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There is a joke amongst yoga teachers that if we had a nickel for every time someone told us that they have never done yoga because they are not flexible enough, we would be rich. All kidding aside, the fact that so many people make this remark, there is clearly a common misconception that yoga is all about expansive poses, like Hanumanasana (aka splits), or Natarajasana (Lord of the DancePose).
However, when we look at the classical definition of asana, the physical practice of yoga, we see that flexibility is only half the story. The seminal yogic text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjli defines asana as sthira sukha asanam, a steady and comfortable seat. This means that yoga poses should have elements of both being expansive and contracted; flexible and strong; structured with energetic flow within that structure.
Finding sthira sukha in each posture is not a fixed point. It is a continuum, upon which we try not to tip too far toward either end. For example, having too much sukha, too much expansion, could appear as a misalignment of the bones as one goes past a healthy end range or lacks muscular engagement. While too much sthira, or contraction, could appear as not breathing or a “muscling” through poses.
Even so, the goal isn’t an even amount of flexibility and strength in every pose. Instead, the spectrum fluctuates, depending on the pose, the person, even the place, and season.
Finding inspiration in nature’s ebb and flow
In our fast-paced and accomplishment-driven society, slow and more inward periods (contractions) often get a bad rap. We think we are supposed to be generating and expanding all the time. That is just not sustainable.
Of course, it is scary when your business is not earning as much income as it once did or when your energy levels feel way lower than usual, but this is why it is so important to focus on the big picture, the entire cycle, rather than a specific day or period.
Contractions are necessary and natural byproducts of expansion. They are the truth of nature and go together, like yin and yang. Physics shows us that things expand in heat and contract in cold. Tides ebb and flow. The moon waxes and wanes.
Similarly, when we take a step back, we see that our lives have been a series of expansions and contractions, as well. For example, I recently came back to teaching yoga after having a baby. As my pregnancy progressed and my belly literally expanded, my business and physicality wound down (contraction). After my son was born, we cocooned inside for months, even though my heart was growing exponentially (expansion). I even had thoughts of quitting teaching! But then as his awareness began to expand, our family world expanded again, too. We started slowly at first, attending mommy and me yoga classes and I began adding one class back in at a time.
One and a half years later, I am back to a full schedule and busier than I have ever been—and not just because I have a toddler! My asana practice feels the strongest it has ever been too, though my flexibility has been quite reduced. And this boomerang effect, this pulling back to propel forward, was not the only time in my life that this has happened. It happens every few years.
Can you think back on your life when you had to pull back to go forward? What period are you in right now–an expansion or contraction?
Understanding and embracing contraction
Anatomically, there are a number of different kinds of muscular contractions. Olivia Barry is a certified yoga therapist and physical therapist based in Northern California. Barry explains, “Although the word contraction colloquially implies shortening, in the case of muscle physiology, it refers to the tension produced by a muscle.” The different muscular contractions most commonly discussed in asana are concentric, eccentric, and isometric. Let’s look at these in reference to the same pose, Utkatasana.
- Concentric contraction is where the muscle shortens to create movement. This is what happens to your hamstrings when bending your knees to come into the pose.
- Eccentric contractions happen when a muscle lengthens while it contracts, which is what the quadriceps are doing as we sit back into Chair. They engage and control our descent.
- Finally, an isometric contraction is where the muscle does not shorten or lengthen though it is engaged. Like when we hold a Chair pose.
Considering this, we see that contraction truly exists along a spectrum.
If can remember that the flow between expansion and contraction is an ongoing and necessary part of life, we can learn to embrace this cycle rather than resisting it. The years 2020 and the beginning of 2021 have been periods of an almost global contraction due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We are re-emerging slowly, and it may be tempting to rush the process. Instead of always generating outwardly and just going and going, we can learn to embrace the quieter periods. After all, they help us gather the energy and tap into our inner wisdom, leading us to find the expansion within.
This sequence will help you find space within those more pulled in periods.
A sequence for building strength and flexibility
Have two blocks and a yoga strap nearby.
Balasana (Child’s Pose), variation
Is there any more quintessential pose of contraction than Child’s Pose? We are curled in upon ourselves like an embryo, as though we are preparing to unfurl and be reborn. Having the arms forward helps us feel the potential to expand and lengthen, even in a deeply folded state.
Start in kneeling. Sink your hips toward your heels, resting your forehead on a block. Reach your arms forward and in line with your ears, rising up to your fingertips. Pull your fingers against the sticky mat to draw your chest toward the front of your space. At the same time, get heavy in your hips, as though someone were pressing them back and down. Breathe here for 20 long breaths. Observe if your presence wanders. Instead, take your time.
This pose physically shows us that contraction shapes (in this case the bind) can also help generate bigger expansions. Using the strap helps make this variation accessible to all, but feel free to ditch the strap and go for the full bind. Just favor keeping your chest open over grabbing your hands.
Grab a strap and stand in Tadasana facing the long end of your mat. Step your feet out wide and turn your right leg out from deep within your hip. Aim your right toes for the middle of the short edge your mat. Angle your back foot and hip in slightly, aligning your feet heel-to-heel.
Place the strap in your left hand and on an exhale, lean your torso sideways over your front thigh coming into Parsvakonasana. Drop the tail end of the strap behind your front leg and reach under your thigh with your right hand to grab that end. Turn your chest open and lean back with your upper body. Draw your shoulder heads back, opening your heart. Keep your neck long and if it is available, begin to turn your gaze upward. Whatever you are clasping—fingers or strap—pull against it. Use the reverberation to open your chest more. Breathe here for 10 deep breaths.
Come out slowly, first releasing your bottom hand from the strap and reaching your left arm up to the sky. Press into your front heel and inhale your torso upright. As you exhale, parallel your feet and move the strap to your right hand and repeat on your left side.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), variation
Rather than fighting against the truth of the moment and forcing ourselves to generate during a period that is naturally quieter, we can learn how to hunker down comfortably. Olivia Barry also observes the subtle benefits of these more rounded shapes, noting that, “When we round in and bow inward towards our hearts it can enhance introspection and connection to self.” This lunge variation teaches us to give our head and brain a break, instead looking to our heart to take the lead.
Have a block near the front of your mat for this “runner’s lunge.” Start in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Inhale and lift your right leg up. As you exhale, step your right foot to the outside of your right hand. If it does not go all the way, use your hand to pull it up toward the top. Place the block on the medium setting on the inside of your leg. Lower your elbows onto the block and bring your palms together. Feel free to adjust the prop’s height to suit your needs, using more than one or getting rid of the block all together.
Hug your right inner thigh into your shoulder. As you do that, actively reach your chest toward the front of your mat. Keep the back of your neck long by looking straight down or even slightly back. Remain for 10 full breaths. Place your hands on either side of your front foot and step back to Downward Dog before repeating on your left.
We must pull in both before and after periods of expansion, in order to refuel for the next, inevitable climb. Going from upright Eagle to full Eagle and back up again helps us feel this truth in our body. Barry believes the benefits of full Eagle to be numerous, noting, “There is less demand on the posterior side of the body compared to upright Eagle. The back and hip extensors can relax and spread while the front body abdominal and hip flexors are more active.” She also believes this pose to be a great preparation for a pose like Bakasana. Hint, hint.
From Down Dog, walk or hop forward and stand tall to find Tadasana. On an inhale, reach your arms up and sit back into Chair pose. Lift your left thigh up and wrap your left leg once or twice around your bent right leg. If you are unable to wrap twice, your left toes can be on the floor like a “kickstand,” or your ankles can squeeze together.
Cross your right elbow over your left elbow and bring your opposite palms together. Take an inhale in the upright shape and then on an exhale, round your spine, touching your elbows just ahead of your knees or to the knees. Keep your lower back broad with full breaths. Continue to reach your chest and forearms forward to open your upper back. Remain for 5 breaths. On an inhale, slowly come back upright with the torso. Return to Chair on an exhale. Repeat on the other side.
Nature teaches us that when we squeeze in, it consolidates our power. Think of geysers or waterfalls. Even a toothpaste tube! The narrower the entry point, the more powerful the stream. We feel this reality in our bodies in Bakasana, where the tighter the legs can hug in, the greater the potential there is to expand the chest open.
From Chair, come into a squat position on your tiptoes, with your big toes touching. Separate your knees apart and snuggle your body in between your inner legs, hugging your shoulders between your thighs. Place your hands a few inches ahead of your shoulders, bend your elbows, and start to shift your weight forward.
Keep your bum at the same height as your upper body, reaching your chest forward, until one or both feet leave the floor. Once balancing, squeeze your upper arms with you inner thighs. Hug your ankles in toward each other. Your gaze is slightly ahead. These actions plus the focused gaze stabilize your body, and from that place, you can keep expanding your chest forward and possibly lift your feet a bit higher. Try to hold for 5 full breaths. Return to your squat. Try it one more time.
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher trainer, mama, motivator, and writer. Based out of San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, son, and their dog, Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com