What are the physical postures, the asanas, of yoga for? What purpose have they and do they continue to serve?
Lots. For example, they are preparation for the higher limbs of yoga, an energetic opening of the body to make way for the Kundalini Sakti to meet her eternal consort Siva at the crown, in the Sahasrara, also a transfiguration, a rewiring, a metamorphosis into the realms of holistic health and higher living.
Through the asanas and with pranayama, we are correcting dysfunctional movement and breath patterns. We re-establish postural, physical habits (read: alignment) in harmony with the internal, subtle, energetic, vibratory alignment. This synchronicity clears a path for energetic rebirth and rejuvenation via the ever-ecstatic flow of Earth, Goddess energy just waiting for the appropriate time, based on whether the practices we commit to in our lives are her invitation, to infuse the body with light and love.
At the cellular level, yoga asana can restructure the individual cell ALONGSIDE an individual cell’s relationship to every other cell – HOLY CRAP, resolving the individual and the collective (70 to 100 trillion cells or so) simultaneously.
Recent research proposes a unified method of viewing the body, most of you have likely heard of it – one giant fascial sheath with 600-700 myofascial pockets, rather than 600-700 individual muscles. This fascial complex is in direct connection and communication with every other full-body system.
What is being discovered is an alive, ever-shifting matrix of extra cellular connective tissue that is directly linked to the cytoskeleton of each individual cell, further connecting to each and every nucleus, the birthplace of our forever (until it’s not forever) replicating and dividing genes. What this means, in a convenient simplification, is that the pressure exerted via the myofascial collective matrix in the body will affect the genetic disposition of individual cells AND entire tissues (collection of cells with the same job).
Let’s explore just a touch deeper here. You may be thinking, I thought organelles and nucleuses inside of cells were just floating around in cytoplasmic goo, and the cells themselves were merely free falling through inert extra cellular tissues? In biology classes this is what we are taught to a certain extent, because here in the West we are SO GOOD at separating things into individual units, completely independent of other individual units, communicating and interacting only in very specific, regimented and mathematical ways. Essentially, something that happens to one piece of the body is completely localized; it doesn’t affect other parts of the body.
Take a moment to feel into the entirety of your yoga practice, from class one to right now. Does this sound or feel right? When Mylie Cyrus’s wrecking ball takes out the side of a building, are the rest of the bricks and mortar structurally sound enough and able to equally distribute forces of tension and compression well enough to ensure that, besides those few walls in certain rooms on certain floors, the building is as good as before and won’t start cracking or collapsing anywhere else? Probably not.
The body is (slightly) fluid in shape, and responds in its entirety to any localized pressure. It is a system of compression under tension. This means, when there is a force on one part of the body, the connective tissue of the entire organism shifts in shape by binding and releasing water in response to distribute force, to take part of the load away from just one spot (fun fact, communication over the entire body in the fascial network happens three times faster than through the nervous system, which communicates faster than a thought can form!). When we cut our finger there is a shift, however subtle, of the entire web. This means the interplay of stability and mobility in every BODY relies on the relationship between tension and compression.
The force of compression, or gravity for example, is a downward energy into something solid – in our bodies, bones. This downward energy is distributed outwards on the horizontal planes. The force directed on our bones shifts outwards into the extracellular matrix, the fascial complex. The force of tension, or the containership of our skin, of the ECM/fascial web, of our organ sacs, for examples, is an inward energy. It reaches deeper inside towards the bones, and any shift in any part of the container will affect all other parts of it – think of what we often hear in a Yin-style class – the tissues are only as long as they need to be for our habituated activities. There isn’t SPACE for there to be an only localized reaction to stress.
Intermingling the two, our connective tissue, our myofascial web is CONNECTED to our bones. Our compressive units are beautifully and intricately intertwined with our tension units. Two continuously balancing forces, rather than an achieved state of equilibrium. Pause for a moment – if they are linked, in relationship with each other, what happens when there is unmanageable stress on a compressive unit? Or, in English, when we break a bone? What about when we tear a ligament?
Long story short, the entire structure is affected. This is how we see issues in the knee that show up as pain in the neck. This is how our origin injury on our hamstrings creates discomfort in the plantar fascia on the sole of the foot.
How this relates back to cells and intracellular communication is this: recent microscopic dissections across the globe show a DIRECT PATHWAY between the myofascial web and the cytoskeleton of EVERY cell in the human body, as mentioned before, via integrins, which are molecules that pass through the membrane of cells, connecting the external cellular matrix to the internal cytoskeleton. It is the integrins that respond to pressure, to an exertion of force, a message it sends into the nucleus of the cell. In study, the more stress felt and transferred, THE STIFFER THE CELL BECAME, and the nuclear reproduction of genes was altered. So, affecting internal tensions produce both stiffness and flexibility. They are not immediate responses, however. They happen over time, through repeated stress patterns. Think of movement patterns established through repetition, like in a yoga practice.
But what does it mean??? It means that, alongside chemical receptors, the cell also responds to mechanical force. So it isn’t only hormones that determine a cell’s function and/or efficiency (which can be affected by breath and emotional states), it is also the amount of physical stress it is undertaking.
One study reported that cells of certain tissues, taken out of the body of mice, when put on a base structure that was very large comparatively for the number of cells, the cells spread out, thinned themselves, and spent their time reproducing as the overstretching indicated that there weren’t enough cells to cover the SPACE. When they placed a large number of cells on too small a base, they became rounded and developed apopoptic genes, meaning they killed themselves off in order to create SPACE for a more appropriate amount of cells. The cells that were placed on a base in balance between number and size did their job. Capillary cells of a mouse on an artificial base in a lab started to form hollow tubes, capillaries for the (not present) body. Liver cells produced proteins that it normally delivers to the blood.
The conclusion: normal cell (and tissue and body) function is established and maintained by, for one, a suitable mechanical force, an “ideal mechanical environment,” a phrase coined by Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains. He posits that if this is so, then there is an ideal posture, so to speak, for each individual based on unique constitution and characteristics, an appropriate amount of continually distributing and balancing pressures, for each of their cells to function effectively and efficiently.
From Myers: “When the cell’s need for space is disturbed, there are a number of compensatory moves, but if the proper spatial arrangement is not restored by the compensations, the cell function is compromised.” Let’s resolve our patterns of compensation and affect our internal structure.
Finding this place of restoration, and the onset of satisfaction and contentment it will inevitably bring, is why we move our bodies and breathe deeply. We pave the way for a greater, more powerful energetic engagement with life. WHY we do this affects the quality of HOW we do it. An attainment-based model makes our practice about our small self, our ego. A success-based model is one of krama, sequential progress, in harmony with the readiness of body, mind, and soul. This does not mean that yoga asana is simple movements and small postures. Krama means that our asana practice DOES build in intensity and complexity. However, it must be done with breath, and integrity of the posture, with ALIGNMENT, in focus.
I personally love how this ties into Tantric philosophy – in order to find a beyond human awakening into the supreme intergalactic oneness (Ace Ventura, anyone?), we must incorporate a completely human construct into our equation of practice - time. We learn patience and acceptance. We, our humanness and all its beauty and folly, are not problems to be solved. Our humanity is our saving grace.
This is… a lot of information. AND, it is only a single perspective of the human body, a single interpretation of the most current research. I implore you to search and study yourself, to discover the shifting scientific understanding of our own bodies, and partner it with extensive self-study, also known as PRACTICE. This is the art of balancing jnana and vijnana: knowledge and experience. Study and practice. One is not complete without the other as we pursue and explore our own beneficence.
If you are a teacher, how you build a relationship with the work is how your students will build a relationship with the work. We get to discover the leaks in our practice and treat them as gateways into deeper realms of SPACE, of understanding not just ourselves but the entire universe. This work is what the world needs us to pass on, to share, to disseminate to the masses. Save the world every time you teach, by showing your students the way to themselves – deep at the core, what we see is the same One.
Let’s dive more deeply together, into the infinite wells of ourselves, through intentional placement of our bodies. Along the way we will re-empower and re-vitalize the true meaning of Vinyasa, “to place in a special way.”
Most of the technical information in this article is paraphrased from Anatomy Trains, by Thomas Myers. His list of citations is very much worth perusing. Please send me an email if there is something you feel you must say!