Are Your Asanas Creating Tension?

While it is necessary to have some tension in our body so that we are not just a floppy bag of bones with no support, too much tension can negatively affect our health and well being.  Everyone has tension to varying degrees but overt tension can affect the free movement of our joints, the distribution of nutrients to our cells and the carrying away of wastes from those cells, nerves can also become painfully impinged and our digestion and elimination can be affected. Tension in general often makes us grumpy and tired and experience difficulty in focusing.

General tension may occur in our body simply because of our genetic makeup. Some people just naturally seem to have tight  muscles and joints while others can easily flow into full splits, twist their spine ninety degrees and fold in half like a piece of paper. But more importantly, and more damaging, is the way we use our body. Because of the repetitive actions of the sport we play, or the type of work that we do, our muscles tighten up generally in a non-symmetrical way.  As a mother of 6 children I developed a hip swing to the left from many successive years of carrying my toddlers on the left hip while using my right arm for cooking, cleaning, shopping and everything else in between. When we tighten one side of our body only it will usually pull our joints out of alignment causing friction within and compensations throughout the whole body. These compensations are seen as postural misalignments which can also be caused by stooping, hunching, standing or sitting unevenly and all the other many ways that we aren’t careful in our posture while sitting, standing and moving around.

While it is not common knowledge that certain foods will influence our bodies to tighten up, we do know that tight sore muscles can often be relieved with magnesium supplements1 and tight arthritic joints are known to respond to sulphur. Some nutritionists claim that an alkaline vegetarian diet is more conducive to relaxation than an acidic animal based type diet.

Another major contributor to tension in the body is the mind and our reactions to our valuable life. Unconscious, chronic holding of muscles in response to emotional upsets or stress can cause shortening of muscles and stiffness in the joints they pass over which restricts our breath and free flow of energy.  As our stress level and reactive tension rises, our breathing becomes more constricted and shallower and this stimulates our nervous system to send out more stress hormones and recharge the whole cycle.

So before we even get on the mat to start our asanas, most of us will be carrying a degree of unnecessary tension which is a major reason why a regular asana practice is so beneficial to our health because it helps to disperse all this tension.  Gradually our body opens up and releases the constricting blockages and enables us to become more energetic, positive and contented.  But it’s very important to know whether our yoga asanas are alleviating tension or whether they are they actually creating more tension.

How is it possible, you might ask, that these yoga practices which are so conducive to our health and well-being can also be the cause of tension and exacerbate any tension problems that we might already have?

There are multitudes of ways that asanas can create tension. When asanas are performed without awareness, we will not be mindful of the subtle signals in our bodies telling us to back off or to change how we are doing something, and in a class situation, our as attention strays from the teacher’s instructions we can miss a vital safety caution. Our attention should always be focused on the pose and the breath making sure we maintain a softness deep within. Lack of this softness is often manifesting as tension in the eyes, jaw, throat or shoulders.

Most of us have a competitive spirit, it’s quite natural, but if we bring this onto the yoga mat it will, without doubt, create tension.  We will be comparing ourselves to others with an emotional response of being better or worse than the other person and both attitudes will create tension. This competitive attitude, plus our conception of success in a yoga pose, will drive us to go deeper, stay longer and try harder. All of which are not only attention getters but also tension getters! Each of us has a certain range of movement that is safely available to us at each joint. If we try and surpass this range and endeavour to deepen our stretch or push ourselves into how we think the pose should look then we will be making compensations throughout other parts of the body.

A practical example of this is Warrior 2 (virabhadrasana II) pose. Some of us can bring our hips parallel or almost parallel to the long side of the mat whereas others whose hips are not  quite so open  will struggle to line up with the mat and in so doing their front knee will have to knock inwards which over time creates wear and tear in the knee joint. If however we know this and rigidly keep the knee straight ahead and the hips square to the side then the compensation will have to go up into the lower back causing compression in the lumbar-sacral or sacral-ilial junction. This is just one instance in one pose but almost every pose has the same sad story of what happens if you push past your limit. If we try to impose the pose on our body rather than opening up to it, rather like forcing an unwilling servant to do our will, then tension is sure to follow.

The mind has such an influence over our bodily tension.  If we are feeling negative about a pose, thinking things like, “oooh this is haaard!” Or “I can’t do this,” or “I hate this pose…” then we will be creating tension. As a young child, my son decided that he hated doing school, so that was it, the mind was made up, he never liked it and never did well. Now as an adult and loving to study, he’s wishing he hadn’t been so adamant as a child. Ooops he changed his mind. My daughter was similar she decided maths was too hard and closed her mind to it.  How difficult our mind can make things for us, including our yoga asanas. When you learn that there’s no goal, no ‘right’ way of doing the asanas, no need to push past your limit, you just need to do them safely with support, then all that mind stress can be left behind.

In the world of yoga it is common knowledge that the body responds to the breath and the breath responds to the body and both respond to the mind. So when the breath is held or shallow or tight then the body will be tense and the mind will be tense as well. In most asana classes emphasis is placed on the breath but in our home practice we need to be mindful of the necessity of yoga breathing throughout our poses and whenever we are on the mat or anywhere, for that matter, we need to be breathing appropriately. Down the bottom of the lungs are nerve receptors which help us to relax so as much as possible we should be diaphragmatically breathing.  This, along with soft throat of breathing (ujjayi) will bring another dimension to our yoga asana and we will feel that calmness, openness and control that can support us both on and off the mat.

Achieving, striving and competing might get us into a pose that looks right externally, but we will be missing out on releasing layers and layers of tension and achieving the full potential of the pose. Releasing in a pose is achieved by learning how to perform the pose safely, having the right mind set with no expectations, focusing on the breath and allowing the body to take its time to open up and strengthen. This does not mean however, that we do not challenge our tensions. To release the tension we must confront it but we must make sure we are not forcing. This is called ‘working at the edge’ and the edge is a lot less than what many people think, so take it really slowly and cautiously and receive that wonderful feeling of letting go.

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