Muscles – the limited means to asana success
By Tim Feldmann
When we decide to move our body, in asana practice or in daily life, we most often instantly begin with activating our muscles. We identify movement with activating various muscles. The muscles are the physical system that we mostly rely on to carry out any physical task at hand. So is it in asana practice too. Unfortunately our muscular system is of relative efficiency in complex movement tasks such as asana practice.
Our most common chain of command, from intention to initiation to action, relies on 1: aim (desire). 2: will to carry it out. 3: muscular contractions to complete the task. We consider this pattern a time tested succesful method and we hardly question its use. Furthermore we have cultivated this impulse and by now it has grown second nature. It has grown into neuro-muscular patterns. By now we are dealing with a muscular activity which is more action packed, higher in muscle tone and more ‘doing’ than ‘being’. This approach does work for a while and as long as our practice is subordinate to a relatively undiffirentiated body consciousness, where conscious control and awareness operates on a more gross level of sensation and focus. As our practice deepens, the cleansing effect of the asanas sets in and our ability to focus intensifies our bodies grow more refined and we can no longer found our approach on the muscular system alone. We need a more subtle system to carry us.
Muscles: supporters not initiators
What we will discover is that most of our muscles are all but a system that supports a deeper and more vital system for motion. and as a matter of fact, when we engage our tasks from a point of muscular activation we often get in our own way of performing our task with efficiency, effortlessly, economicly and gracefully. We need to look for and make contact with a deeper truth in our body.
The japanese martial art Aikido has an inspirational take on moving the body: ‘the intention directs the ki, the ki directs the body’. To reiterate: first we have intent, ki/energy/prana forms around this intention and from this state the intention moves into our physic. With our physic we manifest it into the world. It is an interesting break down as we usually consider an action beginning at our first physical movement! I find the Aikido approach most useful in any action whether grabbing the water bottle or completing the Advanced Series. No, let me be honest.. I absolutely LOVE the Aikido break down of motion and intend! This formula gives us the tool to understand hence change our inefficiency. Because what we habitually consider a sound attempt is most often a tense and un-informed attempt, making us a slave to the inherent shadow of our intentions – our ambition and impatient push for completion. It is unnecessary to say that this approach is of relative success and predicts a limited outcome. Movement starts before it is visible and much deeper inside of us. We tend to forget to listen in, connect energeticly, utilize the breath and follow the subtle sensation of the movement path that arises from deep within.
Guruji tells us that ‘the practice is a breathing practice’. But how do we experience that? Well, we must begin to listen carefully to the sensations/information that arises from within the body while in motion or in stillness. At first, we must begin to ask ourselves which muscles are essential to perform the given task and try to engage these muscles and only these muscles. We use the breath as our measurement for efficient or inefficient muscular activity (is my breath available to me? am I holding or constricting my breath? is my breath fluent?). That is the beginning of bringing us efficiency and mental space. The breathing system, contrary to the muscular system, secures a much more efficient path to our movement intentions. It is a more subtle way and it comes with very different sensation than the plain use of brute muscular power. In the beginning it can feel impossible to look for it under years of muscular armor and habitual use, but it is there! It is our inherent nature. we can cover it up under years of cultivated (mis)use, but we can not kill it! With proper nurturing it will pop right back up and the key to transgressing from a muscular practice to an energetic practice is listening to and working with your breath. You know, the movement and breath synthesis that makes the ashtanga practice so unique and so very powerful. The breath is what connects us right in. It instantly gives us all the tools, alarm bells, indicators and sensory awareness needed to complete the search for pranas exsistence and effect on our movement possibilities.