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  • Basic Principles for Yoga:
    Adding Bigness to Your Yoga Poses

    What's the difference between an experienced yogi's yoga pose and a beginners, even a simple yoga pose that doesn't require much flexibility? Often its a sense of expansiveness in the pose. It's bigness but without wasted effort. It is like the experienced yogi is filling their pose with awareness.

    How do you as a beginner get there?

    Dancing with Expansiveness

    I took dance lessons for a little while, partner dance, and the teacher talked about a similiar quality. I'll call it "bigness". I've seen practicing dancers who move very well, but their ribcage sits on top of their pelvis like a sack of poo. The legs move beautifully and the arms are (surprisingly) held well, but the ribcage is collapsed. (I should clarify, this is social dancing, partner dances like waltz, tango etc).

    There's something innately more attractive when bigness is created. This isn't the same as being big muscularly. And it isn't the same as being tense (or muscularly tense.) It's the difference between a balloon that's been freshly pumped up versus one that's been sitting for a while, partially deflated with the skin a little saggy.

    Adding Bigness could be thought of as a basic principle. And it does more than just making a pose look good.

    Balancing Expansion and Compression

    Bigness can be found in a variety of places and circumstances. The principle of Bigness can be found in the articulating joints of your body.

    In joint anatomy, fluid tensegrity is the term I use to denote how joint capsule tension is varied by muscular action to control fluid pressure within the synovial joints of the body. Increased muscle tension increases joint capsule tension via ligaments and causes an increase in fluid pressure which resists bones resting against each other. It allows bones to adjust at the joints while still retaining their relationship. It also allows tension to be distributed or shared throughout the joint capsule.

    This may actually be a reason for muscle tone, to help maintain joint capsule integrity.

    By being pressed away from each other at the joint, bones are able to adjust relative to each other while still maintaining their relationship. At the same time tension is maintained in the joint capsule and this may also give the joint feelability, providing the brain with information as to the current condition of the joint.

    So not only does bigness allow bones to adjust relative to each other, it makes it easier to sense the joint itself.

    Applying this same principle to two people dancing together, there needs to be some space between them to allow them to move, to actually dance. And yet they also need to maintain their connection so that they continue to dance together, to act as one unit. So there's a balance between pushing out and pulling in. Pushing out gives them space to move while pulling in helps them to maintain their connection, their relationship. Their connection then allows them to talk to each other to communicate instantaneously. This allows them to move together and to continue to move together even as the dance changes.

    With a balance between these two actions, pushing out and pulling in, the single unit, the dance, made up of two dancers, attains bigness. This bigness allows them to dance more effectively, more efficiently, more effortlessly as one. They have room to move but also connection so that they can communicate. It's similiar to the solar system. Gravity keeps the sun and planets together while centripetal force presses them outwards. The solar system moves through the galaxy as a single integrated entity made up of various dancers.

    Bigness, Awareness and Responsiveness

    Bigness is not only a balance between expansion and contraction. It's also a balance between maximum tension and complete relaxation so that there is both sensitivity and responsiveness.

    Sensitivity is the ability to sense what is going on. It is the equivalent of driving a car and knowing how fast you are going, how fast the engine is spinning and how much gas is left in the tank.
    Responsiveness is the ability to change what is happening. Again in driving terms, it is the equivalent of being able to change speed and direction.

    Now imagine driving a car in which the speedometer shows changes in speed a few seconds after those changes occur. Or worse yet, a fuel gauge that took five minutes to reflect changes in fuel level. You would potentially be getting information when it was too late to respond. Now n addition imagine a steering wheel that is slack so that the wheels only respond to steering changes a few seconds after those changes are made. Perhaps a more real example is a computer that suddenly slows down and takes ages to respond to any of your inputs.

    Now imagine being able to remove the slack in both the speedometer and the steering wheel. Imagine being able to remove the delay in your computer. That's what bigness does for the body. It makes it easier to sense change as it occurs and it makes it easier to respond without any slackness or time lag.

    So how do you go about creating bigness?

    Creating Bigness

    One of the easiest places to create bigness is in the torso. It can be created between the ribcage and the pelvis, at the waist, and also within the spaces between adjacent ribs, the intercostal spaces.

    Working Against Gravity

    A method for creating bigness in the torso is to draw the ribs up away from the pelvis. Focusing on lengthening the front of the body, the ribcage, thoracic spine and lumbar spine can be bent backwards (the spinal erectors can be used for this) to draw the sternum away from the pubic bone. This lengthens the front of the belly and adds tension to it. Between lifting the front of the chest fully and letting it sink down there is a position of balance where the abdomen isn't too tight but also isn't flaccid. The abdominal muscles can activate, but they'll activate while lengthened, and with relatively little effort to help give the abdomen "feelability" and responsiveness.

    Note that to move the ribs away from the pelvis you can bend your spine backwards or sideways. Or the ribs can be moved relative to the spine to help create length in different parts of the waist. One advantage of adding tension to the waist is that it makes the muscles of the waist easier to control. With tension added to the obliques, for instance, it may be easier to recruit these muscles to twist or side bend the waist. Or they can be easier to recruit to resist tendencies to twist or sidebend.

    Bigness Leads to Aliveness

    I've mentioned that bigness leads to greater sensitivity and responsiveness. This could be summed up with the word "aliveness".

    One of the qualities of aliveness is the ability to sense change and respond to it. The sooner change is sensed and the quicker the response to change the greater the aliveness.

    Aliveness is the result of bigness.

    By lengthening the tissues of our abdomen, by creating space between ribcage and pelvis we create the potential for aliveness. If we tune into the tension of our abdomen we can feel it and adjust it till it feels comfortable. But in turn that tension can be used as a source of information.

    Changes in tension tell us that something has happened. The sooner we notice those changes in tension the quicker we respond. But that same tension not only helps us to feel it also gives enough tension to muscle tissue to make it instantaneously responsive.

    Aliveness Opposes Gravity

    To create aliveness the main force that we are working against is gravity. Gravity pulls inwards, and as a result we can push outwards, away from the center of the earth. In this case we could think of ourselves as being in a dance with the earth.

    In order to activate muscles need to work against something. That something can be other muscles, it can also be external weight, but it can also be internal weight, the weight of bones, muscles and organs, of parts of the body itself.

    Working against gravity, bigness is the result when we push just enough to make it easy to move or dance relative to the earth. When two people dance they each pull a little and push a little. Dancing with the earth she does all the pulling (inwards) and so we provide the push (outwards).

    Dancing with Gravity

    Standing or sitting upright and lifting the ribs to lengthen the waist, muscles at the back of the torso work against the weight of the ribs themselves. Stacking the head atop the cervical spine, muscles of the neck work against the weight of the head. Positioning the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage, here also muscles that stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage work against he weight of the shoulder blades and arms. And at the hips, muscles of the hip work against the weight of the upper body pressing through the pelvis to apply some "lift" to the pelvis.

    Mountain Pose

    Standing in mountain pose, one possible way to practice is to use your hip muscles to press down on your thigh bones and upwards on your pelvis. If focusing on your thigh you may find it helps to focus on the head (and greater trochanter) of the thigh bone. On occasion (and depending on the pose you are doing) you may find it helpful to focus on the shaft of the thigh bone. As an example where this might be handy is for the front leg in triangle forward bend.

    If focusing on your pelvis you may find it helps to focus on your sitting bones and/or pubic bone or the bony arch that joins the two, the ischiopuboramus (what I think of as "rockers" for the pelvis.) Alternatively try focusing on the ASICs (the points of bone at the front of each hip crest) or the hip crest/spine itself.

    With enough tension added to the hips to float the pelvis on top of the thighs you could then focus on your spine. One possibility is to open the front, sides and back of your ribcage. Accentuate the space between the ribs and in addition lift the ribs. Work at creating an even feeling of lift all around your ribcage. You could then adjust the front back tilt of your pelvis so that your lumbar spine feels "open" at the front, back and at either side.

    You could do something similiar for your neck, moving your head forwards or backwards slightly and adjusting the tilt so that at the very least the back of your cervical spine feels open.

    From there you could focus on your shoulders, widening the shoulder blades and then slightly rotating the upper arms externally so that the front of the shoulder joints feel open.

    Breathing Into Your Yoga Pose

    You can work at holding this position, fine tuning it as you hold it, working on hips, spine, shoulders and then repeating. An alternative practice is to learn the feeling of this "big position" and create the feeling gradually as you inhale. Then relax it while exhaling.

    Because you are starting with the hips (and even the feet and knees) and then moving up your spine and then out of your arms (potentially including elbows and hands) you can make the exercise, of becoming bigger and then relaxing the bigness, feel as if you are breathing into your whole body. So that it feels more like breathing and less just like activating muscles, make each action slow and smooth.

    Initially start with just your hips. Make space and then relax it. Then add your spine, after making your hips "float" expand your ribs. Then reverse the sequence to exhale. Then add your arms.

    This can then be used as a way to practice deep breathing as well as experiencing your body in both the relaxed state and the big expanded state. This same technique can be used in a variety of yoga poses to varying degrees.

    While using this as a breathing method the goal can be maximal expansion (maximum bigness) at the end of each inhale and maximal or full relaxation at the end of each exhale. With practice in experiencing both extremes it then becomes easier to find the position of balance, optimal bigness, between these two extremes.

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