I teach Embodyoga@ as part of a program for the treatment of eating disorders. While Eating Disorders vary in their particulars they are all serious disturbances in the way we nourish ourselves. Eating disorders are coping mechanisms developed to control emotion, sensation and feeling and they have many adverse physical, psychological and social consequences. Eating disorders are complex sets of behaviors which often include co-morbidities such as anxiety, depression, trauma history, and body dysmorphic disorder. But at the root of all eating disorders is a dissociation from the body, a fundamental disconnect from our body-mind systems. The inability to nourish oneself is an inability to survive, a denial of the responsibility given to each of us with the great gift of the breath of life. Characteristics of dissociation include ignoring physiological signals from the body for hunger or satiation, or awareness of amounts of food that have been eaten. Often present is a distorted perception of body image, body dysmorphic disorder, which can involve an obsession with “thinness”. irrational fear of weight gain, extreme efforts to manage weight or food intake, fixations on perceived physical flaws and a preoccupation with the unobtainable idealized bodies presented in the media. Continue reading
Recently, the yoga community at large has taken up a more critical look at what the concept of alignment actually means in the context of yoga asana. This is a great conversation to have. So many of us have been practicing and teaching for decades now and are confronted daily by the ways that popular rules of alignment contradict one another and are often causing more problems than they solve.
Many of the problems we see in joints, muscles, and ligaments derive from our own mistaken assuredness that we have the answers for how we (and our students) should move. Most of our instructions have been based on the musculoskeletal system. We have precise rules, many contradicting one another, and still we have a lot of injuries, and witness a lot of wear and tear on joints of the longest time practitioners. Perhaps we have accepted a false premise. Let’s look at the term and its connotations:
align |əˈlīn| verb1 [with object]
- place or arrange (things) in a straight line
- put (things) into correct or appropriate relative positions
- [no object] lie in a straight line, or in correct relative positions
alignment |əˈlīnmənt| noun1
- arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative position
- the act of aligning parts of a machine:oil changes, lube jobs, and wheel alignments.
Alignment as We Know It Doesn’t Work
How we think about things matters. The term alignment itself conjures up straight lines, correct angles, mechanical movement, and positional concerns. Both align and alignment clearly connote these qualities. Even if you know better, you will be affected by your ingrained understanding of the words. The idea of “straight lines”, “align [with object]”, and even “appropriate relative position”, miss the mark for considering what is healthy human support for movement.
The kleshas are the tendencies of individual consciousness, that when left unchecked, form serious obstacles to our evolving awareness. In his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali has encapsulated the basic patterns of mind that cause the most trouble for us in our embodied existence. The Yoga Sutra is very clear that all of these issues arise from the primary problem of lack of correct knowledge, lack of spiritual understanding of who and what we actually are. The Yoga Sutra is crystal clear that our main problem is, “Mistaking the Seer for the seen”. In this context, the Seer is the permanent and unchanging field of Awareness, and the seen is everything that exists in the field of form. Awareness and form are bound together to form all that exists in nature. This includes the personal ego, and all aspects of mind and body. We make a big mistake when we allow our individual ego-mind to take on the role of the ultimate perceiver.
This article is specifically directed toward those of us who practice – and especially teach – yoga asana. So much is written about how to “open the hips”. Is that really what we want to be doing? The balance of stability and mobility is different for every person, and since “support” needs to precede any kind of action or opening, perhaps we need to be looking at integrity in the hip joints. Using a paradigm that is based not on increasing flexibility, but instead on increasing ease and comfort, needs to be looked at more carefully by all of us in the yoga community. What is flexibility anyway? What is tightness, for that matter?
Anatomy of the Hip Joints
- Head of the femur
- Articular cartilage
- Synovial membranes
- Synovial fluid
- Joint capsule
The Neighboring Joints
The neighboring joints work in concert with the hip joints. When all the joints are in balance with one another, forces will flow through them in such a way that each, with its individual qualities, will play its part in distributing force appropriately to its nearest neighbor and through the body as a whole. Forces that are restricted in one joint will be transferred to the next joint – often applying undue stress. The more peripheral joints of the feet, ankles, forelegs, and knees are smaller than the relatively large hip and sacroiliac joints. The peripheral joints provide a good amount of articulation. When they are not functioning well, they will put strain into the hips and sacroiliacs. The hip joints are highly mobile, but are importantly designed for greater stability than the more peripheral joints in the legs and feet. Stability in the sacroiliac joints is equally important, and the hip joint is far more mobile than the sacroiliac. Restriction in the hip will cause the sacroiliac to take stress.
- Sacroiliac joints
- Pubic symphysis (forming two joints)
- Foreleg, ankle, and foot
Stability and Range of Motion—Support Precedes Action
The direction movements of the hip joints are usually very specifically delineated. They are flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, internal rotation, and external rotation. But rarely, in life are any of those individual movements made without at least traces of some of the others. The hip is a ball and socket joint with the possibility of a great range of motion. Movement doesn’t actually ascribe to the linear think of our anatomical analysis. Really, the joint moves pretty much any direction it wants, within its specific range of motion, which is highly variable from individual to individual. Most healthy motion in the joint needs to involve both bones – the ball and the socket – so that they are working in harmony to create the desired movement expression. As with any other movement, support needs to precede action at the joint. Support is a process that involves both bones working together to give the joint the stability that it needs to move with health.
“I am the path and the goal, the upholder, the master, the witness, the abode and the refuge, the loving friend, the origin, the foundation and the dissolution, the resting place and the imperishable seed of all…I am immortality and also death, and the existent and the non-existent am I, O Arjuna.” Bhagavad Gita 9.18
Embodyoga offers us a unique opportunity to experience God in our bodies. Much has been said about the body/mind split, and much healing has happened in recent years as we awaken to the reality that body and mind are one whole, integrated through and through. We know that health and healing require the re-integration and re-partnering of body and mind, rather than viewing them as individual systems to be “worked on” individually and separately.
But we also have historically created and experienced a false split between matter and God. Not just science, which in its modern dogma of fundamental materialism often denies God altogether, but religions and spiritual traditions throughout history have put God up, up, and away, out in the cosmos somewhere far away from us. Even many yoga traditions have spoken of God as an abstraction, an idea, a story, a myth, and union with God something that happens by transcending and escaping this world through meditation or other methods.
God is not far away. God is intimately near. Every atom, every molecule, every living cell on Earth is made of God. God is the Oneness that gives birth to life, and life lives in everything, even material that we often speak of as ‘dead’. Even in dead matter, protons and electrons are swirling, life and mind are involuted but dancing, sleeping but waiting to awaken. And this life is God’s breath, God’s life, God’s being. This mind is the mind of God.
“Embodiment is the awareness of the cells themselves. It is a direct experience. There are not intermediary steps or translations. There is no guide. There is no witness. There is the fully known consciousness of the experienced moment initiated from the cells themselves…The source of this process is love.”
-Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen
Embodiment is the fulfillment of yoga – union. The clear line of division between subject and object blurs, and we experience both as made up of the same essential stuff. In the yoga tradition this stuff is called Satchitananda. Sat = being, truth, infinite and eternal existence. Chit = consciousness that is force, what it wills becomes, infinite and eternal all-embracing awareness. Ananda = delight of being, absolute and unobstructed comfort, infinite and eternal fulfillment. These three are One in their wholeness and undivided, indivisible. They are three aspects, faces, qualities of the One that is All. Being, Will, Experience. This is the universe’s fundamental fabric.
Yoga is a state as well as a process. When we “practice” yoga, we actively and intentionally engage in the process of moving toward the state of yoga. By practicing yoga, we align ourselves with the yoga of Nature, the Earth’s yoga. Our embodiment is the Earth’s embodiment, and through us Her innate intelligence is set free to play and learn and transform the stuff of Her body. She touches Herself through our hands and loves Herself through our hearts and knows Herself through our minds. And when we directly experience the underlying unity of all that is, when we touch Satchitananda and are plunged beyond ideas into an integral and unarguable knowing of our inner being with all that is, was, and ever will be, the Earth too awakens and knows and loves and touches the fabric that manifests as Universe.
The Fluid Body
“At the beginning of our life cycle, we are conceived in fluid, developed in amniotic fluid and born in fluid; our bodies are more than 70-percent fluid. New scientific discoveries demonstrate that the fascial system is a combination of a powerful fibrous web surrounded by a ground substance that is a fluid/gelatinous medium, and which is the internal and external environment of every cell in the body. Recent research shows there is a micro-fascial system (a tensegrity structure) within every cell. Inside the cytoskeleton of the cell lay microtubules of fascia that have a hollow core, which fluid flows through. Energy, information and consciousness flow within that fluid. Consciousness flows through every cell of our bodies. The fluid within and around every cell performs the important function of being the transport medium of oxygen, nutrients, chemicals, hormones, toxins, energy and information throughout our entire being, almost instantaneously.”
John F. Barnes, P.T., L.M.T.—Massage Magazine April 5, 2011
“Tensegrity, tensional integrity or floating compression, is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension, in such a way that the compressed members (usually bars or struts) do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or tendons) delineate the system spatially.” Wikipedia
Tensegrity is a term coined by Buckminster Fuller. The word is a contraction of two terms: tension and integrity. It describes a structural relationship principle that Fuller defined as stabilizing the shape of structures by continuous tension or “tensional integrity”, rather than by continuous compression, such as is used in a stone arch or a skyscraper. A tensegrity structure is composed of firm rods that do not touch one another, but are suspended and made strong by the simultaneous action of a network of balanced compression and tensile parts.
Buckminster Fuller was inspired in his work by the innovative sculpture of Kenneth Snelson in which we can see how otherwise heavy metal struts are upheld with a sense of levity and ease when the tensegrity principles are applied.
While most buildings utilize simple compression in alignment with gravity—block upon block and into the earth—to support their form, tensegrity structures are different. They are self-supporting, absorbing and distributing forces omnidirectionally throughout their shapes, giving them the ability to yield increasingly, without ultimately breaking or coming apart. They allow for what would otherwise be heavy limbs and reaching projections to be far away from the center without toppling the entire system.
It wasn’t until fairly recently—the last several decades—that scientist have observed that these very same principles of self-inclusive support underlie the integrity of all biological structures.