Knowing What Muscles To Engage

One of my friends recently posted that

Knowing what muscles to engage is what heals.

(He’s exposed to a lot of yogi’s who focus on stretching).

It inspired me to look at my own yoga practice (and what I teach and do)  in order to use my body more effectively.

It is also inspiring me to go back to the very basics, which includes looking at the possibilities for activating muscle and relaxing it.

Muscle Basics

When activated muscle tissue:

  • can shorten,
  • remain the same length or
  • lengthen.

It depends on the relative force that it is working against:

  • If working against a lesser force then it will shorten,
  • working against an equal force then it will remain the same length,
  • working against a greater force then it will lengthen.

An example of the middle case is holding a half squat with thighs level, the leg muscles work against each other and gravity to remain the same length.

An example of the latter case is slowly lowering into a squat. The quads and/or glute max, for example,will be slowly lengthening even though they are active.

When relaxed muscle tissue will tend to return to some resting length (which assumes that there is some connective tissue within the muscle that has some elastic properties, or that some fibers within the muscle are responsible for returning it to some resting length.)

While relaxed a muscle can be lengthened so that it is stretched. Or the distance it spans can be shortened so that the muscle can relax further, perhaps sinking downwards due to its own weight.

The former case, lengthening a relaxed muscle, is the basis for “relaxed stretching.”
Meanwhile the case where muscle is lengthened while active can one form of active stretching.

Feeling Tension (and Slackness)

To me one of the interesting things about muscle tissue is that with practice we can learn to feel the difference between when a muscle is relax and when it is active. We can also feel when it is being stretched while relaxed or active.

And for muscles that are too thin or too small, or too few in number to be sensible, what we can learn to feel (and control) is connective tissue tension and/or the relationship between bones which that muscle helps to control.

So what’s more important, being able to relax or contract muscle? I’d suggest that both are important. More important is being able to feel and control whether muscles are relaxed or contracted so that we can choose which we want to do.

Posture Affects Tension
(And Vice Versa)

This brings up a problem in that the ability to control a muscle depends on posture while posture or body positioning can also depend on muscle activity.

If you have trouble activating a particular muscle it may be because you need to adjust your posture (which in turn is being caused by another muscle contracting or failing to contract)

If you have trouble with achieving a particular posture (or balancing left and right, it may be because a muscle is activated or because a particular muscle is not activating.

Feel and Control

Rather than saying that muscle activation is better, or that relaxation is better, I’d suggest that the most benefit comes from being able to feel and control the body and respond depending on the circumstances and what the over all goal is.

For myself the qualities that I try to be aware of are tension and bone positioning. (Tension in connective tissue or tension due to muscle activation.) These are qualities that I can control or vary and both can be affected by muscle activation and/or muscle relaxation.

My most recent example is that my shoulders have been imbalanced. It’s felt like my right pectoralis minor tends to habitually contract.

I eventually realized that my ribcage tends to be positioned slightly rightwards relative to my pelvis and this in turn may have been the result of one or the other of my psoas muscles not activating when required. So I focused on aligning ribcage and pelvis, and also on activating the psoas on both sides.

From there I then worked on balancing the shoulders.

(Part of balancing my shoulders included activating the latissimus dorsai on the right side. Whether it was not activating because my ribcage was displaced or my ribcage was in part displaced because it was not activating, I’m not quite sure.)

The things that guided my adjustments where being able to feel or sense my ribcage in relaxation to my pelvis, the pull of the psoas on my lumbar vertebrae, and then tension in the muscles that act between shoulder blade and ribcage, and between shoulder blade and upper arm bone (humerus).


To sum up, the quality that is perhaps most important when learning to feel the body and control it is tension.

Tension enables me to feel the relationship between my bones (for example: between ribcage and pelvis) and it also allows me to feel when my latissimus dorsai or psoas (or any other muscle) is activated (or relaxed).

Tai Ji, the Psoas and the Low Back

When I first started practicing Tai Ji in Taiwan I got some flack from my teacher for my lower back being bent backwards too much. Initially I used the excuse that my butt being so big made it look as if my lower back was bent, but then I started to practice keeping my lower back straight. Teaching classes, to make this action easier to both do and feel I had my students practice straightening their lower back and then releasing it in time with their breath. If I was going to teach people to keep their lower back straight, I thought the best way to do it was to make the action as easy as possible to practice, and comfortable too.

Practice Straightening the Lower Back

This action can be practiced while standing with the knees slightly bent. Slowly inhale and while doing so tilt the pelvis back far enough that the lower back straightens. While exhaling, slowly release.

Try to make both actions as relaxed as possible. If you like, when inhaling you can focus on pulling the lower belly inwards and upwards. You can then adjust this action so that it helps to tilt your pelvis backwards while inhaling.

Bagua Zhan-Feeling and Moving the Spine

A friend started a Bagua class and invited me to attend. I’ve always wanted to learn bagua becuase I felt that it was the perfect complement to tai ji.

Where tai ji is rooted and fixed and we use the center of the earth as our center, in bagua, the center of our body is the center we move around. In tai ji we might be radiating outwards. In Bagua we radiate inwards. In Tai Ji we are a part of the earth, in Bagua we are separate from it. In Tai Ji we wait and respond, in Bagua we test and create openings.

In my friends class, one of the movements involved moving the hands in vertical circles, both forwards and backwards but while focusing on the c7 vertebrae (The bottom most vertebrae of the neck. It connects the neck the to thoracic spine.) The idea was to move the arms in such a way that this vertebrae traveled in a vertical circle (from front to back as opposed to from side to side.)

Then we did a practice where we bent our spine backwards vertebrae by vertebrae from the tail bone up while inhaling. Then from the tail bone up we bent it forwards while exhaling. I couldn’t do my whole spine in a complete breath so while bending my spine backwards, I’d pause to exhale, and then continue bending backwards on my next inhale.

Yet another exercise involved squatting and straightening the spine while inhaling, and then relaxing and standing while exhaling. We also had to pull the chin in so that the neck felt long.

In yet another exercise where we were walking, I learned to lift my knee high enough that my lower back became straight. This feeling, of having the lower back straight, was the same feeling I used to teach my yoga students to look for when doing utkattasana (chair pose) in yoga class. When you tilt your pelvis backwards just the right amount it makes the lower back feel full.

Standing Meditation

Most mornings when I go to the park my morning practice nearly always starts of with a standing meditation. I stand with my feet about hip width, my knees comfortably bent, ribcage, and head balanced over my pelvis, and my arms hanging down from my neck and ribcage.

Depending on how I feel I might focus on the individual bones of my body, scanning them gradually. Or I do the same with my muscles. Or I focus on the meridians or my internal organs. Sometimes I might focus on a point in my body and then see where that leads me, chasing “sensations” or going to areas that need my attention. Actually, it’s like I’m exploring my body with my mind. At times I’ll be focused on a particular point and some part of my body will release and I will feel slightly more relaxed, more settled.

This morning, bearing in mind some of Jared’s lessons, I focused on moving my awareness up my spine. I did this without moving my spine. Instead, each inhale my mind traveled up my spine, vertebrae by vertebrae. Its much quicker when I’m not moving. Then each exhale my mind did the same. Usually when focusing on my spine I inhale up my spine and then exhale down the front of my body. This was different.

At times I inhaled up my spine while at the same time being aware of energy circulating down the front of my body. I did the same while exhaling. In this way I sometimes stayed aware of the energetic circuit or the complete flow of energy within this circuit. After all, if we are paying attention to one point in an energy circuit, it isn’t just that one point that flows, but all points of “energy” within that circuit that flow. Anyway, this practice felt really nice.

I carried the same feeling into my Dance of Shiva practice. I focused on feeling the moves and on knowing where my arms where going so that I could “feel” the smoothest path. Even now, a few hours later, I still feel good.

Awaiting the Impulse to Start

Afterward I worked on a sword routine but doing while holding the sword in my left hand as opposed to my right.

Standing still, getting ready to begin, I felt my body and waited for the impulse to start. Rather than forcing the movement, I felt myself internally and waited for the feeling to come from within me. So that I could continue to lead from within I did the movements slowly and kept staying relaxed. I used my legs to move my pelvis and I used the movements of my pelvis to drive the movements of my arms and the sword that I was holding. It felt pretty good.

The Psoas Accessed Via the Kidneys

Remembering something from Jared’s class, and perhaps also something from somewhere else, I continued to do the sword routine (6th duan sword) but now while focused on keeping my kidneys feeling full. I continued to maintain this feeling when I next did an open hand (no sword) form, the 42 competition form, which is classed as yang style but is actually a blend of a number of different styles.

Yet again I made my kidneys feel full. Doing so I realized I could go low, like really low, hips to the level of my knees low, and it felt easy. I felt like I looked like the Chinese guys who go low but who also seem so relaxed, as if it is easy. Going low it was as if something was holding me up from the inside.

Usually when I try to sink low my thighs will soon start to quiver and shake and I usually end up standing higher at some point. Now I could go low and it was easy. While my thighs did some work it was nowhere near the amount that they had to work when I was doing this same practice previously. And it wasn’t because my legs where stronger. It was all because I was making my kidneys feel full.

What I later figured out while waiting in line at the hospital for a check up was that when I had the “Full” feeling in my kidneys, my lower back was straight. As a result the weight of my ribcage and head could press down through the back of my pelvis making the whole upper body want to tilt backwards. If you’ve ever slumped back in a chair or on a sofa, you back naturally rounds and your pelvis tilts back. I was getting a similar sort of action, but rather than slumping completely, I was doing so just enough that the weight of my body was balanced over the back of my pelvis. My upper body was actually on the verge of falling back but my psoas, anchored by one or the other of my thighs, was engaged enough to help prevent my upper body from tipping backwards.

Experimenting further with keeping my kidneys full, I found I could turn my hips easily with a feeling of looseness and I could kick easily with a sense that I was easily transferring momentum to my leg.

The joy for me was in finally realizing why in Yang style Tai Ji we are taught to keep our lower back straight, it’s so that we can use our psoas to make the actions easier.

How does this relate to making the kidneys feel full? The kidneys are in front of the psoas. Feeling the kidneys, moving the kidneys, is one way of “Finding” and controlling the psoas.