The Oxford English Dictionary lists many meanings – to stop something – being the most commonly used. Other definitions are thought-provoking …. having a sensible and realistic attitude to life…,but the one that jumped out at me is: ….. stepping back to observe your mind; calming down stress and upsets; take in the good of positive experiences; self-compassion; exercising restraint…….. We have “stopped/paused” aspects of our lives over the past year. We have been grounded by the pandemic, our plans curtailed and our support networks restricted. Support, has been a key term during this time, whether remote or in a local setting. We take it for granted when it is freely available. Perhaps we take the essence of “grounding” for granted in yoga practice because it is a overused word. I used it a great deal as a newly trained yoga teacher but I am not sure that I really helped students to embody it, since the notion is complex – as illustrated by the definitions listed above. A useful and comparatively simple thing to do is to investigate how we find structural support when we practice asana. Structural support is not defined by muscles and strength alone but by examining habitual holding patterns and ways of moving that have become easy “friends” over the years For example, do we sense the tendency to access too little or too much support? This is very nuanced, so how do we know when we are undersupported or oversupported?
My Answer – by paying special attention to small repetitive movements that help us to expand self-awareness. If we can notice more quickly when tension interferes on a small scale, then we may be better equipped to notice when tensions and imbalances creep into bigger movements. Thoughts and feelings are inextricably linked with movement. Many of us underestimate the power of such “small scale” movement; it’s subtlety in soothing us, enabling the “stepping back back to observe (the) mind..” The power comes from our attention in movement, woven throughout the class, as opposed to being apportioned to final breathing/meditation section of a yoga class.
How do we know when we are undersupported or oversupported? We try to inhabit this in safe practice – small movements that illustrate pushing/sagging; too much muscular effort and too little – on all fours, in standing and walking. Not so easy in tree pose or single leg balance when every non-contact part of the body is subject to gravitational force.
Life has been a balancing act over the past year, so let’s talk about support in single leg balance/tree pose. Here support is a complex process. The weight of the foot is drawn down by force of gravity. At the same time, the ground supporting the foot provides an upward force equal to the gravatational force. These two forces are of the same magnitude but are going in different directions. Any sway will interfere with this balanced two-way process.
If we become tense, we will tend to rely upon muscle – lock the knee; push into the ground; brace ourselves. We then exert extra force downwards, thus the upward force needing to match this, draws upon even more extra muscular effort to stabilize the unbalanced load. This may be viewed as “strengthening” but it is more rigid than supportive and oftens lead to compensation (my buzz word), The shoulders may lift, breathing falter, ribs flare causing the upward movement of the diaphragm (which pulls the ribs in) to be less stable and all of this adds up to a loss of support from the ground up – it’s also exhausting!
Single leg balance is just one example. Recognizing when tension creeps in should enable us to also recognize when effort is appropriate and when it is counter-productive. Literally, perhaps, taking a “step back” and reorganizing ourselves by way of strengthening neuro-muscular connections through small everday movements. This may well be more successful than applying more muscle. By “mapping” small movements of the feet toes; by mapping pronation and supination; by mapping walking patterns we strengthen support structures stored in the motor cortex of the brain so that the brain remembers what to do when we stand, walk, move and live.