Wait: Muscles Don’t Activate Bones?

What I Meant to Say…

If you studied Yoga with me even as recently as 3 years ago you would have heard me give instructions predicated on the belief that muscles activated bone movement.

At various times, I may have asked you to draw in your belly button, contract your glutes, lift your pelvic floor, turn on your calves and quads and position your scapula “just so.” I thought I was helping you by asking you to consciously shorten certain muscles to achieve a particular effect or to create an isometric reaction in a static posture.

Whoops

I was well-intentioned.  My heart was is in the right place.  But like many other movement professionals (personal trainers, physical therapists, osteopaths, Pilates teachers, and well, you name it), I was unknowingly passing along some outdated information.  Focusing on muscles activating bones was a mistake.

And the double whammy of my error was that it clouded your mind with a laundry list of bodily things to do. (In retrospect, that seems like an odd way to lead you towards an open field of attention.)

Of course, many times your muscles were compliant (so thanks for that) because muscles can be consciously activated. But I know now they didn’t necessarily like it. So I apologize for putting them through that.

And the reason they probably didn’t like it is because they’re not used to functioning that way.

I’ve had many “Oh crap” moments over the course of my studies in Yoga. I’ll be teaching something with vim and vigor for years and then all of a sudden I’ll bump into some new information that completely contradicts what I thought I knew. “Oh crap.”

Thankful for Understanding Students/Clients

Encountering and then integrating new information into my personal practice and my teaching is humbling. And confusing. And disorienting. And not without resistance, blaming, and panic. And despite the pounding my pride takes, what always makes the shift easier for me is seeing that this new, more discriminating awareness of breathing or moving is a gift for my body and for my clients’ bodies.

Applied Functional Science (AFS)

When I began studying Applied Functional Science (AFS), the huge paradigm shift for me was discovering that in function it wasn’t muscles that activated bones but rather it was bone movements that activated muscles:

  • Movement turns muscles on.
  • Gravity turns muscles on.
  • The resistance provided by ground reaction force turns muscles on.
  • Momentum turns muscles on.

Throughout my body and yours there are sensors which are constantly measuring the conditions in our fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments, joint capsules and throughout the skin. Our body is continually integrating the data they collect to help determine the motion or positioning of our body in space and what, if anything, might need to be done about that.

If I feed my proprioceptors with movements that awaken them (each proprioceptor varies in how it gets stimulated) then I’m in business. If I don’t, I’m probably left with a laundry list of “contract this, squeeze that, and suck in thats.'”

Proprioceptors Don’t Care About Brand Affinity

What’s a big relief is that my body doesn’t search for what Mr. Iyengar thinks is the best response. Or what Mr. Desikachar would prefer. Or what Bikram or John Friend or Shiva Rea or anyone else thinks is best. My body could care less what side of the asana debate it comes down on so long as it’s coming down on the side of what my proprioceptors need.

So if I want to train my body (or help another practitioner) to experience a left-sided Utthita Trikonasana, I don’t need to memorize movement cues or consciously activate muscles, I just need to feed my proprioceptors the kinds of movement they crave.

Train the Component Parts of An Asana

Absent cues and contractions, I need to undertake movements (whether they have Sanskrit names attached to them or not) that will facilitate a left-hand, left lateral reach (as an asana) that I will initiate while standing in an abducted position with my right leg externally rotated 90 degrees.

I know that every fibre of my being will respond as best it can to decelerate that reach. But I don’t know that it will do so in a way that apes pictures I have seen of Utthita Trikonasana.

How “Basic” is Triangle?

Many people list Utthita Trikonasana as a basic posture. Perhaps it’s one that seems relatively easy to talk/will/assist people into but from a proprioceptive standpoint, it involves a lot of complexity and thoughtful preparation.

In fact before diving into ‘it,’ it’s probably wiser for me to know more about my body’s condition:

  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left on such a wide base? Exploring lateral flexion to the left and to the right on a smaller base may be a way to find my threshold.
  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left with my left leg externally rotated as much as 90 degrees? Whether and to what extent the left leg is externally rotated changes the dynamics of the movements into that position significantly.  “The posture” says 90 degrees of turnout. But what does my body say?  I’m listening to it.
  • Do I have the mobility to reach as low as my ankle? Leg length, arm length, and torso length are all factors in how low a person can reach. But so too is the body’s ability to set up this end-range left lateral reach by taking advantage of its ability to laterally flex right, to flex and extend and/or to rotate right and left out of this abducted stance.
  • If I have the mobility, do I have the stability to control that motion, either on the way in to the pose or on the way out of it?
  • If I have both the mobility and the stability, do I have the strength to maintain that directional movement for long?
  • And if I have the endurance to maintain that left lateral reach, am I resilient enough to do it several times (or several hundred or several thousand times in the course of my life)  or whether I will need to move in other ways to hedge against future complications?
  • And no matter the range of my reach or how long the duration of my stay in that position, what is the condition of my breathing? Is it revealing that my body is not at ease and/or that my mind is distracted?

The Person Reflected in the Pose

So encountering how my body dances with Utthita Trikonasana can be revelatory.  Especially if I don’t enter into that dance with my thumbs on the scale – determined to will my way into the position, activating muscles and commandeering bones as I go! And at first blush, it’s a lot more complex than the quickie introduction to teaching triangle than I was originally given. Except that the process for approaching one posture or sequence of movements is the same for approaching them all: identify the three-dimensional changes of direction required to arrive in a particular position and train your proprioceptors to move through them.

Of course, even with the benefit of studying the physical, biological and behavioral sciences that comprise Applied Functional Science, and even though I now bring a proprioceptor-centric approach to my practice, I’m not in the clear. I’m sure I can expect many more ‘Oh crap!” moments in the future.

I hope I remain inspired by what I don’t know and not beholden by what I think I might…

5 responses

  1. Al, your words are so thoughtful and inspiring both on & off the yoga mat. Thanks for sharing your insight and experiences, I enjoy reading your words and letting them absorb into my mind.

  2. Excellent article… as teacher too often we try to take people where their body will not go – often creating injury. We must remember “Ahimsma” – create no harm. If we are to teach yoga, it is our responsibility to understand the bio mechanics of what we are teaching.

  3. Pingback: What Makes a Movement an Asana? | Transformation Zone Yoga

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