- WATER, EARTH AND TENSEGRITY, part one -
I have been brewing this article for a while: it formalizes the best of my current understanding of principles I find fundamental to the practice of Yoga, or any other psycho-physical practice for that matter (like martial arts, typically). Before I dive straight in, a few words of thanks for the random convergence of influences that lead to this piece:
First, thank you to Alexandre Onfroy, an Iyengar teacher in Paris who has given me a renewed sense of Love for Yoga, and for the purposes of this article, suggested en passant during one of his classes that the skeletal system was akin to the Earth classical element, while the muscular system could be seen as having the Water classical element qualities. Just words, but placed in a more comprehensive framework, powerful ones as I am hoping to demonstrate.
Second, thank you to Carlos Castaneda for borrowing from architecture the notion of tensegrity, a portmanteau created by Buckminster Fuller of 'tensional + integrity', suggesting that the integrity of a structure is derived from the balance of the tension members, as opposed to the compression/juxtaposition of the struts. Once more, quite arcane phrasing if you just read the sentence, but this will be made clear as we move on. I will link the notion of tensegrity to the work being done simultaneously on the skeletal and muscular system in the context of an interplay (a dance) between the qualities of Earth and Water.
To finish, we need dynamic principles to link together water, earth and the musculoskeletal system as a tensegrity: thank you to Doug Keller for the many insights he offers on the principles of action to be recruited in an alive Yoga session. And a distant thank you to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida for moving us away from basic binary dichotomies and artificially mutually exclusive concepts. Cryptic, but it should all come together by the end of the reading.
what is a tensegrity structure ?
Tensegrity is a scientific principle that describes natural geometry in terms of compression and tension vectors. It hypothesizes convincingly that the integrity of vertebrate biological structure is maintained by a continuous tensional web that suspends discontinuous local compressional components within it. Tensegrity provides a better framework than traditional bio-mechanics to explain why all living forms are structurally stable yet flexibly adaptative, yielding yet with a great resistance to damage.
The property of tensegrity which I find particularly appealing is that it is impossible to apprehend statically: the skeleton and the muscles/ligaments/tendons/fascia around it are an alive system, and as such, a proper balance between opposing forces is necessary for its optimal functioning.
Now if we redefine tensegrity structures without complicated jargon, it would go something like this:
The integrity of vertebrate biological structure: the fact that a human for example, can stand, run, sit down, do stuff without exploding or falling apart, or breaking down etc... in the majority of cases.
Is maintained by a continuous tensional web: the muscular system composed of the muscles/tendons/ligaments and fascia AND the intention behind its use IS that continuous tensional web. The strength, beauty and intricate design of our skeletal structure only comes to life when the muscles around it are recruited in the proper way to foster graceful and balanced movement. In this article, the muscular system is linked to the WATER classical element and it qualities.
That suspends discontinuous local compressional components within it: local compressional components are the bones, compressed against each other or free standing (scapula for ex). They are discontinuous in the sense that each bone has its shape, beginning, end, and serves a local purpose in the skeleton. Now the skeleton is ALIVE as well, though it is less obvious than the muscles which respond to will and immediate signals from the brain. In this article, the skeletal system is linked to the EARTH classical element and its qualities.
To bring this home more convincingly, have a look at the picture on top of the article. It represents a double tensioned pelvis. The whole integrity of the structure comes from the 2 sets of cables: yellow and dark blue. In this particular case, without them, the whole design falls apart, even more so than a real pelvis. Below, another toy model of the pelvis seen as a tensegrity structure:
The vertebral column is certainly the easiest tensegrity to consider: without the Life being given by deep postural muscles as well as the more superficial ones (like the yellow and dark blue nets on top) the spine on its own collapses on itself. Yet with the proper, continuous tensional field of force exerted by the adequate muscles, we have a beautiful structure that naturally and energetically propels itself upwards.
the dual elements of a tensegrity structure: water and earth
We have seen that a vertebrate structure can be seen as a tensegrity, a useful concept to recruit with our mind's eye while we practice. From now on, we'll tak about the human body specifically: we are concerned with the tensegrity composed by the musculoskeletal system. Correctly, we refer to it by a one word concept, because as an alive system, one does not exist without the other. Yet we can for the purpose of classification and categorization break down the musculoskeletal system in each of its components.
1. the skeleton: the earth element
The skeleton is the solid structure that gives rise to the outward shape of us when we stand or sit or move..., of the yoga posture we are in etc... It is the anchor and the support of everything, and the medium of our rooting in the earth. As such, it is also an extension of the earth.
Yet, it is not a dead structure: the skeleton is alive, and even if it does not respond to volition, its apparent inertia is misleading. The bones appropriate space by filling it, and when we were small, the bones were pushing in every direction to take more space, to expand, to radiate outward. The bones as they grew also helped lengthen the muscles: it is the reason why some doctors back when I was a kid discouraged getting too strong too early because if the bones didn't have enough 'push' strength against the muscles, one would end up being smaller in size.
The energy of the skeleton/earth component flows from the inside out: it is the power of growth and expansion itself. It is like the flow of sap from the roots to the leaves in a tree: imagine the force that drives the sap upward to the leaves of a 60-foot tree, or drives the roots to penetrate and split solid rock. Even when we stop growing and the bones have their steady state ending form, while we practice we can develop a feel for the quality of both rooting and extension that they connect us to.
While associated to the EARTH element, the main quality of the skeletal structure is YIN for reasons we'll explore in the second part of this article
2. muscles/ligaments/tendons/fascia: the water element
The muscles (the whole complex above will be referred to as the muscles from now on) provide the skeleton with the tensional web necessary to give it integrity: they respond directly to our volition, and in this sense our conscious intention in the way we use them for posture is fundamental. The isometric contractions used in Yoga move from periphery to core, so they draw close to the bones with a feeling of strength, support and assurance.
Their smooth, fluidic and versatile properties invite us to consider them closer to the classical element of WATER. In this respect, and in line with the fact that polar opposite co-exist in every natural structure, when we refer to the muscles as such, WATER is considered in its YANGEST manifestation.
The muscular energy literally pulls us together in a pose; it brings a masculine quality of firmness, strength, security and power. Muscular energy, like the surface tension on a drop of WATER, establishes a firm sense of self by defining boundaries. Without it, we are not able to expand the EARTH (our rooting, our skeleton, the openings in our body...) while yet maintaining a sens of the integral whole of our being.
We'll let Bruce Lee (courtesy of MelodySheep) remind us of the various ways we can connect with when we hold WATER in our minds and hearts:
We have now laid the ground and definitional work necessary to move on to the last part: what do we do with those notions of tensegrities seen as a combination of EARTH (bones) and WATER (muscles) ?
This will be the object of part two, where we will see how to bring life to the ideas in a dynamic practice. The whole point of shedding a different light on familiar concepts, of proposing a fresh perspective only has value if it can inform our daily practice in a way that creates freshness and the ability to connect to feelings, sensations and understanding not available before.
This is what I am hoping to provide the reader with. As a teaser, we'll suggest first how to alternate between EARTH and WATER in an asana practice closely following the seasons of the breath cycle, before concomitantly mixing them up in a beautiful mud and playing with both simultaneously like a DJ superposing sound waves. This is where Yoga will meet french post-modern philosophy...