Learning to Stretch-Practicing Sensitivity and Control

Relaxing a muscle and contracting it are both aspects of controlling our body. We can improve our ability to stretch our muscles, activate them and strengthen them by learning to feel our muscles and control them. We can focus feeling the belly of the a muscle since this is the part that does the work. We can also learn to feel our bones and the points of attachment between muscle and bones.

Focusing on the belly of a muscle we can feel when that muscle contracts and relaxes.

Focusing on the endpoints of a muscle, the points at which it attaches to bone, we can move these points away from each other or towards each other to help stretch a muscle or activate it.

This article focuses on learning to feel, control and relax the belly of a muscle so that we can stretch it.

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Contents


Muscle Layout

Some muscles cross and act on only one joint. Some muscles cross or act on two joints. Yet other muscles cross multiple joints. The better we understand the “Layout” of a muscle and the bones that it attaches to, the easier it will be for us to direct our awareness to the appropriate place so that we can feel our muscles activating or relaxing, and so that we can control them. If we have an understanding of where a muscle is located we can put our awareness in that place to feel it.

Looking at any anatomy book, we can see learn where the belly of a particular muscle is and then try to may that awareness to our own body. As an example, the biceps is located at the front of the upper arm. The belly of the biceps is located between the elbow and the shoulder. To feel our biceps, it helps if we focus our attention on the front of our upper arm. If we then bend our elbow and straighten so that the biceps contracts and relaxes we can then practice feeling our biceps.

If at the same time we are aware of how the biceps connects to the shoulder blade and lower arm, we can notice any pulling sensations at the shoulder and elbow and based on those sensations decide whether we are actually engaging the biceps or some other muscle as well.

We may find that we are engaging the brachioradialis or the coracobrachialis, the first of which attaches the upper arm bone to the radius, the second of which attaches from the upper arm to the coracoid process on the shoulder blade.


Muscle Actions

So that we can learn to activate and relax muscle tissue at will some basic understanding of how muscles work with and against each other can be useful.

Bones connect at joints so that they can move relative to each other. Muscles act on bones across joints to either change the relationship of the bones at that joint or maintain that relationship.

  • A muscle can contract and “close” the side of the joint it works on. The greater the force it works against the greater the muscle needs to contract
  • Muscles can work against each other with unequal force so that a joint closes in the direction of the stronger muscle
  • Muscles can work against each other with equal force so that a joint is stable
  • A muscle can gradually relax and allow the side of the joint it works on to “open.”
  • All muscles that act on a joint can be relaxed so that the joint is able to move freely.

In the first case, a muscle might be working against some outside force, or the weight of the body part it is acting on. Holding one arm straight out in front, we can bend the elbow and cause the biceps to engage. Since it is only the weight of the arm that is moving, the force required is minimal.

Holding a weight with our arm down by our side, the greater the weight the greater the force our biceps would have to exert in order to bend the elbow.

With the arm in front or by our side we could tense the triceps, at the back of the arm, and then engage the biceps. If the force of the triceps is only slightly less than that of the biceps then the elbow will slowly bend. We can thus use one muscle to help us engage another muscle.

If we slowly relax the biceps, reduce the force that it exerts, or we increase the force that the triceps exerts, then we gradually open the elbow.

Thus we can use body weight, the weight of some external object or an opposing muscle to help contract a muscle. To relax a muscle we simply relax or release the force that it is working on.

If our focus is on relaxing muscle tissue so that it can be stretched we need to be aware of any opposing forces that a muscle may be acting against, whether body weight, an opposing muscle, or some external weight or force, so that we can negate that force and allow the muscle to relax.

Note that if for some reason we feel unsafe, we may tense muscles in opposition to create stability and safety. This can work against us if our intent is to stretch. If we can figure out the reason why we feel unsafe or position ourselves in such a way that we feel safe it may then be easier for us to relax and stretch.


Relaxing and Contracting

When the fibers in the belly of a muscle contract, the muscle tries to shorten and pull the bones it attaches to towards each other. I say “Tries to Shorten” because if a muscle works against against a greater force then it will actually lengthen. However if it is working against a lesser force then it will shorten. If it is working against an equal force then it will stay the same length.

When a muscle is relaxed or inactive it tends to return to its resting length. If the bones that it is attached to are moved away from each other then the muscle will be lengthened. If moved gradually beyond it’s resting length the muscle will actually be stretched.


Tendons-Connective Tissue that Transmits Force

The belly of a muscle is attached to bone via connective tissue called tendons.When a muscle contracts it pulls on tendons which in turn pull on the bones that they are attached to. When the bones that a muscle is attached to are pulled apart these same tendons then help to lengthen the belly of the muscle. When the belly of the muscle creates a pulling force, it is the tendons that transmit this force.

Tendons are made up of connective tissue and this connective tissue extends into the belly of the muscle itself. It defines bundles of muscle fibers and allows them to move relative to each other as well as giving them something to pull on when they contract.

The connective tissue within the belly of a muscle has some elasticity so that they help the belly of the muscle return to its resting length when relaxed. It is this connective tissue that is lengthened when a muscle is stretched.


Positioning The Body to Relax So That we can Stretch

Since muscle tissue can lengthen even when active (because it is trying to act against a greater force,) just because a muscle is lengthening when we pull on it doesn’t mean we are stretching it. If we want to stretch a muscle we need to relax it so that we stretch the connective tissue within the belly of the muscle. One possible way of doing this is to gradually relax a muscle as we lengthen it. We can practice gradually lengthening to the point of total relaxation, hold for a moment, and then gradually contract.

Part of relaxing muscles at will is positioning the body in such a way that the muscles we want to relax can relax. In general this can mean providing a stable foundation for the muscle(s) that we are trying to stretch. This means making one of the bones or body parts to which that muscle is attached stable. Then the other part can move relative to the stable part.

As an example, in a standing forward bend we are trying to move the pelvis relative to the legs to lengthen the hamstrings. Since the hamstrings attach from the lower leg to the pelvis, we can stabilize  the lower leg, including the shin, ankle and foot, to give the hamstrings a stable foundation.

Laying on our back and pulling one leg back and down, we are moving the leg relative to the pelvis. So that the pelvis is stable we can activate the abs to unify it with the ribcage and stabilize the lower back. We again give the hamstrings a stable foundation.

So that we can give the muscle(s) we are stretching a stable foundation we need to know which parts of the body a muscle attaches to, and which of those parts we are moving relative to the other. We can then stabilize the other part so that the muscle in question can be stretched.


Leading with a Clear Idea

Another part of stretching or allowing ourselves to stretch is having a clear idea of what we are trying to do. If we define a foundation as something that allows us to do what we are trying to do, whether it is erect a building or stretch a muscle, then we can say that a clear idea is a foundation of sorts because it allows us to get on with what we are trying to do. Without a clear idea we don’t know what we are trying to do, and so we may have an idea of getting more flexible but not knowing how we are trying to get flexible while in a particular pose.

For example, in a seated forward bend we can reach our legs forwards and push our pelvis back to create space in the hip joint so that it is easier to bend forwards.

There are four hip muscles that connect the thigh to the pelvis which can be used to create space between the pelvis and the thigh bone. When focusing on reaching the legs forwards and pushing the pelvis back we can help to activate these muscles.

Since these muscles also cause the thighs to rotate externally, we can counter this tendency by engaging the outer hip muscles. Since the outer hip muscles can also be used to tip the pelvis forwards, this is doubly advantageous if we are doing a forward bend.

If we also focus on the idea of reaching forwards in a forward bend (as opposed to downwards), the process of reaching forwards will gradually bring our chest towards our legs. For this to happen we have to tilt our pelvis forwards. For this to happen, our hamstrings have to lengthen and prior to that they have to relax.

The clear idea we can then focus on is reaching our torso and legs forwards (while pressing our pelvis back.) This clear idea holds all of the smaller ideas together. In the process we lengthen the hamstrings which is the big idea of what we are trying to do.

If we aren’t focused on that one clear idea, other ideas may be occupying our mind. “When will this be over…. I hate this stretch…. I can’t do this… this is so uncomfortable.” All of these are also clear ideas but they are also ideas that hinder what we are trying to do. If we want to lengthen a part of our body then that is what we can focus on doing. Our body is then more likely to follow.


Using Weight or Supporting It

When a muscle is “tense” it is more than likely working against some outside force. When we are stretching, a muscle may be tense because it is trying to prevent part of the body from falling or collapsing so as to not be overstretched. In fact, our body is working against what we are trying to do.

To help a “tense” muscle relax we can try to relax or negate any forces that it is acting against.

In a forward bend where we are trying to stretch the hamstrings, the hamstrings may actually be engaging to help support the weight of the upper body, to prevent it from moving forwards. So that we can negate this tendency we can support the weight of our upper body by using our arms. We can then wait for our hamstrings to relax and then we can lower our upper body slightly by bending the elbows. Our hamstrings then may engage again but here again if we support the weight of our body in this new position then our hamstrings may release again at which point we can lower our upper body further.

Once we’ve trained our hamstrings to stay relaxed we can use the weight of the ribcage that we were previously supporting to actually help stretch the hamstrings. We can slowly and smoothly reach our hands off of the floor so that our ribcage is unsupported and we can even add weight by reaching our arms slowly forwards.

If we do this slowly and smoothly we are less likely to cause our hamstrings to tense up in fear. If at the same time we reach our arms and ribcage forwards, the weight of our body can be used to gradually lengthen our hamstrings.


Practicing Relaxation and Activation

One final technique bears mentioning is using slow, rhythmic repeated movements to both stretch muscle tissue and activate it. Such movements can be done in time with the breath if we can breath slowly enough but they can also simply be done slowly enough and smoothly enough that we can feel our muscles and bones as we move our body.

As an example, in the forward bend we can support our upper body with our hands so that our hamstrings can relax, we can then smoothly take our hands off of the floor and then reach our arms, ribs and head forwards while inhaling. We can put our hands back down on the floor and relax and then repeat.

We can add “clear idea” practice to this by focusing on reaching forwards when inhaling (and making the lower legs stable at the same time since we want the pelvis to move relative to the legs) and focusing on relaxing while exhaling.

While inhaling our upper body reaches forwards and our pelvis tilts forwards. While exhaling we support our upper body and gradually allow it to relax downwards while relaxing the hamstrings at the same time.

As we practice this movement we may then find that we can keep our hamstrings relaxed even as we lift our upper body and reach it forwards. We thus help to lengthen the connective tissue that is within them.

Foundation-The Interface Between Ourselves and the World

Generally when we look at a system we can isolate it from its surroundings or we draw a line, a boundary.

“This is where the system ends, and this is where it begins.”

We can look at the main connection between itself and the outside world as the foundation. The part of the outside world to which it connects, is its foundation.

When building a building, the foundation is the first part made.

(The plan comes before the foundation, and the idea before the plan so we could say that the idea is the foundation for the plan, the plan the foundation for the making of the building.)

The foundation is usually a part of the earth, or it provides an interface, a solid link or connection between the earth and the building.

The metal framework continues that link upwards.

If we look at the earth and the building as two separate ideas we could say that the earth, particularly the small square parcel of land that the building is going to sit on, is the foundation in the relationship. It provides stability so that the building can be made and while the building is being made. It continues to provide that stability afterwards.

Relationships with the Inside and the Outside

If we look at ourselves in the context of our relationship with the earth, the earth provides stability so that we can walk run or even stand still. Because of the earth’s size, and the gravity that is a result of that size, the earth provides a foundation for us to change. We may change it in some small way, in the context of individual entities, but for the most part, it remains stable so that we can create or experience the change that we desire.

Looking at ourselves and the earth what we have is a relationship. In that relationship, change can occur easily, change that we desire can occur because the earth is stable.

Within the context of our body, we can say that our body is a relationship, actually a whole bunch of relationships. We can divide our body into two parts, the lower body up to the pelvis and the upper body, from the pelvis upwards. We can call the lower body the foundation, the upper body the expression and we can also use a third part, the center, in this case the pelvis, since it connects the two. We could go deeper, the feet, lower legs, thighs, pelvis, lower back, ribcage, neck, head, shoulder girdle, shoulders, arms, forearms and hands, these are parts and where they connect relationships are formed.

Depending on what we are doing, one model or the other may be more useful at the time.

Foundations or References for Change

Whichever model we use, if we are trying to create or understand a change that is happening in our body, in each relationship we can use one part as the foundation for the other.

Our feet and lower legs can be the foundation for our thighs and pelvis. In this case the thighs and pelvis are an expression. We could look then at the thighs as the foundation for the pelvis and the pelvis the foundation for the lumbar spine. In this case, because we are starting from the ground up, each lower part in the relationship, each part closest to the earth, closest to stability is the foundation and the other part is the expression.

Generally, the foundation is the part that stays still, stable while the expression is the part that moves.

With a foundation we have a point from which we can measure and create the change that we want to create. If we are looking at a relationship then a foundation gives us a reference against which to measure the change that occurs (if any.)

Generally, one would hope, when creating a foundation for a building, say a simple one, the top surface of the foundation is flat and level. Not only that, any mounting points, structural elements are set distances apart from each other.

Engineers create this by first digging or marking one point and using it as a reference to locate other points. Meanwhile these points and the foundation act as reference for the first part of the building. Once that is up, the floor below and the floor above can be used as references for the floors that follow.

Which reference used can depend on convenience and facility, which is the best to use at the time? Which makes it easiest to create the change that we desire.

Absolute and Relative References

If you’ve ever written web pages where even a few links are involved you are already used to this idea. If you know the page you are at and the relationship of the page you are going to you can write a full link or a short link. For example, if the page you are lining to is in the same directory of the same sight you can simply reference the file name.

But if the page is being used as a template or copied elsewhere then in that case you’d want to use the whole address.
In spread sheets we have the same flexibility.

We can reference cells based on the cell names, using the a1 cell as the master reference, or we can reference cells based on our current location, two cells down and one cell to the left. (Absolute and relative referencing)

The address that we use provides a reference, a foundation for the change that we wish to create whether linking to another web page on the web or another cell in a spreadsheet.

Creating Stable References

Generally, in relationships with the earth, the earth is the bigger party, it is also relatively stable and immobile and so it is the obvious candidate for the label of foundation.

In the case of our body, doing something while standing, we can make a part of our body stable, immobile, a foundation for the part that moves.

So while standing we can make our feet, ankles, lower legs strong, so that we can do what we want with our upper body. Our foundation may just be our feet and ankles, or it may include our shins, knees and thighs, and even our hips and our pelvis.
If we look at just our lower body, we can look for the foundation within the foundation, say the feet, ankles and shins, while the thighs and pelvis are the expression, relatively relaxed.

And then our waist, ribcage, neck and head can be the foundation for whatever we are doing with our arms.

Working from the Center Outwards

Another way that we can create a foundation for our body is to work from the center outwards. In this case our spine, pelvis, waist, ribcage neck and head can be made stable to provide a foundation for our arms and legs.

In this case our foundation is at our center.

Once our center is firm, we can adjust our connection with the earth to suit.

This could be like building a mobile home, carting it to its new site, and then setting the foundation to suit the mobile home. Depending on what we are doing, one point of view may be more useful than the other.

We could also look at the earth as one big ball, globe or planet. Rather than thinking about the small patch we are in contact with we could think about the whole of the earth. Then in that context, the earth’s center is the foundation for ourselves. It is the point which gravity pulls us in towards and it is the point that we stand up and radiate outwards from.

Choose Your Starting Point

Whether thinking in terms of center or foundation, the most important thing is to be clear on which is which so that you have a reference for the change that you are trying to create.

If you haven’t got a reference then that can be the first change that you can create. You can pick some part of a relationship to use as a reference and if it is less than ideal then change it and choose another.

Getting More Flexible-An Engineering Approach

Problem Solving

Many people turn to yoga as a way of dealing with a problem or problems. For myself the problem was that I was inflexible. I turned to yoga erroneously thinking that I could do it for three months, get flexible, and then get on with what I really wanted to do (run, skate, martial arts.)

I spent five years in university to learn one simple thing. In order to fix a problem you gotta know what it is. Prior to that it helps if you understand what you are working with. If you don’t understand what you are working with or what you are trying to do then part of the problem solving process is acquiring that understanding… in other words learning.

Its ten years later… or maybe 12 (time flies) and now I’m finally getting on with what I want to do. Part of the reason it has taken me so long is that in the process of making my body more flexible I’ve also been learning to understand it. Its so much easier to fix something when you understand what you are working with. I also had to learn what flexibility was. I had to define it. Then I could work towards acquiring it.

Flexibility Defined

For this article I’ll define flexibility as the ability for a muscle or muscles to relax and to be lengthened. The part that relaxes is the belly of the muscle, which is also the same part that contracts.

When a muscle is relaxed and then lengthened (or lengthened and gradually relaxed) the connective tissue within the belly of the muscle is stretched.

Flexibility is a quality of the connective tissue with our muscles. The more pliable our connective tissue is, the more flexible we are. The better we are at controlling our muscles, being able to relax as well as contract them at will, the better we can access this flexibility.

So to stretch and improve our flexibility, part of what we need to develop is control and part of that control is the ability to relax at will.

So one part of flexibility training is learning to relax the muscles we are stretching.

Learning to Relax

Part of learning to relax is learning to feel when muscles are relaxed and when they are engaged.

We can learn to feel our muscles by using and experiencing them. As an example, if we want to learn to feel our quadriceps, the large muscle at the front of the thigh that straightens the knee and helps to flex the hip, we can practice straightening the knee and allowing it to bend.

If we do this slowly we can feel the various groups of fibers as they activate (and as they relax.) Of course to do this we have to put our awareness in our knee and thigh, we have to focus on feeling our quadriceps. (And of course to do that we need to know where our quadriceps is and where its endpoints attach to.)

If we do the movement repeatedly and slowly we can notice changes in sensation and then we can differentiate the sensations that indicate muscle activity and those that indicate that the muscle is relaxed.

Another way to see if a muscle is relaxed is to shake it. So for example, if you roll your thigh from side to side and the quadriceps are relaxed, the muscle will “roll” from side to side. First experiencing this feeling and then memorizing it we may then make it easier on ourselves to find the sensation again, i.e. relax our muscles.

To learn to feel when a muscle is being stretched we can slowly move in and out of a stretching position and notice the changes in sensation.

By moving slowly we maximize our ability to keep the muscle we are stretching relaxed. By moving in and out of a stretch repeatedly we can learn the sensations that indication stretching and we can also enjoy the sensations that accompany the release of that stretch.

(As an aside, some of us enjoy these sensations more than others.)

A Stable Foundation for Relaxation

So that we can relax and then stretch another requirement is a stable foundation.

If we are standing on firm ground it is usually more easy to relax than if we are on ground that is moving or otherwise unstable.

In our relationship with the earth, if the earth is stable then we can relax. If the earth is unstable then we probably tense up in one way or the other.

Looking at the relationships of bone to bone and bone to muscle within our body:

  • If the two bones two which a muscle is attached are aligned with gravity or otherwise positioned so that they are stable then the muscle can relax.
  • If one bone is moving but the other bone is stable then depending on the type or intent of the movement that muscle can relax or slowly lengthen and then relax.
  • If both bones are unstable then chances are that any muscles that connect those bones will tense up.

To relax muscle (so that we can lengthen or strengthen) we can position our bones so that they are aligned with gravity or otherwise supported. So that we can relax and stretch we can make sure that one of the bones to which a muscle we want to stretch is stable and then we can focus on moving the other bone relative to the fixed bone so that the target muscle is lengthened and stretched.

Weight Control

Something to be aware of and this is further understanding, is that the parts of our body have weight. If one part of the body is stable and the other part is allowed to move, then chances are that the movement of the moving part is being assisted by gravity.

Because of this weight, any muscle that is potentially being stretched may tighten up to resist being stretched too fast or being stretched beyond breaking point. If a muscle is active or engaged, it can’t be stretched. So we need to overcome, prevent or counteract this mechanism.

If we control the rate at which the moving part moves, it may be  easier to avoid this automatic contraction. We can do this by moving slowly and gradually and even repeatedly.

As an example, in a standing forward bend lets assume we want to stretch the back of the thighs-the hamstrings. If we are standing then our legs will be the stationary element and we move our pelvis by tilting it forwards relative to the legs to stretch the hamstrings.

Since the hamstrings attach to the lower leg bones we can focus on making the feet, ankles and shins stable. Our hamstrings then have a fixed point so that they can lengthen. However they also are dealing with the whole weight of the upper body (pelvis, ribcage, head and arms) hinging at the hip joint. Our hamstrings may tighten to prevent being overstretched. However, if we use our hands to support the weight of our upper body, we can give our hamstrings time to relax. We can use blocks if we can’t reach the floor and push our hands down so that we push our ribcage up.

Since our goal is to lengthen the hamstrings we can slowly lower the ribcage under control by slowly bending the elbows. Better yet, we can bend the elbows slightly, notice the hamstrings and feel when they relax, and then bend the elbows some more.

Once we are practiced with this we may find that we can relax our hamstrings and keep them relaxed without using our arms. Instead we slowly relax our hamstrings to the point of complete relaxation.

Once they are relaxed we can then use the weight of the upper body to help lengthen the connective tissue and stretch it.

Using Weight to Stretch

In a standing forward bend if we want to use the weight of our upper body to help lengthen our hamstrings, we can grab our elbows and let our arms, head and ribcage hang down from our waist.

In a seated forward bend, if we want to add weight to stretch our hamstrings we can engage our back muscles to straighten our spine. We can even think of bending it backwards slightly. If we engage our spinal erectors to keep the spine straight (or bend it backwards) then we have the weight of our ribcage and head helping to tilt out pelvis forwards and lengthen our hamstrings.

Better yet, doing the opposite of before, if we lift our hands off of the floor and reach them forwards we can add even more weight to our upper body (instead of taking it off.) But so that our muscles don’t tighten up in defense, we can do this slowly and smoothly so as to keep our hamstrings relaxed. Then the weight of our upper body can be used to help lengthen the connective tissue within them.

If we understand our body and what flexibility is we can go about stretching in an effective manner.

We can position our body and provide the muscles we are stretching with a stable foundation, we can control the parts that move so that the muscle we are stretching can relax and stay relaxed, and prior to that or during that, we can practice activating and relaxing muscle tissue so that we can feel the sensations that are associated with both.

Body Basics-Feeling your Spine and Breath

The following set of exercises are designed to help you feel you pelvis, low back, ribcage, neck, head and shoulder blades. These exercises are designed to help you experience your body by moving specific parts slowly, smoothly and repeatedly with rhythm. You can then focus on feeling the parts that you are moving.

Once you’ve learned to feel these parts individually, you could then practice feeling them in the context of some action, whether a yoga pose or a tai ji movement or rowing or weight lifting or any activity that you do. The more you experience your body, the better you can feel it and control it in any situation. The intent is not to program you and say that this is the right way or the wrong way, but to allow you to feel and control your body so that you can use it in a way that is appropriate to what you are doing at the time. Better yet, it is to give you the ability to feel the possibilities for each of these parts so that you can choose from among them.

As an example, in the twisting section there are four different exercises. One involves twisting with the ribs expanded, another while the ribs are pulled inwards. Another involves twisting with  one side expanded while the other is contracted and the other variation is the opposite.

Now even if you can only do the first two options (expanded or contracted) you can try these options and notice which one makes twisting easier, or helps you to twist further or which simply feels the most comfortable given what you are doing at the time.

These exercises are all designed so that they can be done while sitting. You can sit on a chair (while looking at your computer) or you can sit on the floor. If on the floor you may find it to sit on a block or a book so that your can move your pelvis freely relative to your legs. Ideally, you can move roll your pelvis far enough forwards that you lumbar spine can straighten or even assume a “normally curved” position.

In the context of basic principles and foundation, you can consider these exercises foundational building blocks for feeling your body and using it in different contexts.

Ribs and Spine Together-Lengthening and Relaxing

Learn to feel your ribs and spine  by bending your spine forwards and allow your ribs to sink. Hold and concentrate on feeling the “weight” of your ribs and allowing weight to sink down. Notice (and allow) spine to bend forwards. Think “Couch Potato” or simply slouch. Also allow the head to go forwards and down relative to the ribcage.

Next slowly pull ribs and head upwards. Pull up on the back of the head so that the back of the neck feels long.

Work at making the ribcage feel expansive and spacious. You can also focus on creating space between the ribs.

Relax ribs and head down and then and then Lengthen entire spine, ribs and head upwards. Gradually shorten the time in each position and move slowly and smoothly from one to the other. Notice the difference in sensations. You may notice that you naturally inhale while lengthening and that you exhale while relaxing. That is because lengthening the spine and opening the ribcage expands the lungs while doing the opposite compresses the space that they are in.

Ribs Only

For the next exercise, which can continue from the previous, keep the spine upright and long and only move the ribs.

Because you are only moving your ribs, you may notice that each breath is a lot smaller.

To maximize your breath, focus on each part of your ribcage individually. While inhaling and exhaling, focus on moving your front ribs forwards and up, and then back and down. Bottom side ribs move outwards and up and then inwards and down. The back ribs simply lift up and down.

Focus on feeling or sensing each of these actions separately first and then all together. To feel your ribs move put your awareness on them or in them.

Diaphragm

For the next exercise, keep the spine long and the ribs lifted and allow your front belly (the front of your belly) to move as you breathe. It’ll move forwards as you inhale and back as you exhale. Once you have the hang of this,  focus on the bottom half of your lower belly (the bottom quarter of your belly)-halfway down from the belly button. Hold this part of your belly inwards while inhaling. There should be a slight feeling of tension running from side to side. You can imagine pulling the front edges of your pelvis inwards slightly.

Allow your upper belly to expand while holding your lower belly in. Slowly and smoothly relax your entire belly completely while exhaling.

Now try the same action while lifting and lowering the ribs. While inhaling gently pull your lower belly back while allowing your upper belly to expand. Allow your ribs to lift and expand at the same time. You may get the sensation that you are using your upper belly to push your ribs upwards.

Smoothly relax everything while exhaling.

The diaphragm pushes downwards on the abdominal organs while inhaling in this exercise. The abdominal organs then push outwards on the abdominal wall. It also can cause the “Pushing Up” sensation on the ribcage.

Roll the Pelvis and Straighten the Lumbar Spine

Changing gears slightly, sit on a chair or on a book or block so that you can roll your pelvis freely back and forwards. Start with it rolled forwards so that you lumbar spine is bent backwards (normal curve.)

Slowly rock your pelvis back just far enough so that your lumbar spine is straight. Then rock forwards. Practice slowly smoothly rocking backwards and forwards while feeling the change in position of your pelvis and lower back.

You may find it helpful to use a mirror. Notice when your lumbar spine looks straight and notice the feeling that accompanies this straightness. You might try fine tuning this position if there is a position near straightness that feels really comfortable or nice-as if the lower back is open or full.

You can add the previous exercise to this one and allow your upper belly to expand while rolling your pelvis backwards. You can pull your lower belly in at the same time. You then straighten you lumbar spine and expand your ribcage each time you inhale. You relax them both while exhaling.

Pulling head Up, Straighten Cervical Spine and Spreading Shoulder Blades

We’ve already practiced pulling the head back and up while straightening the spine, but here we’ll isolate the movement.

Relax the ribs and allow the head to sink forwards. Now focus on pulling the back of the head back and up. The chin can pull inwards at the same time. You may notice that this action naturally causes the front of the ribs to lift. Now slowly relax your head forwards and down. Repeat and make the movements smooth and slow.

Adding the shoulder blades, focus on feeling the inner edges of your shoulder blades, the part closest to the spinal column. This is the attachment point for most of the muscles that stabilize the scapula with respect to your ribcage.

As you pull your head back and up move the inner edges of your shoulder blades away from your spine. You may notice that your back feels wider, broader, more open. Relax while exhaling. While doing this action, try to keep the muscles that sit on your shoulder blades relaxed. Keep your large chest muscle (Pectoralis Major) relaxed also. You may have to focus on slowly moving your shoulder blades in order to feel this action, and in order to feel the position where the inner edges of your shoulder blades are flat on your back.

Twisting and Turning the Ribcage

With hands in prayer in front of your sternum, keep your hands there and turn your ribs to the right. Turn your ribcage relative to your pelvis and lumbar spine. Twist your ribs relative to each other.

Keep your ribs and head lifted and move your upper belly while breathing.

Hold for a few breaths and then pull the ribs in while continuing to twist. Hold for a few breaths noticing whether pulling ribs in makes twisting easier or harder. Did you twist further?

Next contract the left side of your ribcage and open the right side. How does this help (once you get the hang of it.)

Try the opposite.

Rest and then try the same options while twisting to the left.

In any exercise where we are twisting and turning the ribs, we can expand the ribs, contract them or expand one side while contracting the other. As mentioned, one option may be more appropriate given what you are doing at the time.

Bending the Spine Backwards and Forwards

Again while sitting, bend the spine backwards. Tilt the pelvis forwards at the same time. You can tuck the chin in and focus only on bending the lumbar spine and thoracic spine (back of the ribcage) backwards. Notice as you do so how your belly lengthens and the front of your ribcage opens. To assist this action, Focus on the side of your ribcage and push the sides of your ribs forwards.

Just for the experience also try pulling the sides of your ribs back.

Notice how each movement assists or doesn’t assist the backbend. For myself (currently,) pushing side ribs forwards makes bending spine backwards feel better.

Next bend the spine forwards. Pull the side ribs back and then try pushing them forwards. Notice the results. Again, my personal observations (yours may be different) are that pulling the side ribs back make this action easier while sitting.

When holding each position, experiment with different types of breath to see which one is easiest.

I find that when bending backwards, holding my lower belly in and breathing into my upper belly and front ribs feels comfortable. While bending backwards, I can breathe just a little into my upper belly but I then I put most of my effort into breathing into the back of my ribcage.

Stretch and Relax

To stretch and relax the muscles you’ve been using you may find it useful to do an assisted or relaxed twist.

Use a knee or the side of your chair and the back of your chair or the floor for leverage, use your arms to twist your ribs while relaxing your waist and ribcage.

Make both your inhales and your exhales feel relaxed and smooth.

Wrap Up

Most of these exercises involved using the muscles of the abdomen or intercostal spaces (the spaces between the ribs) in one way or another. They also, ideally, will help you to develop your ability to both feel and control your spine, the elements that make it up (the head, cervical spine, ribs, thoracic spine, lumbar spine and pelvis,) and the relationships between these elements.

In Basic Principle terminology we can use the word “idea” instead of the word “element.”

Note on Ideas and Relationships

The ideas we can learn to feel using these exercises are: The head, neck (cervical spine), ribcage, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, pelvis, shoulder blades.

Because the neck, thoracic spine and lumbar spine are actually made up of smaller elements, we can actually learn to feel and control the relationships between these smaller elements. Thus these elements could be considered as ideas or as a system of relationships.

Other relationships that we can learn to feel and control include those between the following pairs of ideas: head and ribcage, ribs and thoracic spine, ribs and pelvis, shoulder blades relative to each other, shoulder blades relative to the spine.

The Basics-How Much Practice is Enough?

A friend came over for a visit last night and showed me some brush painting techniques he’d learned from his teacher. We varied between using brushes and bits of newspaper but most importantly (and perhaps the most fun) is that we freed ourselves from style and convention. He’s had more practice than I have but we both played at expressing ourselves freely.

The day before I’d been running for about the third time in a year. I used to run regularly both while I was in the army and afterwards during university and after. I did have dreams of running a marathon but after a half marathon and another run with a lot of fun hills my knee had packed it in. And so for the next 10 years I focused on learning my body through yoga and later tai ji.

Getting back to running has been a chore in part because I’ve had no where nice to run. And then I did find someplace nice to run and so I started in on what worked before, running at a slow pace so that my heart rate stayed within the aerobic range.

Running like an old man I thought back to times when I’d been cross country skiing with friends. The first few outings would be torture and then all of a sudden, after plenty of rests, I’d find I was flying on my skii’s with hardly any effort. Even going up hills (and their are lots of hills in Gatineu Park outside of Ottawa in Canada, I felt like I was flying, to the point that i was easily catching up to and even in places leading friends who had stacks more experience than I did.

I wondered about all the work I’d been doing learning to feel my body and control it. I really wanted to feel like I was flying. Fuck the heart rate. I focused on feeling my body while I was running. Sure I’d run for a little then slow down but at least I was running the way I wanted to. And then my knee flared up and so running fast I focused on my hip, thigh and shin and on positioning them so that my knee felt alright. It worked. For each stride, I felt and positioned my leg so that I could use my whole leg to drive me forwards simply by aligning the bones with the force of what I was doing. Rather than muscling each stride I tried to feel it.

The next day I did something similar while swimming. Most of my time at the pool of late has been devoted to providing an environment for my daughter to get comfortable in water. It’s been about her instead of me…and so yesterday I got to do something for me. simply breast stroke with my head under water most of the way doing a sort of “hold your breath” pranayama while seeing how relaxed I could stay as I approached my breath holding limit.

Using my legs like a frog I gauged the quality of each “kick” by noticing the pool tiles passing below me. I would only kick when I stopped moving forwards and when I did kick I tried to feel my legs as I did so, again using the least amount of energy possible, keeping my legs soft and flexible, as much like the fins of a fish as possible. I noticed things like the positions of my hands up ahead of me, fingers together to reduce drag and while looking forwards pressing my arms bones up to smooth the profile of my head and arms. I felt myself “immersed” in the moment.

Later on that day, after our calligraphy fun and games my friend and I went out for a beer to discuss things like basics. We both agreed that one of the things that allowed us to express ourselves so freely with brush and ink was the practice we’d put into staying within the limits. For me that meant learning characters to the point I could do them without thinking, continually holding the brush upright while noticing my connection with the brush and trying to see everything-be open while I was painting.
With learning the body, I felt that learning the basics enable me to get back to running and swimming with hardly any problems. I thought and still believe that there are body basics that we can learn and practice that can help us in anything that we do that relates to the body, whether it is painting, running, riding a bike or even drinking beer….

So how much practice is enough?

It depends on what we are trying to do. If we find ourselves practicing and doing nothing else, least of all expressing ourselves in what we are practicing for, then perhaps it is time to take a break from practice.

How much practice is enough, it depends on what you are practicing for.

As for me, I wanted to express myself freely with a brush and with my body. I’m not going to stop practicing the basics but I am going to make more time to do what I really want to do, paint freely and express my self.

How does this relate to foundation? Practice is the foundation based upon which we can express ourselves freely, beautifully and meaningfully.

Foundation-A Starting Point for Change

A foundation is a reference for any change that we wish to create or observe or measure.

In anything that we do, once we know what we are going to be doing, the foundation is the first thing that we create.

Creating Stable Relationships

Erecting a building, builders create a base to support the structure. The base is the point of contact between the building and the earth. The base (and framework) of the building create a stable relationship between the building and the earth. It keeps the building upright. We can do the same when building a pose, we can create stability in our pose via our connection with the earth.

Standing on our feet we can make our feet, ankle and lower legs strong so that they support the rest of our body. Prior to that we can make sure that we are standing on ground that is solid and secure.

Within our body, we can look at the relationships between different parts of our body and make one part the foundation for the part that it connects to. Working from the ground up, our feet and lower legs can be the foundation for our thighs. Our thighs can be the foundation for our pelvis. Our pelvis the foundation for our lumbar spine. Our lumbar spine the foundation for our thoracic spine. Our thoracic spine then supports our cervical spine and in turn the head.

To maintain a relationship, we can make one part stable so that it supports the other part.

Support from Above

While we might normally think of foundations as supporting what is above it, they can also support by acting as something that can be hung from. For example a bridge like the Golden Gate Bridge has towers which support spanning cables which in turn support hanging cables which support the road bed. In the same way, with our spine and head stable, we can use them to support the ribs. The ribs then in turn can be used to support the shoulder girdle which then can act as the foundation for the arms.

Knowing and Understanding, Foundations for Doing

Prior to building a building engineers and architects plan and design it. This way the builders know what they are preparing for when they create the first foundation and all that follows.

If when doing a yoga pose (or anything else for that matter) we know what we are doing we can choose how to create our foundation. The “idea” that we have in our mind then provides the foundation for the reality that we wish to create.

With something like our body that is mobile and changeable, the better we understand how the parts of our body relate, and the clearer we understand what we want to do with it at any moment in time then the easier and simpler and more efficiently we can go about creating what we want to create.

This can apply to anything that we are doing or working with, like tools, machinery, designing cars, building bikes, teaching people yoga, tai ji, doing oriental calligraphy. When we understand what we are working with then that understanding provides a foundation for the expression of what we are trying to do.

Foundation in Terms of Chakra’s and the Five Elements

In terms of the five elements of Daoist theory, foundation can be related to the element of earth. The Earth is the foundation for everything that we do, even in activities like flying a plane. (We always need airports to take off from and land at.)

In any posture we can look at our connection with the earth as our foundation, whether we connect via our feet or our hands or our head.
In terms of the chakras, foundation can be related to the root chakra or the first chakra. The root chakra is often related to basic activities like survival. If we continue to survive then we can continue to experience life and express ourselves. And so in anything that we do, if we wish to express ourselves then the first thing that we can do is create a foundation for that expression.

As an example, in the picture I am doing “Side Plank Pose.” My foundation is the outer edge of my bottom foot and my bottom hand. Because these are strong and engaged with the earth they provide the foundation that supports the rest of my body.

Basic Principles

Creating a Foundation is the first of five Basic Principles. They are designed as tools that can be used to apply “Being More Conscious.” To see a summary of those principles and more click here.

A Reference for Change

Starting positions are a reference for change. In yoga a starting position may be a position where it is fairly easy to relax and feel the body. They may also be a position from which it is easy or obvious in how to move towards the end position. If the goal is a complex posture then good starting positions offer the possibility of moving towards the complex posture step by step so that complexity is built towards one component at a time.

They also offer the opportunity for setting up the foundation of the posture. With a stable or solid or good foundation it is then easy to focus on what we are trying to do within the pose. Moving from the start position to the goal position we don’t have to worry about stability, with a good foundation we can simply focus on what we are trying to do within the pose.

With a starting posture and an ending or goal posture we have a goal to work towards. We have something that we can do while we are “doing” the posture, we can move from the starting position to the end position, and if we get to the end position that can be a new starting position for where we want to go to next. We can then figure out what we need to do to get there.

Starting positions are not set in stone. However, we do need a starting position so that we can move on from there. Ideally, starting positions make it as easy as possible to move towards our ending position. With experience, we can modify our starting position so that it is easier or as easy as possible to get to our ending position. We may also find that with experience, we can use different starting positions and we can find the way to get from where we are (no matter what starting position we use) to where we want to get to.

Also, so that we can improve the way we move from the start to the end, we can practice, feeling ourselves while we do the movement. If we do the movements smoothly, and slowly, we can develop our ability to control our body within that particular range of motion as well as our ability to sense or feel our body. We can then correct mistakes in our movements, or make our movements better even as we do the movements, we can correct ourselves or fine tune ourselves in real time.

As well as making our movements smooth, (controlled) we can also focus on creating space in our body and relaxing (extraneous contraction) as much as possible.