- WATER, EARTH AND TENSEGRITY, part two -
In this second part of our approach to the human body as a tensegrity combining water/earth qualities through the interplay of muscles/ligaments/tendons/fascia and bones, we will start by quickly reviewing the concepts introduced in part one, before moving on to their application in the context of a dynamic yoga practice.
a quick review of important concepts:
In the last article, we saw that the human body could be seen as a tensegrity: the integrity of the structure is maintained by a continuous network of tension (muscles/tendons/ligaments/fascia) that promotes the placement of the compression and space creating elements (bones) of the structure.
So there are two main types of elements in a tensegrity:
- The spacers/struts/compression elements, which are generally solid and have the property of resisting being push inwards, or even pushing actively outwards. In the body, they are the bones, and we see them as being juxtaposed and mediated in their relationships to each other via the joint capsules, seen as an extension of the connective tissue network. The fluid within the joint pushes outwards on the connective tissue envelope and the end of the bones it connects, and helps the ends of these bones to adjust relative to each other. From an esoterical point of view, we can look at the compression structure formed by the bones as borrowing from the properties of the EARTH element: stability, anchoring, structure and form, solidity, space, expansion...
- The wires/elastic/cords/muscles/tension elements, which are generally fluid and have the property of pulling inwards, or actively resisting being pushed outwards. It is important again to understand that the structure is being held together and integrated by the continuous tension of the connected, networked tension elements. It follows that in a tensegrity, tension elements can share and distribute tension instantaneously, and the tension is distributed freely and adjusted freely. This helps the movement of compression elements relative to each other in load balancing. From an esoterical perspective, we can look at the tension elements and their fluidic shaping as borrowing from the properties of the WATER element: adaptive, flexible, shapeshifting, changing, movement...
Two quick remarks, before introducing an interesting video of Tom Myers, an anatomist who decided to explore the implications of the tensegrity paradigm shift for body workers:
- Regular building theory/old biomechanics have had a tendency to look at structures as being the result of continuous compressions (as opposed to tension). One corollary is that failure at a compression point is localized and bears all the stress. It does not seem to be the reality of living structures, and many buildings don't function like this either...
- If our body is seen as a series of overlapping tensegrity structures, if a tensioning element is damaged or injured, the load is distributed to the rest of the network, and other tension elements will tighten up to protect the injured part whenever possible.
principles of practice:
In this part, we will put all the ideas exposed so far in a tool box. The vocation of this tool box is twofold: to provide the practitioner with a world view/anatomical representation that is both plausible, reliable and with sufficient explanatory and predictive capacities, and from there to influence the mental and emotional states in which the yogi trances herself into while performing the asanas. I believe that what we think of and feel, as well as how we think of it and feel it, is fundamental for a yoga practitioner.
integrative (tensioned) and expansive (compressed) energy
Every asana requires of us that we actively exercise and consciously bring about a balance between two kinds of energy:
- An integrative/tensioned/muscular energy, drawing in from the periphery to the core, close to the bones with a feeling of strength, support and assurance.
- An expansive/compressed/skeletal energy that expands, flows and radiates outward from the core, bringing about extension with a feeling of freedom, suppleness and ease.
Those two complementary energies work concomitantly. The idea when we practice is to bring balance and integration between them through awareness of pivotal keys in the body where they meet. In an asana, the engagement of muscular energy hugs the muscles to the bones while directing the energy inward toward the core of the body. Expansive energy complements that integrative force with a lengthening and extension outward from that core. The location around and through which those two energies fully interact is a pivotal key in the body. Depending on the asana, there are three places in the body that share the role of pivotal key as we will see shortly. When the practitioner actively engages with these energies, though the pose may look static from the outside, there is an experience of a living, dynamic pulsation of energy.
Incorporating both energies in one's practice, in addition to being safer physically, allows one to move beyond the merely physical aspect of yoga: integrative energy brings self-awareness - receiving, embracing, drawing in -, while expansive energy expresses our unique self-hood outward. The balance between both fosters a strong and open heart.
The expansive energy, being more focused on the frame, the skeleton, can seem more elusive than muscular energy, upon which we have a direct, immediate control. Harder to find, this deeper core energy is the supple strength that is the essence of growth, youth and healing. It does involve muscles, the difference being that through the intention behind expansive extension, we access deeper supporting and structural muscles that may or may not be under our voluntary control. Those posture governing muscles that are able to hold firm while in extension are more steadfast than peripheral muscles working primarily by shortening through contraction.
Staying close to the tensegrity model, one way to describe a committed practice would be this:
As we enter, stay and exit an asana, we want to concomitantly work on creating space inside the body by engaging expansive energy (the deeper postural muscles) to open out the frame (the compressors/bones/struts/EARTH) and reaching outwardly, and engaging integrative energy by hugging the more peripheral muscles to the bones (muscles/fascia/ligaments/tendons/WATER), completing the network of tension that gives the whole structure its integrity.
A pivotal key is the center of gravity of a yoga pose. Each key is the location where integrative energy draws into and from which expansive energy radiates from. There are 3 pivotal keys, depending on the asana under consideration:
the core of the pelvis
A point within the pelvis a few inches below the navel, in line with the bottom of the sacrum where the tailbone begins. It is active in standing and sitting poses, in which the pelvis is the most weight-bearing part of the pose.
the bottom of the heart
Where the head rests on top of the diaphragm in the core of the chest, active in downward dog and most arm balances.
The center of the upper palate
Active in inverted poses, in which the head is part of the foundation, headstand and shoulderstand typically.
The sense of integration and expansion, in each asana, originates from and returns to the pivotal key, which is determined relative to the part of the body that is most weight-bearing in establishing foundation.
putting it all together
The body can be seen as a tensegrity, a paradigm suggesting that the integrity of a living structure results from the interplay of tension and compression. The originality of tensegrity is that it suggests we look at the continuous network of tension as being the primary force holding the organism in its integrity (as opposed to the more classical view looking at continuous compression models of structural integrity).
In working with the body, we need to be aware of two complementary structures: the compressed structure/skeleton (the EARTH part) with its moving parts 'floating' in a continuum of connective tissues (muscles/tendons/ligaments/fascia, the WATER part). While outward form is achieved through the existence of the struts (the bones), Life is imbued by the network of tension (the muscles).
When we work, we want to constantly bring to heart and mind an integrative (muscular) energy and an expansive (skeletal) energy around and through the relevant pivotal key of the posture, by engaging the peripheral muscles to hug the bones and tense in the asana, while activating the deep postural muscles to push out and space out the asana.
How to do it?
I suggested an excursion in french post-modern philosophy in part one. Yoga has a natural way to move us away from binary oppositions and mutually exclusive concepts. Working with expansive and integrative energies is no exception.
For a start, the yogi can place the accent more on one energy or the other: focusing more on space creation for example, without engaging completely muscular energy, to get a feel for this particular flavor of working. Then alternate, and see what more focus on integrative energy yields. A natural step is then to link the inhale with the expansion, and the exhale with the integration. Since this rotation comes naturally, it is also good to reverse the flow, and link the inhale with integration, and the exhale with expansion. Gradually, what we want to arrive at is a constant feeling of both operating at the same time, in inhalation and exhalation.
In this sense, and long before philosophers started to think about how our mind simplify things with binary oppositions and mutually exclusive concepts, yogis have embraced and acknowledged the fact that polar opposites co-exist, at all times, everywhere, and singling out one end of the spectrum as opposed to the other is an artificial human endeavor. Walking the tightrope of light and darkness simultaneously is inherent to yoga practice.
Stand with feet parallel as wide as the arms outstretched (pivotal key, the hara):
- integrative energy -> imagine you're standing on ice, isometrically draw the feet toward each other, and feel in particular the inner thighs firming, energy drawing up the legs toward the core of the pelvis
- expansive energy -> without losing the firmness and lift, extend from the hara back down through the leg bones to the feet
Feel how the energy can flow simultaneously in 2 directions, up through the muscles and down through the bones, and how as the bones root firmly down into the earth, the spine releases and extends freely up.