Thursday, June 21, 2018
Pulsing In Deep Yoga
ONE OF THE INNOVATIONS IN YOGA METTA ("Kindness Yoga" that can be practiced at all levels: restorative, gentle, Soft Power I and II) is soft movement or "pulsing" within most poses.
In contemporary yoga, it is common practice to statically hold most poses and then push to an “edge” (of tolerance of some degree of discomfort). The mental question fairly quickly arises of “how much longer do I have to hold this position.”
Kindness Yoga involves deep relaxation in poses. Rather than pushing to an edge, which has a controlling quality, the body is followed and listened to. Pushing to an edge tends to contract muscles and ligaments/fascia and offers the development of stability and strength. This was very appealing to body builders in the early development of yoga in the 1900s in India. But many people are attracted to yoga for the possibility of increasing flexibility more than stability. Contracting muscles in poses tends to strengthen but not stretch. For flexibility to be optimized, muscles need to be relaxed. Why? microscopic nerve bundles located in muscles and fascia contract naturally to prevent these tissues from ripping as a sort of safety response of the body. “Spindle release” in muscles and “Golgi response” in ligaments essentially can release the contraction.
Muscles do not really stretch much or get longer in this release. In uttanasana (standing forward fold), we feel this “firing” as irritation or outright pain at some point when we bend forward. Bending the knees, allows us to feel the lower back stretch and it feels good. The “Hammies” in the thighs do not fire. And to develop flexibility in the standing forward fold, we need to relax the lower back, not the “hammies.” The muscles do not get longer. Rather, the spindles in the muscles do not fire as much. However, in Kindness Yoga, we only go so far and then relax rather than push. With repetition, the nerves begin to fire less and so a person can bend more.
The really great thing about this sort of practice is the kindness of the practice. It turns heretofore negative stretching into a relaxing experience. It also challenges the belief that muscles get longer. It brings attention to the fact that “stretching is really not stretching at all, but rather nerve relaxation. Were we to anesthetize a person (i.e., turn off nerves), we would find that the flexibility is present because the nerves do not fire.
NOW, PULSING. “Pulsing” is a metaphor for flowing (rather than harsh “pumping”) movement in poses. For example, in a simple example, reclining or lying on back with knees folded toward the chest, legs are slowly rocked to one side and then to the other. Lower back muscles contract as the folded legs rock to one side, and as the folded legs roll to the other side the muscles on the previous side are relaxed. Doing this softly and slowly as if doing tai chi, the muscles and ligaments “learn” to relax (which is really to say that the nerve spindles fire less). In tai chi, the body weight shifts from one leg to the other. The active leg is yang and the inactive--relaxing--leg is yin. Rather than statically hold a pose and/or adding tension, pulsing movement in a pose ( from yang (strength) into yin (relaxation) may amplify spindle release. If counting slowly, somewhere between 30 and 120 counts, a person may experience spindle release and sway farther to each side with less sensation of irritation. By repetition of this style of practice, the point of tissue resistance changes. This is true flexibility. The muscles do not get longer. Rather they fire less intensely. The practice truly becomes one of releasing and following rather than holding and pressing.
Pulsing through most poses, reaching then relaxing, creates an overall pattern of relaxation. A particular pulsing pose can be repeated for as long as a person wishes rather than provoke the question of “how much longer do I have to hold this pose.”
In pulsing, participants can be offered the opportunity to connect mental awareness with areas such as tissue and ligaments in the lower back. This following of body position is an activity of the right brain, and, with repetition, it may increase an intuitive awareness of parts of the body that tend to be out of awareness. This may have a positive impact on, for example, balance. For example, by listen to parts of the body that are central to balance such as the pelvis, we begin to become more aware of body areas that are typically not given much attention. It might be argued that balance can be improved by having become familiar with regions of the body that seem remote. And balance might be improved to a greater degree by this relaxing and listening more than by efforts to strengthen muscles and ligaments. A major loss of inner ear balance is lost by the mid-to-late twenties. This can be noted by asking participants doing tree pose to close their eyes in the pose. Those over age 30 will have more difficulty, so the key point here is that balance is not primarily strength.
Slow, “kind” movement also affect body physiology, optimizing a shift from the everyday emphasis of the sympathetic nervous system that produces neuro-endocrine flight-flight chemistries to the para-sympathetic nervous responses that reduce stress. [updated 12/2018]