Monday, April 21, 2014

Excerpt from "Weight Resistance Yoga"

If you’re looking for a link between the muscles and the spirit,  
Weight Resistance Yoga might be what you’re looking for.

"The mistake which many physical culturists make is dividing the body into fragments with their "Knees Bend!" "Trunk Forward Bend!" "Eyes Right!" and so on. When I have asked you to turn your attention to a special part, it was with the object of exploring it, and not of exercising it as a thing separate from the rest of you."
 - From Inside Yourself  by Louise Morgan.

"Maybe you have read the Bhagavad Gita, where we are asked to keep the body in a rhythmic, harmonious state without any variations between the right and the left, the front and the back, measuring from the central line of the body which runs from the middle of the throat to the middle of the anus."
 - From The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar.

You can spot musclebound and unevenly developed weightlifters without even seeing their massive chests and rounded shoulders. As they trundle away from you on the gym floor, a small telltale sign betrays them: their hands facing you. This cartoonish trait results from overdeveloping the chest muscles to the point where they pull on the shoulders, causing the arms to rotate inward, which twists the hands around until the palms nearly face back. (In his desire to express his virility, a friend's teenage son, who very recently started lifting weights at a gym, has begun to 'ape' this mannerism of maladaption and the accompanying lumbering gait - even at home, where nobody is impressed.)

In contrast to the pectoralis major (the thick, fan-shaped muscle that makes up the bulk of the chest muscles), the infraspinatus is decidedly not a glamor muscle. Only part of it can be seen (on the upper back below the posterior deltoid and the spine of the shoulder blade), and it isn't very big. Because it's not much to show off, weight lifters tend to ignore it. It is, however, the largest of the rotator cuff muscles - those muscles originating on the shoulder blade that provide stability to the humeral socket by interweaving over the shoulder joint capsule and inserting on the head of the upper arm. Alone among the rotator cuff muscles, though, the infraspinatus has another critical function: along with the teres minor and posterior and middle fibers of the deltoid, it pulls the shoulder back, thereby strengthening the upper back and opening up the chest.

The choreography of the weight-resistance exercise routine is determined by several factors. Upper-body joint movements are worked one day, lower-body joint movements, the next day. Exercises increase in difficulty at the beginning of the routine and decrease in difficulty at the end of a routine. Each series of exercises revolves around a different joint. Exercises within a series may complete a range of motion or may work slightly different planes of motion. But no organizing principles are more important to the weight-resistance yoga exercise routine than balance (pairing opposing muscles) and symmetry (pairing left and right muscles).

Which is why all of us who perform an exercise that moves the upper arm in the horizontal plane toward the chest (to strengthen the pectoralis major), such as the bench press variations, should also perform an exercise that moves the upper arm in the horizontal plane away from the chest (to strengthen the infraspinatus), such as the high row with cables (a lot like a face pull). These two shoulder joint exercises - one pushing and one pulling - when paired together, are called opposing, contralateral, or balancing exercises (analogous to weight-surrender yoga's neutralizing or counter poses).

And which is why if we perform a high row for the right side, we should perform a high row for the left side. In performing symmetrical exercises, we establish on either side of the spine (the left/right dividing line of the body) similarity of arrangement - a correspondence not only of right and left muscles in size and shape, but also, more importantly, of right and left bones in aligned positions.

[Parts of this book at first appear to state obvious, 'I already know all this' observations; however, an individual's weight lifting behavior when viewed objectively can almost without fail turn up training imbalances and potential future problems, especially when the trainee is participating in sports which inherently lend themselves to specific performance tasks and not health needs.]

Around 1490 Leonardo da Vinci completed his famous pen-and-ink drawing of the naked, curly-headed, tender-looking figure with perfect proportions named Vitruvian Man. Vitruvian Man's perfection is demonstrated by his ability to fit his body to the perfect geometric forms - a circle and a square - by opening his legs and raising his outstretched arms in a kind of jumping jack.

In this image, in which a naturalistically rendered man incongruously stands on and touches a circle and square that enclose him the perfect proportions of the human body become an analogy for the harmony, the ordered whole, of the cosmos.

In practicing weight-resistance yoga, we don't achieve perfect head, limb and trunk proportions. (Of course, there's no such thing as a universal set of proportions for the human body. Rarely is a man's height exactly the length of twenty-four palms or are his outspread arms exactly equal to his height. We all have individual variations. In any case, there's nothing we can do to change our proportions.) Still, by performing strengthening exercises for the front and back, left and right, upper and lower, and exterior and interior of the body, we forge a body that's balanced and symmetrical - a body configured to he harmony of its own unique skeletal structure. Possessing a musculature that harmoniously arranges our skeletal structure allows us to sit or stand in comfortable and effortless positions. When muscles properly align bones, the strain, fatigue, and weakness caused by habitually faulty alignment (what we commonly call poor posture) are eliminated.

David Gordon White, scholar of the alchemical body, argues against the interpretation of yoga as solely "a meditative practice through which the absolute [is] to be found by turning the mind and senses inward, away from the world." (David Gordon White, “‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ Models of the Human Body in Indian Medical and Yogic Traditions,” Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity 2, no. 1, (2006): 2.)

In opposition to this closed model, he asserts, there's a yoga tradition of an open model of the human body - a model that links the body and the cosmos. But these two models aren't dichotomous. As yoga scholar Mircea Eliade argues: "In withdrawing from profane human life, the yogin finds another that is deeper and truer - the very life of the cosmos."   [Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), 55.] Thusly, taking a static bodily position, breathing rhythmically, closing off the distractions of sensory activity, concentrating on a single point, and fixing the flux of consciousness are explained "by the intention to homologize [make or show to have the same relation, relative position, or structure], the body and life of man with the celestial bodies and cosmic rhythms, first of all with the sun and moon."

In having the sensation (produced by coupling weight-resistance yoga upper- and lower-body workouts) or our major bones precisely fitting together and our major muscles being superbly toned and relaxed, we experience direct knowledge of the harmony within our own body. Through contemplation of this bodily harmony - which is to say, the essence of our body - we experience (it's impossible to prevent!) a correspondence with the harmony of the cosmos, accompanied by a great calm.

On Gravity: The Overhead Press

"The movable object . . . adds on to its previous equable and indelible motion that downward tendency which it has from its own heaviness."
 - From Two New Sciences, Including Centers of Gravity and Force of Percussion by Galileo Galilei. 

Atlas led his fellow Titans in a losing battle against Zeus, the king of the gods. As punishment, Zeus forced Atlas to support the heavens on his shoulders forever. Curiously, many works of art show Atlas bearing the weight of Earth instead. Perhaps this is because we mortals so often feel the burden of carrying the world on our shoulders.

Atlas was made to stand in the northwest region of what is now Africa, where the Atlas mountains were named for him. Many weight lifters, perhaps intuitively emulating Atlas, stand like a mountain when performing a press. The risk in lifting a heavy weight directly above the shoulders in this unsupported position lies in the tendency to use the lower back, an area that should be stabilized, to help thrust up the weight, causing lower back strain. Using a shoulder press machine focuses the contraction on the prime movers - the anterior, middle, and posterior fibers of the deltoid muscle - by restricting unnecessary joint movement and stabilizing the body. As is generally the case, performing the exercise with a machine is safer than with free weights.

Yet what makes free-weight exercises dangerous - their dependence on muscular coordination - is also what makes them advantageous. By involving stabilizing and guiding muscles to maintain control, free-weight exercises incorporate the use of more muscles and more closely mimic the required movements of everyday tasks. Free-weight exercises are only truly dangerous when they're practiced and performed without strict attention to correct form. The considerable stress placed on the lower back by the unsupported shoulder press can be avoided by strongly co-contracting the lower back and abdominal muscles (or by reducing the weight or by sitting on a high incline bench) to keep the trunk stable.

Because free-weight exercises make use of gravity and not mechanical resistance, they are used to best effect when they optimally oppose gravity. Gravity, unlike the wind and other forces encountered by the body, behaves consistently and predictably; we have only to adapt to it by orienting ourselves in space. To optimally oppose gravity, we have to adjust our body (often with the aid of benches) to create a trajectory for our arms that requires shoulder, upper back, and chest muscles to overcome the greatest resistive force. (The path may put the weight load parallel to gravity, for example, in the front arm raise; diagonal to gravity, for example, in the shoulder diagonal raise; or perpendicular to gravity, for example, in the incline bench press.) As a consequence, during the course of performing a free-weight, upper-body exercise routine, which may comprise a dozen or so exercises, we find ourselves constantly repositioning our body and moving our arms at various angles. It's these alert, direct encounters with resisting the pull toward Earth's center that provide us with a unique opportunity to reflect on gravity.

By reflection on gravity I don't mean the study of gravity or even the mulling over of the essence of gravity but rather an opening up to gravity, an awareness of how gravity affects us. Performing the overhead press may be only a hint, I admit, of the awareness of gravity that we would have in a rocket ship during lift off when the gravitational force to which our body is subjected is so great that it presses against our face, making it rubbery, or in an earthquake, when the ground before us suddenly opens up, hurling us down into a quarter mile-long crevasse. Nevertheless, while performing free-weight strengthening exercises we weight-resistance yogins have a keen sense of gravity on Earth. Especially during the overhead press. In no other exercise do we resist gravity so clearly or mightily.

We could, of course, contemplate the effects of gravity during any activity - say, setting plates down on a table of putting the plates back in a cupboard. When we're going about our daily tasks, though, we can't allow ourselves to be bothered by thoughts about gravity. There's too much to get done. Unlike daily activities which merely happen to involve gravity, lifting weights in the gymnasium lends itself to reflection on gravity, not only because it demands attentiveness to gravity and great effort against gravity but because it's stripped of everyday utility.

We could also go through our lives taking our movements with and against gravity for granted. But we shouldn't, for to pay attention to and control our interactions with gravity - just as with our breathing - is to reflect on our very existence.

All objects attract each other with a force that's directly proportional to their masses. This law of gravity, discovered by Isaac Newton, applies to any object with mass (and, as was subsequently discovered, even to light) whether on Earth or in space. Because the force of Earth's gravitational attraction on the objects in its sphere is so much greater than the force of the objects (put simply, the objects are simply outweighed), we observe gravity as the force of Earth pulling objects down toward its center.

With the startling discovery of the universality of gravitation, we came to realize that seemingly unrelated things on and near Earth are alike. The moon spinning across the heavens. (If it weren't for its great velocity, the moon, like an iron ball shot out of a cannon, would eventually fall to Earth.) An apple falling from a tree to the ground. (For that matter, an apple lying on the ground. The force of gravity even acts on stationary objects resting on Earth's surface.) An atom. (If you dropped an atom, it would fall to the ground, just like an apple.) They're all affected by gravity - in this case, the great pull of Earth on objects within its sphere. (And what is Earth, after all, but a collection of atoms acting together to create on immense pull?)

Needless to say, human beings are subject to Earth's gravity, too. We continually oppose or surrender to gravity throughout our lives - for example, when lifting a heavy load and when lying down, respectively. In fact, we not only interact with gravity but have been formed by gravity. As a member of a species that evolved from water to land, we had to develop systems of structural support and locomotion that could adopt and even thrive in a terrestrial environment characterized, in part, by the resistance of its surface.

Insofar as we adjust in some way to Earth's gravity, we humans are brethren with all living things. For that matter, by being subject to Earth's gravity, we are like all things in Earth's sphere, inorganic as well as organic. We all have weight. We're all pulled down. We're all part of what in yoga is called tamas, inertia, heaviness, or sluggishness - one of the three gunas (the other two are rajas, motion, energetic action, or restlessness, and sattwa, moderation, orderliness, or harmony). These three qualities compose prakriti, the ordinary material world (reality manifested to the senses). We're all a part of this primordial matter. It is creation itself. In yoga it's commonly referred to as the avatar of prakriti. We are all born of it, and we all return to it.



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