How Not to do Yoga
If at first you don’t succeed, pry, pry again, by Bill Softky
This morning, trying to sit cross-legged in front of a mirror, I realized why yoga hasn’t really worked for me yet. But not for want of trying.
For most of a year, most mornings at 7:45 I’ve been in the same yoga room with the same people doing the same sequence of boring but challenging poses, the “Ashtanga” sequence. Or rather trying to do the poses, because if you’re a crusty middle-aged man like me, you can’t wrap your arms behind your back, even if someone helps pry them into place.
And pry he did. Our instructor Franco specialized an applying a grown man’s full force to torque and bend the spines of his students. Without him, I would never know what any of those positions felt like. It was an amazing experience, like super-deep-tissue massage.
I’m good at prying things myself. As a kid on camping trips, I used sticks as crowbars, to dislodge boulders. I enjoyed using pliers, vice-grips, and bolt-cutters. (I have my vices.) Later I became a physicist, and when I was in the Peace Corps I taught leverage (officially called “mechanical advantage”) to clever Cameroonian village kids. Come to think of it, I even have a patent on a foldable desk based on leverage principles.
So when as a kid I became a gymnast, I got to treat my body like a physical object, the object I lived in. In gymnastics, to nail a trick, you analyze, calculate, and plan: get the momentum right, hit all the contact surfaces at the right angles, then BOUNCE — stretch — twist — curl — (pause) — open — STAND! Stuck it!
Naturally enough, I used the same principles on flexibility. I found the joint that needed stretching, then applied enough leverage and gritted my teeth as the muscles slowly gave in. After enough effort, I could pry myself almost into straddle splits. And pretty deep backbends, too. But that principle didn’t work for forward bends (“toe-touches”); no amount of pulling could get my lower back any closer to my thighs (plus, my hamstrings hurt too much).
This morning, I was sitting cross-legged, trying to push and tug one leg over the other. What I realized then is that prying is instinctive for me. If I want something in a particular position, I use my arms to put it there. It’s always been that way, and may be the only way, if the joints don’t know how to do the job themselves.
That’s my problem. I’m pretty sure, based on how good yogis and dancers describe their own motion, that one ought to move from the center, starting inside the spine and joints and radiating outward. “Inner core,” mulah bhanda, that sort of thing. NOT from applying external forces on a hinge. I’m absolutely sure, based on my understanding of physics, that bodies should move by feel, not by prying. The yogis are right, my instincts are wrong.
It’s all about managing sensory computations. If you pry, you have two sensations going on at once in different places: sensations in the muscles doing the pushing/pulling, but also in other muscles elsewhere which are getting stretched. Your attention has to move between the two places, so it always multi-tasks, and can’t congeal into a single sensation. As a general principle, motor computation works much more efficiently if the intention and the sensation are in the same place, like when you grasp an object with your hand: squeeze the palm, feel the palm. Same place. Easy, straightforward.
Now a lot of stories end with a realization. But today’s realization was only about why I find yoga so hard; it hasn’t actually made those poses any easier, because my joints still don’t know how to move themselves in those weird directions. And so far, without prying, they won’t either feel or move, just wish impotently that they could. Kind of a Catch-22. Once you’ve lost track of your own muscles, how can you find them again?