلا من حيث كونه مشهداً لا مرتكزاً. مرتكز السائح ذاته. فرح السفر إذن ليس فرح فضول وتشتت، أو جوعاً للتجارب واستهلاكاً فيها، إنما هو فرح الانفصال عن الاستنزاف بالمُعاش اليومي والاتصال بمركزية الذات.
يريحك في سفرك أن ما تركتَ خلفك باقٍ من دون أن يكون عبئاً، حاضر من دون أن يكون مُعاشاَ، كائن وغير كائن في آن. أما حاضرك فليس شُغُلاً ولا ثقلاً، ولا مادة للاصطفاف ولا للمواقف، تمر فيه أو يمر فيك ولا تحمله بل تحملك لحظته. في المدينة الغريبة تتنفس وإن كانت خانقة، تمشي وإن كانت مكتظة. في البلد الغريب لا تربكك تفاصيل السياسة والاقتصاد ولا يشغلك تنافس المتنافسين. هناك تجد نفسك قابلاً بسرور ما هو كائن من دون حكم أو إدانة، فهناك أنت لست طرفاً. هناك أنت الشاهد الصامت لا غير.
والسائح من ثم مدركٌ لحتمية زوالِ المشهود مهما حاول التمسك به، وبقاءِ الشاهد مهما حاول التنكرَ له، مدركٌ لتقلب الصور المنزّلة على شاشة الوعي، مدركٌ لسرعة انقضاء التجارب مهما كانت شائقة أو شاقة ومهما كان عمق رغبته بالاحتفاظ بها أو تثبيتها فيه.
هو أقرب إلى الحقيقة في كثير من أبعادها وإن لم يلتقطها عقله لكنها حتماً في صميم اختباره…
قلّ من يعلم أن ابن بطوطة يوم خرج من طنجة مرتحلاً في أصقاع الأرض إنما خرج في رحلة روح بحثاً عن العرفان والعارفين… ولست أدري إن كان هو أدرك أنه بمجرد ارتحاله كان إليهما أشد قرباً منه إلى الأرض التي تحمله.
سيحوا… فإن الماء إذا ساح طاب…
In The last issue we were discussing reflexes (1. Myotatic stretch reflex, 2. Clasp knife reflex, 3. Flexion reflexes.), and we talked about the first tow and we said that we can deal with them in such a way to get maximum benefits for our practice… did you think about examples?
Well, let us take a look first at the third reflex and then go to practical hints about “using” physiology in our yoga practice.
These reflexes are a whole group of reflexes that protect our body when we cause to ourselves physical pain. When we touch a hot glass of tea our hand withdraws back without us being conscious about the movement. This is because the pain alarm in the body calls for help and the flexor muscles come to rescues so they contract to bend the arm away from the offending object.
In Hatha Yoga we always differentiate between discomfort and pain. The feeling of discomfort is useful as it is a part of the training process. It shows the level of stretch we are working on in the moment and tells us that we are somewhere near our stretch limit. Pain is totally different. It is the voice of the body telling us we have exceeded the limit. Thus, we should listen to the body and try not to reach a point where this reflex is elicited.
Minimizing the Effects of Myotatic Reflex and Flexion Reflexes
Pearls for practice: Perfect asanas can never be achieved by forcing and pushing. In your practice always move gently and consciously!
Using the Clasp Knife Reflex
As you remember, this reflex works in such a way that allows muscles to relax after intense contracting. So you can use this reflex to allow the hamstrings to relax and enjoy your levels best split or forward bend.
From “anti-split” to split: stretching the muscles of the inner thigh is always a hard mission especially when trying to go into a split or trying to sit in lotus (padmasana). In order to make it easier to open the hips or split, lie down on your back with your hips seated against a wall and legs stretched up by the wall. Split the legs apart to your maximum. Then fix your heals firmly to the wall and try to contract the muscles on the inner side of the thigh (adductor muscles) as if trying to bring the feet together but allowing the heels to restrain the movement. At the same time massage the tendons of these tensed muscles near the pelvis. This will give your body an impression that the muscles are contracted more and more. After that, relax and allow the legs to go apart, and you will notice that the angle between the legs has increased.
Paschimottanasana the sitting forward bend: first try to go into the forward bend as u usually do. Remember the limit you reached. Then sit on your sitting bones once more with your spine straight and legs stretched in front of you, feet perpendicular to the floor and toes pointing to the ceiling. Inhale, stretch your body up and as you exhale stretch bend forward stretching the arms towards the toes, and before you reach the maximum bend contract your hamstrings for about 10 seconds as if you were trying to penetrate with your heels through the floor. Then relax the hamstrings (stop pressing with the heels down) and stretch more forward and bend as if trying to reach with your abdomen to the thighs. You will notice that your forward bend is much better now.
Synchronize stretching towards the toes with inhalations and bending forward with exhalations. Always use your breath to enhance your stretch and feel more comfortable while holding any asana.
When you practice yoga, especially Hatha Yoga , you find yourself dealing with that same object which you met first when you were born and will leave last at the moment of departure. While practicing yoga process you learn to master this object and use it and transcend it… but first of all you have to know it. In Hatha Yoga you deal with the most familiar and yet most mysterious of all objects – you deal with your own body.
If ordinary people need only the body user’s manual, yogis need a much more detailed one, a kind of developer’s manual. In this series of articles we’ll try to shed a light on these sides of our bodies’ anatomy and physiology that we need to know as yogis to enhance our practice.
In the last issue we talked about different types of muscle contraction. Did you think of examples from your own practice?
Well, the simplest example is single and double leg lifts: when you lift your leg, the hip flexors (the iliopsoas, rectus femoris and pectineus muscles) contract isotonicly with concentric shortening of muscle fibers so that your leg is lifted straight up. To hold the leg straight up the muscles contract isometricly, they don’t shorten nor elongate. But when you are releasing your leg down, the flexor muscles remain contracted but they elongate eccentricly. Meanwhile the hip extensors (the hamstrings and the gluteus muscles, which are antagonist muscles in this case) must be relaxed. If you fail to relax your extensors you wouldn’t be able to flex your leg and hold it straight.
In single and double leg raises you warm up your muscles and prepare yourself for the forward bends which also involve the activity of hip flexors.
Merits of Isometric Exercises.
A reflex, is an involuntary movement that comes as a response to a certain stimulus.
As much as we are concerned in Hatha Yoga , we need to know about 3 reflexes: 1. Myotatic stretch reflex, 2. Clasp knife reflex, 3. Flexion reflexes.
Myotatic Strech Reflex is the contraction of the muscle in response to its stretching. The reflex is meant to prevent overstretching (muscle trauma) and stabilize movements.
If you stand straight and start bending to one side, the muscles on the other side of the body will stretch to allow you bend but if you bend quickly you will feel resistance from these muscles. This is because of the stretch reflex that is trying to protect your body and “correct” your posture, preventing you from falling.
In fact any dynamic movement causes this reflex to work. This reflex is immediate, so you feel it a part of your movement and you can be aware of it only as stiffness in the muscles The knee reflex (patellar reflex) is the most well known example of stretch reflex: as the doctor strikes the tendon just under the patella, quadriceps muscle stretches and receptors send a signal to the spinal column and an order is generated there to contract the quadriceps and prevent its hyper extension. This causes the leg to kick.
In Hatha Yoga we need to minimize the effects of this reflex. We don’t want our muscles to shorten and contract and the joints to be stiff. We need them to be stretched, relaxed and flexible. That’s why we use dynamic exercises (surya namaskar, single led raises without holding the leg, the dolphin) only as preparatory exercises as they are perfect means for warming up. But when it comes to yoga asanas we avoid brisk and quick movements, jumping and forceful stretching so that we don’t elicit the stretch reflex and get a result completely opposite to the one we aiming to.
Clasp Knife Reflex is another stretch reflex, but this one causes the muscles to relax. It works like the pocket knife that folds (closes) easily only after the closure faces long resistance that pulls the blade to the opposite direction.
In the same manner if you are performing a movement and you face some resistance, your muscles will contract more in order to overcome the obstacle. But if you are lifting a big rock, that cannot be lifted with ordinary human power, your muscles won’t contract infinitely, you will reach a point where they relax and you feel totally powerless. This is because the clasp knife reflex causes your muscles to relax!
Hunt after “self-development” workshops: different meditations, yoga workshops, chakra opening sessions, past life regression, affirmation meditations, meditations on higher plains of existence…practice a bit of the techniques taught in every practice and session you can reach to. Especially trust workshops that “talk to the heart” where the workshop leader is “full of Love” and compassion. Trust even more the workshops where you are led to remember your weaknesses, the pains you had, where you are supposed to forgive yourself and others, ie. to recall all the sh..t from the darkest zones of oblivion… The more workshops you attend the more knowledge you gather in your mind the better is your progress in spiritual growth delusion.
Read “The Secret” or any other book on the law of attraction and follow the advises given there. Always set targets and visualize them achieved. Want what you want from the innermost depth of your heart! Ask for more, want more and more… “tap to the source” of all good with more visualization and true wanting… ask for “abundance”… trust that things “in the future will be better than NOW” ! Attract people, attract money, attract health, attract anything by thinking positively about the subject you want to attract. The more you think of something and the more you are emotionally attached to it, the more that thing is likely to manifest, and the more you are spiritually evolved.
Attend powerful yoga classes where the instructor herself / himself is super flexible. Gentle classes would not help. Do hot yoga, power yoga all the vinyasas you can! Sweat! Loose calories! If you are not physically satisfied in the yoga session it is of no use. Measure your progress day after day. Push as much as you can especially in nice arching back poses and impressive splits. Try your best to master hard and weird postures like arm balancing poses and inversions (headstand, armstand…) don’t forget to post your new photos in super poses on facebook, instagram, twitter, etc…
No matter how you really feel about the person or situation in front of you wear a “spiritual” smile (usually from ear to ear). Express “deep love” and compassion (the more you talk about it the better) towards every tiny creature “suffering”: ants smashed by pedestrians, homeless cats, withering flowers… of course, your family members and colleagues at work can wait a little more till you start noticing they exist. Meanwhile talk as much as you can about love and happiness. Tell others about the peace and love you experience… these are definite markers of “spirituality” don’t fail to hold them tight.
Self-development, self-empowerment, self-esteem, selfwhatever… this is what spirituality is about. Do not listen to the news. It is full of stress. If it happens that you listen stay careless. Why do you care what is happening “outside”. Focus only on yourself. Make yourself happier, do only things that you love to do, avoid any activity that you do not like. Avoid any effort or duty, do only what you love not what you “should” do. Love yourself “as you deserve to be loved”. Struggle against any feeling of emptiness and silence within you. Whenever you feel empty do something, don’t just sit… Keep yourself “busy” developing yourself.
Use chakra opening stones and crystals to balance your energy. The color and quality of the stone can make a great difference in your spiritual evolution. So do your yoga pants and shirts. Use incense and candles at your home . Make an “om” tattoo or wear an “om” necklace, it will definitely boost your spiritual growth. Drink soya milk, take yoga pills.Local diets are a hindrance in the path of spirituality, a macrobiotic diet is surely much more enlightening.
Stick to these advises and encourage others to do if you really want to mute any urge for real spiritual growth in you and in others… adhere to them to stay “spiritually high” and totally deludedabout true spirituality and its meaning… don’t hesitate to contact any of the new age gurus for a further destructions… eh… sorry, instructions.
Each time you visit India you cannot avoid being impressed with the overwhelming happiness and smiling faces you meet there despite the relative “poverty” with which a big majority of Indians live. With each visit one can learn more about the art of happy living… The five lessons I learnt in my last visit are so simple:
Humility: As you meet people in south India you can’t help being “hypnotized” by their humbleness. They way they talk, they way they move… just like big children. You feel in the people there the readiness to be oneself and not more or less than oneself. No masks, no arrogance, no “fake it till you make it”, no inflated ego of the west. Something we do miss in our modern society.
Appreciation: The westernized eye can see a lot of poverty in India. A lot of people live there with the basic needs of life barely available. Nevertheless, looking at these people one would realize that they do feel abundance while we, with all the luxuries we have, are the poor ones. People there are happy with the little that they have. Children enjoy simple games, grownups enjoy simple living… and everything around is appreciated and everyone lives with gratitude.
Accepting our Body: People there are friends with their bodies. All body parts are equally appreciated. The foot is no less important than the hand and the tummy is no less important than the head. Form here comes their holistic view towards everything around.
Being part of Nature: In many rural places you can see houses built without cutting a single tree. Coconut trees pass through the roof of the house while their stems serve as its support. The quantity of green spaces even in the cities of south India is comparable to the green areas in our villages and fields. This area of green is the main stress absorber. It is the link that keeps man connected to source of universal energy. The more you connect the healthier you are.
With all the amazing experiences and lovely people I met the fifth lesson I learnt during this trip to India was never to travel without a photo camera!
Thoughts from the talks given on the second week of April 2014.
The system is never concerned in your fulfillment. Whatever it presents to you is a mean of transient pleasure that chains you more and allow to enslave you more and more to the patterns of the system. The system; which is in no mean a person or a group of people, but the totality of social economic and power relationships; regards you only as a particular nut, a screw in a big mechanism… for the system you are not you but what the system wants you to be: a consumer, Mr. or Mrs. and such, an employee, a lawyer, a president… the system will not serve you. On the contrary… it is built in a way that you will serve the system, that you sacrifice your presence, your inner peace, your goals… for the sake of the goals the system sets for you. The system shifts your attention always outwards, away from yourself, away from your innermost desires.
Political parties are a good example (a bad example as a matter of fact). The youth, full of hope and desire to make the world we live in a better place, join political parties and sometimes give the life for the sake of this political direction or that… the youth thinks that being a part of a political party they will be able to manifest their energy and be fulfilled. But the result is most of the time disappointing… political parties are more of a “manufactura” in which the youth is standardized to suite the frames of the system. Schools? Universities? Not much better!
When Mahatma Gandhi wanted to change the world he is living in, he did not choose to be part of the system… he chose the inner path, the path of inner growth. He stated it simply: “be the change!” Ironically the system uses Gadhiji’s saying as a hollow slogan now… nevertheless, Gandhi did become the change he wanted to see in the world. Through the movement of Satyagraha he could bring the inner growth out, and showed that in a proper setting the inner strength of peaceful warriors can shake mighty thrones. If Gandhi had chosen the classic way of violent struggle, I doubt he could have achieved both personal and national freedom.
Satyagraha is a living example of how non-violence, personal growth and yogic values are not confined to the space of the mat. It shows how the path to the inner space can lead to a better world. It is not true that yoga except the world as it is without trying to change it. It is just that we start change the other way… from inside out, with fulfillment being the start point not the destination. (read more in the next blog post).
For 8 years I was eating what Russians eat. I didn’t try to simulate neither the Lebanese nor the Indian cuisine on the banks of Volga river. I avoided imported goods as much as possible. Natural Russian products were not in shortage at all.
Credits should be given to the Russian market for still having local “un-franchised” goods. Near a metro entrance you can see a babushka (elderly women) selling the milk of a cow she is holding in the backyard of her village house, berries gathered in the forests beyond the river. And if you drive some kilometers outside the city you can find a farmer who would supply you with fresh poultry and meat and you would be sure the product you are buying is a 100% natural product. In such farms the animals are grown in a natural way, feeding on the green grass of the fields and are never injected with growth hormones to increase their muscular mass.
Well, I didn’t give up with vegetarianism totally; I was just eating what Russians eat. Traditionally Russians are orthodox Christians, and according to Christian traditions, half of the days of the year are days of fasting (meat-free diet). I adhered to the church calendar of fasting days refraining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, and keeping a meat free window for few weeks before Christmas and Easter. It wasn’t so easy to hold firm to the fasts; I tried my best, but kept my diet flexible.
During this period I was practicing meditation intensively and I didn’t feel any dullness or drowsiness as the traditional texts promise. My hatha yoga practice, though not intensive, also didn’t suffer. Note that I am initially not a “rubber-flexible” guy. I am not double jointed nor do I have long muscle tendons (which is determined genetically). My flexibility has always been a result of regular practice. The combined diet did not prove harmful. On contrary, I felt the combination of food I am having kept both my body and mind healthy and capable of adapting to the cold Russian winter.
I was back to Lebanon in 2008. It is worth to say it took me more time to adapt back to Lebanese food than it took me to adapt to Russian food 8 years before. I started suffering stomach ache after each meal of cold Lebanese dishes. It didn’t take me a while to understand that there is a big difference between meza (cold dishes we usually think of as the sole representative of Lebanese cuisine) and real Lebanese food (the thing we call yakhni). Lebanese food is not what Lebanese restaurants present; it is what people cook at their homes. Stomach ache was healed when I started a balanced traditional Lebanese diet.
Now I try my best to have natural seasonal food. Vegetarianism has stopped to be a priority while the only taboo remains fast food sandwiches. Fish makes a good part of my diet – as it has always been part of the diet in east Mediterranean. I avoid meat as much as traditional dishes allow. The inhabitants of this part of the world have always had a healthy mixed diet and meat has always been a part of the diet but not in the same amount as now. (The availability of imported meat, hormone pumped, made it the main part of modern diet). The traditional diet was more moderate. This moderate diet is what I believe fits the best.
I cannot ignore my concern when it comes to the veggie products available in the Lebanese market. The wide use of pesticide and chemicals make most of the greens, fruits and vegetables a havoc for health. To keep on the safe side you may plant your own greens, or buy your vegetables and fruits from farmers you know and trust. I admit I am lucky enough to have this option available. You can even find farmers who can supply you with natural meat and milk, though it will take you time to find one. For me, I prefer to eat home grown poultry and meat than chemically nourished, pesticide soaked, greenhouse grown vegetables.
My last period of vegetarianism was between 2009 and 2011. After my last visit to India, I was already feeling that vegetarianism is more a part of the Indian culture rather than a prerequisite for yoga practice. The truth I say, I was already feeling not only vegetarianism, but many Indian local endogenous elements interlace with yogic practice and Vedanta philosophy in the traditional texts and the teachings of some modern schools. Philosophy and practice can be international, but generalizing traditions and rituals of a certain culture in a kind of globalization might not be what we need. In the same manner as you can be a yogi – even a self realized one – without praying to Ganesha, you can be a yogi without adhering to Indian traditional diet.
From my point of view, to eat as a yogi means more than eating sattvic food. Questions of physical, mental and spiritual health, non-violence, ecology and morality are of more importance.
I’ll be addressing these questions in part III
I am frequently asked what diet I follow and if I am vegetarian or not. Most of the times I feel I am expected to be a fanatic vegetarian… In answer I will share my experience in this field and I hope the answers I’ve reached may be helpful for you too. My views shared here may seem unorthodox for many vegetarians. I should admit that I prefer to keep my essential practice traditional (no new age, visualizations, wishful thinking, bla bla bla) while adapting totally to the needs of modern life, rather than hiphoping with new stylish practices while holding to ancient slogans on what to eat.
I have been experimenting with yogic diet and vegetarianism since 1997. At that period I thought it was essential for my spiritual evolution to follow the exact instructions of traditional yogic texts (Bhagavad Gita, Siva Samhita, etc) and the traditional Indian classification of food (sattvic, tamasic, rajasic) was the basis of my new diet. Though it is to note that simple vegetarianism is not what these texts recommend.
According to yogic texts food is divided into three categories. The first “sattvic” food (from sattva: light) is supposed to be the best for the body and mind. It consists of grains, vegetables, fruits, fresh nuts, fresh un-pasteurized milk, ghee. “Rajasic” food (from rajas: fire) is said to cause irritation, bad temper, “produce pain, grief, and disease”. This category contained bitter, sour, saline, excessively hot, pungent, dry, and burning food: cheese, yogurt, olives, sugar, chocolate, peanut, spices, potatoes, onion, tomato, garlic and eggs. Tamasic food, “stale, tasteless, putrid, rotten, and impure” is believed to cause dullness, drowsiness and lack of motivation. This category contains mushrooms, eggplant, avocado, meat, fried and frozen food. Yogis are supposed to ear only sattvic food.
It was not hard to integrate sattvic food in my diet, nor was is hard to avoid tamasic components (meat, fish and fries) although i was a fan of all kinds of steaks, barbecues and fries before. Actually avoiding meat was the easiest part of the diet. At that time I was still a teenager and didn’t have to worry about being invited to dinners and lunches where it would be unsuitable to refuse the dishes offered by your host. But the rajasic part was the problem; our traditional Lebanese food: olives, cheese, labneh, tabbouleh (containing lemon, onion and tomato) seem to be un-yogic!! I decided to go for a compromise avoiding all what I can avoid (onion, garlic, spices) but keeping the main ingredients of our traditional food. This made sense for me.
A friend of mine, who was influenced by my yogic views earlier, refused the compromise. He ended up in the ER after few months suffering malnutrition.
I kept holding to my vegetarian, semi-sattvic diet till November 2000. By that time I had already been living in Russia for three months and winter was on doors. It was impossible to find natural greens, vegetables and fruits in the city bazaar. The imported green stuff sold there was more like waxworks; similar to fruits and vegetables in form and color but neither nutritious nor delicious. For two months my diet constituted only of milk, cabbages, potatoes, carrots and beetroot – the only natural product available in Russian winter. The nutrients provided by such a diet were less than what I needed for the tough life and the big mental effort exerted to keep up with my medical career. It was clear I was not to survive with such a diet. I had to switch.
To tell the truth it was not easy to take the decision. My adapted yogic diet was so dear to me and I was attached to my image as a vegetarian that it took me a while before I admitted that I need to switch.
There were objective reasons to eat meat: lack of proper food. What consoled me was that even Indian Brahmins had already switched to an omnivorous diet. In the cold of Russian winter I would imagine what an Eskimo yogi would have for lunch… of course fish and jerked meat, not a dish of spinach or coconut milk! Where shall an Eskimo get fresh pineapples and nuts from, even if he/she were a devoted yogi?
I believed and still do that Yoga is a universal discipline that is not confined to a certain nation or climate. At the same time I was already convinced that the traditionally recommended yogic diet is not a “one for all” recipe. It may work well for India; it may work with modifications for the Middle East, but not for Russia. If yoga is a universal discipline, yogic diet should not be partial. There should be a hidden knit behind the recommendations of yoga masters…
(read more in part II – to be published soon)
Warrior pose (Virabhadrasana) is named after the mythical warrior Virabhadra. We all know that one of the main bases of yoga is non-violence so why do we practice a pose named after a warrior? The significance of this pose is that it shifts our attention to the fact that the real battle is the battle within us – our struggle with self-ignorance, false perceptions and distracted mind.
Practicing this posture cultivates strong will and determination, openness and readiness to embrace higher values in life. The combination of determination and openness is the key point in our personal progress
where determination drives us forward and openness allows us to see the multitude of chances, the diversity of choices and protects us from looking over our mistakes. Determination without openness is stubbornness.
Notice while holding the posture the strength of your body: your stable steady feet, your strong legs. Notice how your lower back is flattened and abdomen slightly tightened (the solar plexus involved). Notice how your heart center is opened, your arms are stretched up to reach higher while your shoulders are pulled down (the spiritual significance of these opposite moves is keeping ourselves moderate even in our spiritual longing). Notice the balance between eagerness and refrain, between the grounded-ness of your lower body and the uplifted-ness of your upper body. Noctice the balance created in your core.
Anatomy and Physiology of Hatha Yoga
When you practice yoga, especially hatha yoga, you find yourself dealing with that same object which you met first when you were born and will leave last at the moment of departure. While practicing yoga process you learn to master this object and use it and transcend it… but first of all you have to know it. In hatha yoga you deal with the most familiar and yet most mysterious of all objects – you deal with your own body.
This gross body is the seat of the soul, its vehicle, and medium through which it interacts with the surrounding world. In the yogic tradition it is said that no liberation or self realization can be attained without having a gross body and experiencing the different states it allows us to go through. One can buy new clothes every day, change a car every month, move to a new house every year, but has this one and only one body during all lifespan. Despite being the first object to encounter and last to leave, our body and many of its parts, reflexes, and mechanisms remain enigmatic to many of us, even though we are this body’s everyday-users.
If for everyday ordinary life you need only the body’s users’ manual, yogis need a much more detailed one, a kind of developer’s manual. In this series of articles we’ll try to shed a light on these sides of our bodies’ anatomy and physiology that we need to know as yogis to enhance our practice.
Any conscious movement of the body involves at least 3 body systems: the nervous, the musculoskeletal and the cardiovascular`. The conscious order to move any part of the body is generated in the cortex of the brain; it is then transmitted by motor neurons that are a part of the spinal column and form the ventral root of the spinal nerves. These nerves deliver the order to the muscles and the muscles contract. Muscles are inserted in the skeleton in such a way that their contraction causes the body to move (pic. 1). They are usually attached from one side to a fixed bone (this place called origin) and from the other side to a movable end (point of insertion) with a joint between. But for the contraction to take place energy is needed, and this energy is supplied by the blood vessels in the form of oxygen and nutrients. But the job of the nerves is not completed yet. There are special sensory nerves that transmit data from the muscle to the brain to give it feedback about the state of the body and prevent any damage that might take place because of hyper-contraction or hyper stretching.
The proprioceptors allow the brain to know the exact place and state of our muscles and what they are doing, without having to consciously monitor their movement and position or look at them. The stretch receptors detect changes in the length of a muscle as it is stretched and give the nervous system feedback so that it prevents overstretching. Some reflexes are totally spinal reflexes, i.e. they end in the spinal cord and the reaction is generated there unconsciously. knowing about these reflexes enhances our ability to use our muscles rather than abuse them and to nourish our physical and spiritual growth rather than hinder them. That’s why it is always advised that yogis don’t push or force an asana so that the body systems don’t start working against them.
Muscles: agonists and antagonists
Agonist muscles are those that work (contract) together to perform a specific movement (ex. the arm flexors when flexing the arm). Antagonist muscles are responsible for performing the opposite movement. These muscles must relax for the agonists to perform properly (the extensor muscles of the arm must relax while flexing it). These pairs of muscles (flexors and extensors) are called antagonist pairs (i.e. working against one another).
Consider, as an example, extending the arm in the elbow joint. The triceps muscle is considered the agonist and the biceps muscle is the antagonist. The biceps and the triceps are a classical antagonist pair. So, if you are trying to extend your arm in the elbow after training your biceps in a session of body building, you wouldn’t be able to make an easy extension and straighten your arm. The contacted biceps will oppose the stretch needed to complete the movement. (pic. 2)
While practicing hatha yoga, we usually face some difficulties in stretching those muscles that are trained spontaneously during everyday life. An example would be those muscles that help us stand straight, walk and keep our gait firm.
Types of muscle contraction
When you lift an object with your hand with the arm resting on a table for example (as in pic.2) your flexors muscles contract to lift that weight up and their length diminishes. This is concentric shortening of the muscles. The contraction of the muscle with its shortening under a constant load is called isotonic contraction. All lifting exercises require isotonic contractions.
If you hold the lifted object in one place not allowing it to fall, your muscles (the arm flexors in our example) are contracted but they don’t shorten any more, their length remains the same. This is calledisometric contraction.
When you are returning the object down to its place, you don’t just drop from your hand. As you extend your elbow to put the object your flexor muscles remain tensed till the object reaches its destination. But in this case the tension is combined with the lengthening of the flexors. This is called eccentric lengthening. An example is the stretching of the tensed leg muscles when you are walking downhill or walking downstairs.
In hatha yoga the object you are lifting, holding and returning to place is nothing but parts of your body: your arm, your leg, etc.
(to be continued in the next issue)
Till then, think of examples from your own practice of different types of muscle contraction in different asanas.