FLOW: THE EIGHTH LIMB OF YOGA

Some experience can be spoken of only through metaphor. This often presents a problem when attempting to transfer knowledge from one culture to another because every culture has its own unique understanding of the symbolism of its metaphor.

There is a state that can be experienced through various means. When we in the West talk about this state we use the metaphoric symbolism ofliquid and movement and come up with terms such as flow, flow-state, and the zone.

When Patanjali talked about this state he pulled a different sort of imagery from his cultural milieu and spoke in terms of “union, completion, bringing into harmony, profound attention, and absorption in the present moment” and called the state Samadhi.

One of the problems we encounter with most modern yoga teachings is an implicit idea that Samadhi just sort of happens, almost by accident, after long work. The reason for this may be that the specific techniques that develop Samadhi have been lost.

As a matter of fact, even referring to Samadhi as a state may be incorrect from the point of view of the Yoga Sutras. It may be more accurate to say that Samadhi is the practice that produces the state in question.

In his book Flow-Fighting and the Flow-State Performance Spiral: Peak Performance in Combat Sports, the author developed the first Western (in the sense of being taught in the native language of the area without reference to outside “loan words”), scientific (in the sense of being based on observation and experimentation, with repeatable results) description of the practice of Sam ad hi.

This understanding, with the explicit practices that emerge from it, is a foundational pillar of yoga.

Often we find ourselves on the fringe in our representation of Hatha yoga – the physical “exercise” approach the West knows as yoga. Commercialized, pop yoga tends to view asana as a series of stretches to increase flexibility. Some better teachers present yoga as a release from chronic tension, the “yin” aspect that has become so popular. But why has this singular aspect of yoga gained such strong representation?

Presumably, the answer lies in what a particular society needs in general. Yoga has a balancing effect not only on the individual but on the collective group. With the domination of the bodybuilding, powerlifting, and cross-training belief systems, these overly masculine, imbalanced systems create a social need for their corollary opposite pole: Yin yoga. Chronic tension, whether or not from beliefs like in conventional so-called fitness, begs the attraction of the yielding, softer feminine.

Yin yoga is more than mere exercise selection; it is a protocol. In yoga classes, you hear this as the need to “surrender” – to relax, melt, release, and unlock. But too much surrender is a danger, just like joints too loose are a danger.

There must be a balance of strength and surrender in any structure, in any relationship. Like a tensegrity structure, the human form comprises strong, stable compressive struts pushing out within the sea of continuous tension pulling in to create “zero” – the antigravitational efficiency of the (unimpeded) human gait.

Too much surrender is like loosening the high-tension wires holding up the mast of a sailboat. When a strong wind comes and suddenly fills the sails, the mast will snap. The hypermobile, overly flexible joints of some proponents in Western commercialized yoga are no better than the distorted tissues of a contortionist. That approach is just unsafe and unhealthy. Yoga itself means “to unite.” Interestingly, Hatha means “force” or “violence,” which gives the phrase Hatha yoga a possible meaning of “union by force.”

If we were to remove the social demands, which have attracted only one aspect of yoga to the West, how would yoga appear? If commercialized yoga were not a compensation for the chronic tension of bodybuilding, powerlifting, and cross training, how would it appear as a path unto itself?

It would be a balancing act of moving between strength and surrender, heading toward that optimal relationship of zeroing out excess, of the “middle road” that Buddhists talk about. Yoga should be as much about the act of surrender as it is a battle against our ego’s tyranny over our health. Yoga isn’t usually held in this light in the West, and instead is held to be that flaccid, doe eyed expression that most people mistake for bliss. But even if we look to yoga’s country of origin, in the Bhagavad Gita we see imperatives uttered by Krishna, an incarnation of God, to Arjuna before going into battle:

“Fix your mind on the eternal self, be without any thought of mine, put away your agitation, and fight.” (Lesson 3, verses 30-32.) “At all times remember me, and fight.” (Lesson 8, verses 1-8.) From Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we find the following (translations by Mushtaq Ali AI-Ansari, Ph.D.):

+ rupa lavaya-bala-vajra-samhanantvani kaya-sampat: Symmetry of form, beauty of color, strength, and the compactness of the diamond constitute bodily perfection.

+ mrdu-madhya-adhimatratvat tatopi visesah: Because of the mild, the medium, and the transcendent nature of the methods adopted, there is a distinction to be made among those who practice yoga.

+ tato dvandva-anabhighatah: The fruit of right poise is the strength to resist the shocks of infatuation or sorrow. When this condition has been attained, the yogi feels no assaults from the pairs of opposites.

There’s nothing namby-pamby milquetoast about that guidance. There is a very clear notion of action, of strength, of balancing the masculine and feminine, of yang with the yin. When practicing your yoga, remember that you are a unique relationship of selective tension, moving in a field of various pulls and pushes. Flow-state, known as the eighth limb of yoga, or Samadhi, is the balance of zeroing out excess – not too much tension, not too much relaxation, not too much strength, not too much surrender. It’s a never-ending path of compensating for swinging too far to one side here, too far to the other side there.

When we stop trying to do yoga a certain way, when we cease thinking yoga is a “thing” unto itself and realize that it is another tool for balance in our lives, we stop doing yoga altogether and start being yoga.

We will continue our discussion by redefining the three evolutions of personal practice of yoga – asana, vinyasa, and prasara – within this new, balanced perspective.

Commercialized, pop yoga tends to view asana as a series of stretches to increase flexibility. The author intends in this section to redefine the physiological event of an as ana, or structure, and how it relates to enabling or disinhibiting flow in vinyasa and, eventually, prasara.

Athletes are told incessantly to stretch out our muscles before and after exercising. However, when most people say “stretch” they mean to take a muscle and force it to lengthen until it changes shape and stays longer. This is analogous to taking a rubber band, lengthening it, tacking it down, and, over time, observing how the rubber band loses its elasticity and adopts the new length.

The danger is that our joints need this elasticity in order to protect themselves, to keep everything packed tightly. Dancers, gymnasts, and contortionists – arguably the most flexible people in the world – suffer debilitating injuries in later life due to permanent changes in tissue length. The lax, loose connective tissue is not able to keep them from hypermobile injuries.

Much of commercialized, pop yoga approaches asana as stretches. This is a basic misunderstanding of Hatha yoga asana based upon the filter of traditional static stretching to deform the plastic region of connective tissue. However, dynamic and static mobility isn’t about stretching in the above sense. Asana are dynamic postures that apply the concept of reciprocal inhibition: Flexion of one causes a release of its twin. (Dr. Mel Siff, Supertraining.) For instance, in Standing Half-Moon Pose, the goal is not to stretch the hamstrings but to pull the heels to the chest as hard as possible; thereby, the hamstrings cannot maintain their tension.

Yoga is a balance of strength and surrender, not stretching (as in the conventional usage of the term). Flexibility is a measure of the increased range of motion due to an improved strength/surrender ratio. We never use flexibility in real life; it’s a measure alone. It’s analogous to using the bench press as a measure of one’s ability to function in daily life – an arbitrary measurement.

Dynamic range of motion, or the ability to move through, about, and around all other flexibility measurements for a specific joint(s), is much more applicable to daily life. Dynamic mobility is not a measurement (one cannot measure the range infinity in basic mathematics); it’s reality.

To understand this paradigm shift from commercialized, pop yoga as a form of static stretching, the author now presents a deeper physiological appreciation of the event of yoga asana.

Soviet scientist and physician Alexander Bogomoletz said wisely, “Man is as old as his connective tissues.” The corollary to this statement is expressed in the title to Editha Hearn’s 1967 book You Are as Young as Your Spine. Basically, if we rely on tissue elasticity for flexibility, we’ll lose it. We must master the regulation of selective tension through asana in order to gain dynamic strength to move from vinyasa to prasara.

Tendons do not have to be maximally stretched to be torn. Tears are the result of a special combination of sudden stretch and muscular contraction.

Everyone has slipped on ice at one point in their lives. If we slip on the ice, our body is thrown off balance. It reflexively attempts to restabilize the breach of stance integrity. The tissue we stretch when we slip, say the hamstring or groin, will contract to the original position. Voila! We experience a tear: a stretch from one side and a simultaneous contraction on the other. This involuntary event is called the stretch reflex: A muscle that is stretched by an external force too far or too fast will contract to oppose the stretch.

Before beginning dynamic strengthening exercises to develop plasticity, we must learn to regulate the muscular tension. This is not as difficult as it sounds, but it requires a paradigm shift from conventional methods.

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