In yoga, asanas function in many ways. Asanas work to awaken and empower one’s innate, but dormant nervous/psychic systems (often referred to as the nadis, chakras, energy, body, subtle body, etc.) so that even greater conscious integration and realization can occur through consistent effort.
In this sense what appears and manifests as the physical body (annamaya kosha) is a reflection of the energy body (pranamaya kosha), and to an extent the reverse is true; i.e., the state and characteristics of the energy body reflects what is happening in the physical. Both influence the mental/emotional functions (manomaya kosha) and both in turn are influenced by the mental emotional functions.
So at one point in asana practice we bring conscious energy awareness (reflected by the breath) in order to open up the energy body as well as the physical body, as well as the mental/emotional body as a wholistic system so that such a conscious integrity is established in what is called the wisdom body (vijnanamaya kosha). Better put we utilize movement to open up the Mind -- to transform awareness.
All this happens simultaneously in functional and authentic asana practice. As a result of this movement and bodymind realignment, the energy and subtle bodies are capable of trans conducting more of a charge and the foundational but previously dormant circuitry (nadis) become activated thus animating all four bodies simultaneously including down into the cellular and subatomic levels. Thus this is a palpable situation. It can happen spontaneously as well as practiced/perfected. With increased awareness it can be effected consciously.
For example once one experiences this unity/harmony through practice, we have am imbedded memory of it or imprint which can be recalled later. It is accessible through our field of experience. Through practice we expand that field of experience. Then we intuit and scan the four bodies and become aware/conscious whether or not that the energy has become distracted/dissipated or distorted, or on the other hand, if it is freely flowing/vibrating. This way entirely palpable, grounded, functional, and natural self regulation becomes integrated with consciousness at its core seat. If disharmony exists then through open awareness, we can consciously open the pathways, untangle the knots, and charge up the system using asana, pranayama, bandha, mudra, pratyahara, visualization, focusing, meditation, or other yogic methods.
In asana, there are many basic ways to move, stretch, and open up. Here the physical body being the coarse/gross representative of the energy/subtle bodies it is an excellent starting place for sensitivity training. All the tensions, distortions, traumas, samskaras, kleshas, fears, etc., of the manomaya kosha are stored in the physical body via the neurophysiology and hence can be accessed as well. This storage imposes a serious drain, imposition, and obfuscation upon the energy body. So here on a very elementary but powerful level we can release these dysfunctional holding patterns via asana with in many cases immediate positive effects. Eventually this can remove the dysfunctional mechanism, habit, vasana, imprint, samskara, trauma, and so forth while bringing in new energy and awareness.
1. Letting go -- Passive Stretching: Since many people suffer from fear, anxiety, tension, stress, anger, hatred, repression, inhibition, neuroses, and so forth which manifest in a hardness, armoring, tightness or tension in the neuro-motor system body is simply to relax, soften, release or let go. The most accessible way is to simply relax the tight tissues, muscle groups, reflexes, constraints, constrictions, and emotions by accessing them somatically, internally, and with the breath through conscious awareness. That can often involve relaxing mental/emotional tensions as well in many cases. It is most successful with people who have become chronically overly stressed, tense, or challenged. Here we can use gravity, the floor, or a wall to rest into. We can use the breath to move us from the inside out and/or visualization methods moving energy and awareness into the fascia, tissues, organs, cells, and inner space while melting down any tension. tightness, or stress. In passive stretching we can hold the pose for longer periods of time, thus reprogramming the nervous system to relax/remain open for progressively longer periods.
Positional stretching is also like this, where one simply gets into a position allowing for the vectors of gravity to act upon the body in that particular relationship. Thai massage for example is based on placing the client in various positions, just as passive asana practice allows the yogi to get into a pose and then settle and relax more deeply into it.
2. Active Stretching: Another very common way of stretching is called active stretching where the agonist muscle (the active and opposite reciprocal muscle) is activated to stretch the antagonist muscle (the muscle being stretched). This is also called isotonic stretching where movement at the joint occurs by the same action of activating the agonist muscle which lengthens/stretches the opposite reciprocal muscle called the antagonist. That's like activating the quads to stretch the hamstrings in forward fold. This also can help relieve tension and chronic emotional/mental armoring, break up old holding patterns of both thought and action, loosen up knots and constricting patterns of body and thought, and move new energy through the body. It is more successful with people who have become dissociated and/or overly passive Active stretching is more fiery and builds more muscle, than passive stretching. Where passive stretching focuses on relaxation often using using gravity, active stretching activates the reciprocal muscle to stretch the antagonist muscle (the muscle that may be tight and resisting); hence. it builds strength in the agonist musculature at the same time.
3. Isometric Stretching: The above two most common methods of stretching are both isotonic which means that stretching of a muscle group is facilitated through actual movement in the joint(s); i.e., when the antagonist muscle relaxes, lengthens, or stretches. However in isometric contraction, both reciprocal groups (antagonist and agonist muscles) are activated/enervated at the same time. Here in isometric contraction there is no movement at the joint as one muscle opposes the other with an equal and opposite vector, however there is movement and lengthening that occurs within each muscle group involved by virtue of the intra-muscular pulling movement of the contraction.
Stretching by utilizing isometric contractions sequentially is called isometric stretching. It is less obvious and sometimes appears counter-intuitive, because the eventual stretch is accomplished first through mutual contraction of the reciprocal muscles (agonist and antagonist at the same time). Because of the contraction or shortening within a muscle group there is also an equal and opposite pull or opposing resistance which causes an internal stretch to occur. Thus more of the muscle fibers can eventually become effectively stretched. This becomes obvious after the contraction by the experience of a lengthening and relaxation of the muscle groups that were isometrically contracted.
Isometric stretching works through a three part sequence of: isotonic stretch, isometric contraction, and followed by a isotonic stretch again. First one enters into the passive phase of the stretch. Next, we tense the "stretched muscle" for 5-15 seconds either resisting against gravity, the floor, a wall, or most often through activating the reciprocal muscle as resistance, not allowing movement to occur at the joint. Some force that will not move, like the floor or a partner). Then re-enter the passive stretch phase again. You will see that the stretch is now deeper. repeat the sequence if desired.
This works for many reasons. The most simple explanation is simple fatigue, where the antagonist (resisting muscle) just gets tired of holding/contracting and hence gives up, surrenders, and relaxes. Another reason this works is that inhibition of the muscles and joints are governed by unconscious nerve reflexes and proprioceptors located at the joints, tendons, and muscles which tell the enervating muscles to relax or to contract by passing the brain and depending on various stressor circumstances. Hence a contraction of a muscle group will assure the proprioceptors that the joint is safe and not threatened. Then the afferent signals from the proprioceptors will no longer demand more contraction/protection, rather it thus tells the muscle spindle nerves to relax the muscle.
Joint/tendon proprioceptor reflexes are a built-in protective reflex mechanism that by-passes the brain which is designed to quickly protect the joints if subjected to sudden force such as a fall. Usually this is triggered by sudden or fast movements, thus the proprioceptors may sense “danger’ and messages are sent to the muscles to contract thus holding the position of the joint stable. This can also become part of a dysfunctional chronic misfire and tension as the result of a past trauma or emotional feeling of threat.
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation), contract/relax, and Orthobionomy as well as Jones' Strain/counter-strain methods of rehabilitation utilize similar principles as well. They are often familiar to physical therapists and massage therapists and are effective in reeducating the joints and nervous system. PNF for example uses the similar general principles of isometric stretching (contract/relax), but as a therapy it is facilitated by a therapist and is more elaborate in scope.
4. PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretching is actually an elaborate and intelligent sequenced form of combining isometric and isotonic stretching, which in the long run facilitates passive/static flexibility among other things. PNF, proper, is more than stretching, but involves a broad system of neuromuscular re-education. Here we will focus mostly on its movement/stretching applications. The theory behind it is based on the nervous system and specifically the way the proprioceptive nerves interact with the connective tissue systems.
Since in isometric stretching, the muscle performing the temporary isometric contraction is then relaxed, it retains its ability to stretch beyond its initial maximum length. PNF exercise simply takes advantage of this increased range of motion by immediately subjecting the previously contracted muscle to an increased passive stretch (often through combinations of proximation and/or traction at the joints). PNF also utilizes diagonal movements through the joints to reeducate and reset proprioceptor function. In other words, PNF stretching is very similar as sequenced isometric stretching except that a third party (therapist) facilitates the stretch. To clear up any confusion in terms, isometric contraction is one thing, but isometric stretching using contract/relax techniques or PNF, is another.
PNF stretching is a large and wonderful modality beyond the scope of this short outline. I have tried to simplify it with out demeaning its many specifics. For example, PNF movement is not necessarily isometric, rather movement is purposely/consciously resisted/restricted while the movement is allowed to complete itself after the resistance is relaxed. Isometric contraction fits into the middle of isometric stretching “after” initial passive stretching. It also is followed by an additional passive stretch.
Again to summarize, the isometric contraction of the stretched muscle accomplishes several things. As explained previously, it helps to train the stretch receptors of the muscle spindle to immediately accommodate a greater muscle length. The intense muscle contraction, and the fact that it is maintained for a period of time, serves to fatigue many of the fast-twitch fibers of the contracting muscles. This makes it harder for the fatigued muscle fibers to contract in resistance to a subsequent stretch. The tension generated by the contraction activates the golgi tendon organ (which inhibits contraction of the muscle via the lengthening reaction). Voluntary contraction during a stretch increases tension on the muscle, activating the golgi tendon organs more than the stretch alone. So, when the voluntary contraction is stopped, the muscle is even more inhibited from contracting against a subsequent stretch.
PNF stretching techniques take advantage of the openness of the muscle and its increased range of motion by using the period of time immediately following the isometric contraction to train the stretch receptors to get used to this new, increased, range of muscle length. This is what the final passive (or in some cases, dynamic) stretch accomplishes.
As a practical example, say in baddha konasana a student may have their knees high up in the air. The instructor can then passively place their hands on the student’s thighs or knees without any force. Then the teacher asks the student to push against the teacher’s hands for 5 seconds or more while the facilitator resists any movement in any direction (isometric situation). Then have the student relax. It will be observed that the knees now are able to lower more toward the ground through the pull of gravity, hence the relaxation and lengthening of the muscle was achieved first by contraction. then by relaxation. What one would normally imagine is that to get the knees to the ground, one would activate the abductors, but what has happened is that the overall range of motion of abduction was increased by the activation of the adductors, which eventually relaxed the adductors (the antagonist muscle).
In the same way one could go into prone baddha konasana (downward facing diamond) on the floor and press the knees into the floor actively for five seconds and then relaxing. One would find that the pelvis now rests more fully on the ground after pushing toward the opposite direction (activating the opposite vector). That is how PNF or isometric stretching works in a nutshell.
PNF stretching thus can refer to any of pre and post isometric relaxation stretching techniques in which a muscle group is passively stretched, then contracts isometrically against resistance while in an already open/stretched position, and then is passively stretched again through the resulting increased range of motion. PNF stretching normally is facilitated by a therapist or partner to provide resistance against the isometric contraction and then sequentially to passively take the joint through to its increased range of motion. This is often repeated a few times. In actual PNF practice full isometric resistance is most often not used, but rather simple resistance to the vector of the movement is implemented, allowing the student to push through the joint range in resisted isotonic fashion. In this way it resembles weight training, but unlike most weight training, not necessarily in order to build up muscle strength as much as to effect the muscle spindle reflexes, relax the muscle groups, and nervous system.
Most PNF stretching techniques employ isometric or resistance -- agonist contraction/relaxation techniques where the stretched muscles are activated/contracted isometrically, or against resistance and then relaxed and stretched. To work some joints most effectively both reciprocal muscle groups are resisted or contract sequentially, one at a time, for five seconds or more each, thus both the antagonist and agonist muscles are contracted/activated at some point in the sequence always followed by stretching (usually passive or assisted stretching). Also used are circular, elliptic, and diagonal movements through the joints as well as proximation and traction techniques at joints whose movements can appear complex at first, but such is beyond the scope of this short outline.
5. Dynamic Stretching simply uses movement such as shoulder circles, ankle circles, back and forth up and down,, scissor movements, etc.
6. What is called ballistic stretching is the most potentially dangerous utilizing movement and inertia to move into a position, just as rolling, jumping, bouncing, or jerking. here the practitioner utilizes the accelerating force of momentum. An examples would be to jump back into chaturanga dandasana from uttanasana. Although potentially dangerous, done wisely it can provide fast results.
7. Stretching the Nadis (psychic nerves) and Mind:
As indicated in number one (letting go above), the letting go of stress, tension, tightness, grasping, and the contractive state can be initiated mentally, by simply relaxing the muscle groups involved. All striated muscles are capable to be placed under conscious control, but the problem is that most people lack sufficient consciousness/awareness of their body and muscles in order to consciously effect such.
Further the entire body is regulated by the neurophysiology, networks of afferent and efferent nerves, sympathetic/parasympathetic balance and relationships, emotions, thought patterns, hormones, glands, inter-cellular movements, dna/rna encoding and transmission, electro-energetic relationships, and more. Most of these functions are normally unconscious and left to chance. In a healthy individual they function in harmony acting as a mutually interdependent functional whole. This is when the bodymind's intelligence is freely flowing and activated in a high level of wellness.
Because these myriad functions of all these component parts are both capable of being controlled by the human intellect individually, the yogi learns key methods to open up flow, when flow is blocked; to open up and connect regions of the body and mind when they are disconnected, de-energized, fragmented, disparate, or reduced.
The bodymind that is under the direction of the higher intelligence (transconceptual intelligence) is thus given the task. One surrenders to her (shakti); while the intellect and will act as servants to maximize that facilitation. That is, the stretch is must be an informed stretched; the mind has to open up and be stretched. This vast, open, and boundless mind is no separate mind by itself. It is not a reified entity.
Hence yogis practice asana, pranayama, pratyhara, dharana, and dhyana in this way through such specific practices as conscious posture utilizing the bandhas, shavasana, progressive relaxation, yoga nidra, nadi awareness and purification practices, chakra visualization, samatha meditation, and so forth. These more subtle movements also facilitate stretching both on physical and psychic dimensions.
When the body, the mind, emotions, and energy grid that is inside and surrounds the body are free from tension, chronic armoring, tension, conflict, stress, fear, old traumas, and negative habits which have created a drain on its energy system and natural resources, then the HeartMind is energized, liberated, and moves freely in healing ease and happiness. In turn the yogi activates liberation, healing, ease, and happiness naturally in all its relations. More evolutionary energy is available in actions for creativity, song, dance, and the many activities of the heart in
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Hatha Yoga Asana Practice: An Energy Body Approach
The Timeless Body of Infinite Life: the Divine Body
A Chakra Purification Meditation
Introduction to Chakra and Energy Healing
The Variety of Yoga Teachings and Teachers: How to Contact Your Inner Teacher (a large document)
Hatha Yoga Purification Page Index
Bandhas in Hatha Yoga Practice
Asana in Relationship to the Yams and Niyams
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