Photo: Malene Thyssen
How Yoga Works
Awakened bodies sense with refinement and equanimity
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Glorify: reveal or make clearer as a way of offering praise.
Everyone has an image of their body. I don’t mean only the way you think you look. Our nervous systems constantly update our brains with information about the shape and position of our bodies and relay how responsive we’re being to situations we’re in.
What do stretch receptors have to do with yoga? The more awareness we have as we practice, the less we need pain or other kinds of overstimulation to inform us of when we’re fully engaged.
If you think of something you learned eons ago in geometry about points, you’ll understand how stretch receptors are the foundation of awareness.
The more points you have the more dimensions you can describe. It takes two points to define a line and three to describe a plane, for example. Without the third point we can only imagine where a plane might be. A line can be in a million planes: one more point will tell us which plane we’re dealing with at the moment.
The yoga of immanence
Body image is similar. The more points that are active and involved in making sense out of what we’re doing, the more accurate that sense is going to be. This is true of the coordination of movement, the physiology of body chemistry, and our daily interactions in the world.
We talked a few weeks ago about strength. The three kinds of strength we can develop all depend upon the activation of stretch receptors.
There are specialized stretch receptors that help us build muscle volume through their involvement in assessing contraction and relaxation of the muscles that are moving or doing work. These receptors, called the golgi tendon and the muscle spindle, are also responsible for preventing injury. They’re a little like a seat belt that locks if you move too fast: they gauge speed and force in the use of the muscle and they actually cause the muscles to tighten up if you stretch too much, too fast, too soon.
The yoga of space and awareness
This is why in posture practice we want to come into postures with breath and awareness. If we take the posture at a pace that respects the innate checks and balances of our bodies, we gradually move deeper than we can by pushing, and with less risk of injury.
The more awareness we have as we practice, the less we need pain or other forms of overstimulation to inform us of when we’re fully engaged. As in the geometry example above, the more stretch receptors that are awake and generating feedback about our current state, the more accurately we can involve subtle muscles in producing ever deeper states of engagement.
When we fail to see the benefit of this, we push on with dominant muscles and are surprised later when the quieter areas of tissue are inflamed or injured. Without the information of all our receptors lighting up our awareness, we’re literally flying blind.
By the way, this is also why when we practice yin postures we back off from that highest point of tension in the posture, and breathe.
The yoga of infinite connection
The function of stretch receptors is where the philosophy of yoga and the practice of postures comes together in the pure poetry of our bodies. It’s a clear example of non-violence going hand in hand with living awareness of life. The more we are willing to know, the greater subtlety and skill we’re able to develop.
This subtlety and skill are of enormous benefit in deeper engagement of everyday presence. The geometry of points and planes becomes exponential. Stretch receptors number in our bodies like the stars in the sky. The more awake our bodies are, the more able we are to sense with refinement and therefore experience equanimity under all conditions, with people we love as well as total strangers.
As our bodies wake up, deep reaches of sensing physically extend our awareness. We aren’t just more of who we were when we were mostly dead to sensation: we’re literally newly made selves.
The yoga of opening glory
Just as pushing through a practice reinforces what we already know rather than opening us to awareness, pushing also reinforces dominant muscles and myelinated nerve path ways.
In the same way that the stretch receptors make the muscle tighter in response to this speed and stress, our practice can make us harder rather than more receptive, more sure in our egos than we are alive in our subtlety. Pushing tight muscles injures them the same way that pushing tight relationships injures them. Through practice we learn to sense the moments of backing off temporarily, allowing space for response.
The Katha Upanishad says the body is the chariot and awareness is the driver.
The stretch receptors of the body are organs of consciousness; they extend the reach of awareness in our practice, and clarify our praise of life.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.