Muscle Control

A first principles approach to learning to feel and control your body
Muscle control is about feeling and controlling change so you can get better at handling change. Neil Keleher.

Why I teach muscle control

I teach muscle control because it has helped me to hide my collapsed arches so I could pass the army medical. It's also helped me to deal effectively with various knee pains and hip pains, and even lower back pain.

And some of the same techniques, ways of using muscle control, that have helped with knee pain I've also found helpful for improving flexibility. And it also gives me a means of configuring my body effectively when lifting weights or doing strengthening movements so that I can work with less effort. And this doesn't mean working sloppily.

It also gives me a way of moving and controlling my body effectively while doing Tai ji, a practice where the focus is more on relaxation and also differentiating between substantial (where the part of the body in question is "integrated" and bearing weight) versus insubstantial (where the body is relaxed but where there is still skin contact and thus awareness of the potential for bearing weight).

Why is muscle control a first principles approach?

Why is muscle control a first principles approach to learning your body?

So why is muscle control a first principles approach to learning your body?

Because it allows us to break the body into discrete elements even while we are in our body. It allows us to both sense individual parts while we use them and to control them. In short it allows us to differentiate. But it also allows us to integrate. It allows us to better feel and control our body by focusing on feeling and controlling parts in relative isolation. And it allows us to use those parts in an integrated fashion.

Just as importantly, it allows us to learn the body in such a way that we can use that learning in any endeavour.

I use it while bicycling or motorcycling to improve the way I use my body and/or to improve the way that I connect to the thing that I'm using. It can be used while driving. I use it when practicing Chinese calligraphy, and while lifting weights. I use it while doing Tai ji and of course while doing yoga.

But it can also be useful when slack lining and roller blading (not both at the same time!)

And when walking or running.

But more simply it can also be a way of simply enjoying (and even appreciating) the experience of our body.

Failure is a big part of working with First Principles

If you've ever seen articles on spaceX, you'll more often than not note that they are about various rockets exploding or otherwise failing. There are of course the successes, like sending astronauts to the space station, but the failures are a big part of working with first principles.

So for example a lot of articles about First principles quotes Elon musk on when he talks about breaking down rockets (or batteries) down into their component materials. However, if you look at the Wikipedia article on him, he also looked at buying repurposed Russian ICBMs. This was before he decided to build them himself.

The point here is that using first principles is a lot about experimenting. You have to experiment to find the right answers, or the solutions to problems.

Getting to the root of a problem

First principles involves being able to think about problems in different ways. Actually, it's about first of all getting to the root of the problem and then from there breaking down the problem in different ways to arrive at a solution.

I actually learned a lot of this when studying Systems Design in university.

Elon talks about people who think by analogy. Another way to look at it is that people look at the surface appearance of a problem. They don't abstract or cut down to the very essence of what the problem is (and/or they don't always consider the environmental and/or societal effects.)

And I should point out here that I'm definitely not an expert on this. But more on that perhaps later.

Function: what something does

In James Clear's article on First Principles, he suggests that working from first principles is about understanding function (versus just looking at form.)

A simple way to view function is that it is a change that something creates. It is what something does. Generally it is a consistent and predictable change. And it can be in response to a situation or not.

We can look at a problem or at a system that we are trying to learn and we can ask the question, "What is the change that this system creates?" If this problem is solved, what is the change that results?

How to practice thinking in terms of function

One way to practice this type of thinking is to look at everyday objects, and try to put into simple terms the change that the device creates. A chair is a device that allows us to sit down above the height of the floor. It's a device that allows us to comfortably rest with weight on our butt. A chair is a device that suspends us by our buttocks above the floor.

Note the slightly different definitions. None of them are necessarily right or wrong. The point here is that they are clear and they capture (or try to capture) the essence of what a chair does.

And in a way this is what writing headlines is like. I say that because I am not very good at all at writing headlines or article titles. That is to say, I'm not good at writing them in such a way that they entice a potential reader to click and read. That's because up until now I never really connected the idea of first principles to writing articles.

Getting back to the exercise, a battery is something that provides a source of power to a device when it is inserted.

That could be more specific. A battery is something that provides a source of electrical power. A reservoir is a device that provides a source of gravity driven fluid flow power.

A reservoir is like a battery but it drives water flow instead of electrical flow. Ooops, I've gone into using analogies. So maybe analogies aren't bad if they are used to help understand the function of an idea, what it does.

What do muscles do?

Going back to the body, what do muscles do? They generate force. They also generate sensation when active. What does connective tissue to? It transmits force. What do bones do? They resist compression. They create (and maintain) space. What do joints do? They allow bones to articulate relative to each other.

Working from first principles we could look at the shoulder blade relative to the ribcage. Normally we would say there is no ribcage-shoulder-blade joint. We have an elbow joint. We have a knee joint etc. Going back to the definition of muscles, they create force, but they also work across joints either moving a joint (while working against an opposing force) or keeping a joint stable (while working against an opposing force). If we look at the ribcage and shoulder blade, there are muscles like the serratus anterior, the pectoralis minor, the rhomboids, the trapezius (well, the lower trapezius) that attach from the shoulder blade to the ribs or to the vertebrae of the thoracic spine.

What "joint" do these muscles work across?

Note another function of connective tissue. When it stretches, or is stretched, it too, like muscle tissue, generates sensation.

Why sensing is important in a first principles approach

Why is feeling the body so important when it comes to a first principles approach to learning the body?

In this case I mean "feeling" in the sense of "sensing", in the same way your tablet or smart phone "senses" when you touch it's screen and in addition senses what part of the screen is being touched.

Anatomists use a scalpel to cut the body into different parts and thus learn how it works. They use a first principles approach to learning someone else's body. That someone else's body is a cadaver donated by the former occupant after they have left for other realms of existence. (Yes, I believe that...! (the other realms of existence part! (and the donation part!)))

A major step in first principles is being able to divide a complex system into component parts. Working with a cadaver, the anatomist tries to cut along defined lines to get recognizeable components. They have to use their eyes, their sense of touch and clear references. They thus try to get a sense of the function of different parts by how they relate to other parts.

How do we do this in our own body without cutting it apart? (And without using an outside source to guide us?)

Muscular Effort and Stretch, two qualities we can feel

If you've ever cycled up a hill you know that it takes more work that cycling on a flat. If you've used gears, you know that changing gears without changing speed, without changing cadence, and without a change in slope of the surface you are riding on will make it either easier or harder. Cycling into a wind is harder than cycling with the wind. In either case we can feel the difference. The change in muscle output, the change in muscle effort tells us that.

In the same way, doing side splits versus standing with feet together, we can feel a difference. Connective tissue tension tells us when parts of our body are stretched versus when they aren't.

Using first principles, we can use both connective tissue tension (or stretch) and muscle activation to improve both our ability to feel our body and control it if we isolate parts of our body and practice simple movements that turn muscle sensations and connective tissue tension on and off repeatedly.

Turning muscles on and off repeatedly

My mum likes to figure out how the lights work in various hotel rooms or hostels, generally when someone is trying to sleep under said lights. She'll flick the various switches on and off repeatedly, and I'm sure more than enough times to get a sense of which switch works which light.

Muscle control is more or less the same process. Only instead of match a switch to a light we can use it to map a sensation to a particular muscle or set of muscles or even a joint.

The idea in repeating a particular action is to do it enough times that the ability to feel (and thus recognize) a particular muscle, as well as control it, because automatic, something we can do without having to think about how to feel a particular muscle or control it.

A major point is to do this slowly and smoothly and also, rhythmically!

Once we get to that stage, we can then integrate it into our ability to feel and control the body as a whole. And/or we can also fine tune our ability to feel and control the muscle. So not just being able to turn it on and off, but adjusting the degree to which we activate a muscle.

Muscle control is more than just activating muscles

So is muscle control just about controlling (and feeling) muscles?

No. It's actually about feeling and controlling connective tissue tension also. But it's also about feeling and controlling joints, since muscles work on joints. And since joints allow bones to move or be stabilized relative to each other, it's also about feeling and controlling our bones and how they relate.

Go even further, it's also about being able to feel and control how we relate to the earth or anything or anyone else we are in physical contact with.

Adjusting and dealing with change

Note that the positions of bones relative to each other (the configuration of joints) is affected by muscle activation. However, the ability of muscles to activate, and their effectiveness, is also affected in turn by how joints are configured, and indeed, by what other muscles are active. And so in muscle control terms, adjusting can mean adjusting muscle tension. It can also mean making slight changes in positioning. And this is perhaps one of the biggest challenges in any first principles approach.

But in a way it is why a first principles approach is so effective.

At its heart, first principles is about being able to deal with change. The better you are at working with change on a daily basis, the easier it is to deal with the bigger changes when they occur.

Muscle control is about feeling and controlling change so you can get better at handling change.  Neil Keleher, Sensational Yoga Poses.
Published: 2021 01 22

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