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.

Big Ideas and Small Ideas-Elements of a Handstand

handstandI am in the process of developing a training program for people who want to do handstands. I thought this would be useful both for people who practice yoga by themselves, and also for people who teach yoga who want to understand the elements of a handstand so that they can teach it to various levels of students. In the context of Basic Principles and Understanding, I wanted to write this article as an aid to understanding how to break down a complex idea down into simple to understand or do smaller ideas.

Elements of Doing

We can break down the process of doing a handstand into three main elements or stages:

  • jumping up
  • staying up
  • coming down

These elements can then be broken down into smaller elements. In the Jumping up category I can include ideas like:

  • going up and down using feet on a wall (to get first timers used to being upside down)
  • jumping up and down with feet on a wall (to get beginners used to the idea of jumping)
  • jumping up using the down leg
  • jumping up using the swinging leg
  • jumping up with one leg at a time (down leg and swinging leg working together)
  • jumping up from downward dog with one leg
  • jumping up from downward dog with both legs
  • jumping up from downward using the hips as opposed to the knees
  • jumping/pulling up from a forward bend
  • jumping up using the shoulders and hips in a reciprocating action (????)

These are all different techniques or ways that I’ve taught hand stand at one time or another.

The staying up category would include

  • using our connection with the earth to feel where our center is so that we can sense when it is moving away from the center of our foundation
  • recovery techniques for when you feel yourself tipping forwards or backwards and ways of practicing those techniques
  • staying up for longer and longer
  • variations of handstands.

Coming down from handstand would be the easiest section to teach. I would make a joke about how for most of us this is the easiest part, but I have had students who come out with absolutely no control and so this section would be to teach such people how to apply the same awareness they use going into the pose to coming out. Actually, coming out could be a good way to teach people to go in since coming out with control requires control and that control could then be used to help people jump in.

Elements of the Body

We can also break down the body into a number of elements that are key in any of the above three stages. The purpose of breaking down the body into these elements is so that we can practice feeling, controlling and understanding them. The ideal is to get to the point that we can sense each part and respond to what we sense based on what we are trying to do without having to think. To get to that point we can design and use exercises that help us to sense and control these elements individually as well as together in the context of a handstand (or any other action we are trying to do.)

  • the hands, using them to feel and control center
  • the elbows (it might seem obvious to keep them straight but for those that can’t then it can be useful to practice drills so that students can practice feeling when their elbows are straight
  • the shoulders since they control the relationship between the upper body and the arms.
  • our hips and pelvis, since this is approximately where our center of gravity is
  • the legs, a key element in jumping up, and once up they can be used to express the handstand. Reach them up!

I would include practices, exercises and/or drills for learning to both feel and control these parts in a handstand and out of a handstand.

Getting Comfortable and Failing Safely

For people who have never been upside down, a key element is to get them used to being upside in small, controllable and comfortable stages. Hence using the wall can be a key training tool.

For those who want to venture away from the wall, an important tool is giving them the ability to fail safely, some way of falling that doesn’t cause injury. Generally in handstand the easiest way to do that is to shift the hands in such a way that they can fall with their feet in front of them as opposed to behind them. For people not used to moving their hands while upside down, that is something else that can be practice against a wall.
Another key point in both cases is to get into the habit of making sure that our practice area is safe for us to fail within.

Yet another practice, and this takes some balls, is to tuck and forward roll at of a handstand.

Transitions

One of the reasons for doing a handstand is that we might want to use it as a transition from one pose to another or as a pose in a string of poses. As an example, we might to bend backwards into a back arch, then come up into a handstand, and then from there back to standing. And so once we’ve learned or at least gotten comfortable being on our hands, we can then practice entering it from a posture like wheel pose. We can start of with our feet elevated on a table or low bench, or we can use a wall to walk down and up.

All of these ideas are tied together by the big idea of learning to stand and balance on our hands. All of these methods require practice, but because they are all simple to understand, the practicing part can be relatively simple and straight forward.

Also important is that each of these elements is meaningful in the context of doing a handstand but also in the context of learning to feel and control our body. They are readily definable which means that they can be sensed, understood and we can learn the necessary control to do each of them.

The net result after practice is the ability to do a handstand or at least to know what we need to do to do it. An added benefit is that we understand our body well enough that we can apply that understanding to other things that we use our body for.

Teaching, Adjusting and Firm Foundations

Since this program would be geared towards teachers as well as self-practitioners, we could look at the big idea of teaching handstands to a class. A key element would be spotting which in itself is a variation of the same techniques that are used in handstand. As an example, doing a handstand, or any posture for that matter, our connection with the earth is our foundation. In the case of handstand our foundation is provided by our hands, arms and shoulders. These need to be sensitive, stable and responsive in order for the handstand to be done. With our foundation taken care of, in order to stay balanced all we then need to do is keep our center over it.

If we are aware of this as a teacher who is adjusting someone else then we can first make sure that we are in a position so that no matter what happens we have a firm foundation and that we can keep our own center over that foundation. If we aren’t then we adjust how we relate to the person we are adjusting so that we can stay balanced. At the same time, we make sure that in whatever way we adjust the person we are working on, they are able to maintain their foundation and keep their center over it.

In this way we apply our own sensitivity to sensing our students and our relationship with them just as we are teaching them to be sensitive to their body and their relationship with the earth. In both cases we then have the ability to balance, to do what we are trying to do whether it is teach a handstand or do it.

handstands

Ideas, Gravity and Consciousness

If you’ve read “Understanding Consciousness-Riding the Wave of Time” you know that I use Ideas as basic units of meaning.

Ideas are anything that we can define with limits or by saying “it does this.” We can think of ourselves as ideas if we can clearly define who or what we are. At any moment in time, we can choose the idea of who we are. As of right now I am a writer but in about ten minutes time I’ll be a swimmer and then I’ll be a dad.

Ideas are the mental labels that we can use to identify both what is around ourselves and what is around ourselves. Ideas are a way of being conscious of ourselves and the world we are in.

Gravity

One of the qualities that I give to ideas is that of gravity. The gravity of an idea can draw us in towards itself. However, this is a special sort of gravity. It only attracts us to an idea when we give it our attention. The more attention we give an idea the greater its gravity and the easier it can pull us towards itself.

We can think of the process of being drawn in towards an idea as the first steps towards learning an idea, making it real, or making it a part of ourselves.

Once we connect to an idea, once we’ve learned it, we no longer need to pay as much attention to it. The gravity of the idea (and of ourselves) keeps us connected. We can then begin the process of deepening the connection.

Relationship

When we are connected to an idea (or two ideas are connected) we can say that we are in a relationship with that idea. When two ideas are related they can change each other or they can create change. Having learned a martial art we can express ourselves with that idea. We change. But we also change the martial art, one more person can now express that idea. The art changes as a result.

Expression

The point of connecting to an idea is so that we can express it. The purpose of deepening our connection to an idea is so that we can learn to express it in different ways, or so that we can express it more efficiently, more freely or in any circumstance possible.

As an example, say we are drawn to the idea of learning a martial art like Wing Chun. We might go to a martial arts hall (I won’t say “Dojo” because that is a Japanese word while Wing Chun is a Chinese martial art) and watch people practicing. It is only if we give the idea more attention by going to class that we can truly begin to connect to the idea. We learn the idea by going to classes and practicing. We might learn small techniques which we can put together in any imaginable order or we learn a routine to practice techniques in an organized fashion. Once we’ve learned the basic shape of what we are learning we can practice and develop our understanding, our connection to each small idea that we are learning.

The big idea of Wing Chun is the sum of the smaller ideas that make it up.

The idea we connect to could be the idea of dancing, or the idea of a person we might grow to love. It could be the idea of a family. The more attention we give an idea that we want in our lives, the easier it is to connect to it. The more attention we give an idea once we are connected, the better we understand the idea and the easier it is to continue to express the idea and make the idea real.

Unity

We can practice our martial art by focusing on the parts of our routine and making them more fluid. We can learn our partner to greater degrees so that we can build a truly solid relationship. With constant practice, we learn an idea well enough that we can express that idea in any situation.

Learning a martial art to that point we can use it in any fighting situation successfully. We can handle change without being torn apart. In such a case we can say that we share a center with the idea that we have learned. Instead of being connected to the surface of an idea, we are one with it. We can express the idea freely.

Another way that we could view this is that we are connected to another idea well enough that we form a stable relationship which in turn is another idea. We share a center that is outside of ourselves.

Understanding

Gravity pulls inwards. Pulling inwards towards the center of an idea we can liken gravity to consciousness. If we want to understand something we pull it in towards ourselves. Once we understand what we are looking at we can use this understanding to shape the energy we put out.

We can think of Gravity, consciousness and understanding as aspects of the same thing. They allow us to understand an idea, experience it and express it.

Foundation-A Fixed Point in the Mind

A foundation is something that makes it easier for us to do what we are trying to do. It gives us a reference for the change that we wish to create. We can also use a foundation or reference for measuring the change that we perceive.

Understanding as a Foundation for Experience

As an example of foundation, I wanted to finish “Understanding Consciousness” as my first project because I wanted the principles that it contained to underlay everything that I do. Part of the challenge has been understanding what it was I was trying to create. A set of principles that could be applied to any situation.

Why?

So that instead of figuring out how to go about understanding, or even thinking about understanding, we can get on with making what we are trying to understand a part of ourselves.

Once we understand, we can get on with experiencing which may be the main reason why we are here, to experience life and in the process understand it.

So what has this all to do with creating a foundation?

For myself, I wanted to understand basic principles first so that I could use them as a basis (a foundation) for everything that follows. In the context of everything that I do, basic principles makes it easier for me to do what I am trying to do and that can be said of foundations in general, they make it easy for us to get on with what we are doing.

In a yoga pose, if we have a stable piece of ground to stand on then we can do our yoga pose. If we are standing and our feet are strong and stable, then we have a foundation for the rest of our body. We can express what we are trying to do. Doing Tai Ji, if my weighted foot is steady and strong then it is easier for me to do the movement that I am doing. Working on a piece of wood or metal, or painting Chinese calligraphy, a firm foundation allows me to create the change that I want to create easily. What makes the whole process even easier is understanding that if my center of gravity is over my foundation then I don’t have to worry about balance. I can stand steady and get on with what I am trying to do.

Adjusting someone else’s yoga pose, if I make myself stable and also make sure that the person I am working on is stable, then I can go about creating the change that I desire, helping the person I am working on learn their body so that they can practice being one with it.

When talking about buildings, a foundation is usually set in stone, immobile. But that is just with respect to buildings. (Although the Taj Mahal is apparently built up on a flexible foundation consisting of layers or stone and wood that allow it to shift in the case of earth quakes…)  A foundation doesn’t have to be fixed, in some cases it can just be a reference point, a place that we know we are going to, or an action that we know someone is going to do.

Where it does have to be fixed, stable and unchanging is in our minds. If we have a stable reference point in our mind then we can more easily create the change that we desire. This can apply to relationships with other people.

A foundation can be built up on each person knowing and understand the other and knowing what they can expect (and not expect) from each other. With both people knowing on what foundation their relationship is built they can act freely within the bounds of their relationship. And so we can also think of a foundation as a way of limiting or defining a relationship. The better we know the foundation or the limits the more freely we can act within those limits.
Now imagine being able to freely choose our foundation. We can do this using our mind. If we choose our foundation sensibly, based on what is happening at the time, we may be better able to create the change that we desire.

Bigger isn’t Better

I’ve just got my latte and it’s so small…. compared to the array of all the other cup sizes. It’s so small it’s not even on the price menu. But the only reason I am here is to work, type actually, and it is nice to sit in a nice environment while doing it.
I’m not against all the size options. I’m not even against servers trying to super size me or up sale me. This is business and if they don’t do that I might not have this nice coffee shop to sit in, or would I?
More to the point is that I didn’t get taken in by comparison shopping.
“Why have this tiny little cup when you can have this bigger cup for only a few dollars more?”
“Because I only want a little cup.”
I only need a little cup to enjoy the taste of my latte.
Plus if I drink too much coffee it makes my ass sore.
Plus I only gulp it down anyway.
Plus if I drink too much it makes my sweat stink and I want more money to spend on other things in my life.
That being said sometimes I do enjoy choosing the larger size coffee. However I want it to be my choice driven by my need or desire as opposed an split second decision made by the brief impression that “hey yes, that is pretty small” when in fact it is actually quite normal.