“The posture is firm and soft.” -Yoga Sutras of Patanjali II.46
In asana practice we are always trying to create simultaneous dual actions in the body. This can be thought of as action and counter action. For example, if trying to close the hand and fingers into a fist is the action, attempting to open the hand and fingers is the counter action. Now we know we can open and then close the hand in an endless cycle of action and then counter action. However, things get interesting when we attempt to do both the action and the counter action at the same time.
Let’s explore this concept with a simple exercise. Start with an open neutral hand. Flex the muscles of hand as though trying to make a fist (without actually making one.) At the same time extend the muscles of the hand as though trying to open the palm and spread the fingers (without actually opening and spreading.) Try to balance the action and counter action of opening and closing the hand so that both are happening but neither is dominating the other.
What effect does this have on the hand? Does the palm become concave and hollow? Do the joints of the fingers become concave and hollow? What is the tone of the hand? Does it feel strong? Really strong? Can you follow this concavity and hollowness into the elbow and/or the armpit?
This simultaneous co-activation of opposing muscle groups creates strong isometric contractions in the body allowing us to both strengthen and stretch soft tissue at the same time. From a Western anatomical perspective we are attempting to make muscles that are normally antagonists to one another operate as synergists. In yoga this concept is often called bandha* with the commonly discussed bandhas being Mula, Uddiyana and Jalandhara (pelvic floor, respiratory diaphragm and throat/soft palate.) However Simon Borg-Olivier an Australian physical therapist and yoga teacher argues that bandhas can be created in any joint by balancing agonist and antagonist activity (in the exercise above we created a hand bandha.) Simon’s work has strongly influenced how I practice and teach yoga.
*Bandhas are also seen to have energetic and spiritual components which I will not discus here.
Some dual actions we’ve explored this month
We’ve explored many dual actions this month. In fact almost all of my verbal instruction is presented as opposing actions. Here are a few that involve the muscles that cross the knee joint and therefore affect its function.
Adho Mukha Svanasana - Downward Facing Dog Pose
- Lift shins up and away from tops of feet (Makes wrinkles in front ankle skin disappear)
- Lengthen top of calf muscles to bottom of heel.
- Lift skin and muscles at front thighs upwards toward front hip bones (Will lift knee caps)
- Lift hamstrings upwards from top of knees to buttock bones
Can you do the actions and counter actions for the upper and lower leg at the same time? What happens at the back of the knee? How about the buttock bones? The pelvic floor, and lower abdomen?
Does this combination of actions work in other straight leg postures such as Uttanasana, Prasarita Padottanasana, Paschimottanasana, Navasana, and Sirsasana? What are the differences in the effects of these actions in each posture?
Vrksasana - Tree Pose
- Press sole of foot into inner thigh (lifted leg)
- Press inner thigh back into sole of foot (standing leg)
- Lengthen skin and muscles from inner groin towards inner knee (lifted leg)
- Gather skin and muscles from outer knee towards outer buttocks (lift leg)
Does one or both sets of these dual actions work in other bent knee poses such as Janu Sirsasana, Baddha Konasana and Utthita Parsvakonasana? What are the differences in the effects of these actions in each posture?
Does the word Yoga shed light on creating balance between the dualities present in the body and the mind? How about the word Hatha? Is Ha Tha an analog for Yin Yang?