I recently read Todd Hargrove’s book, “A Guide to Better Movement”. I don’t recall who initially recommended Hargrove’s book to me, but it was after I had mentioned that I was reading and Katy Bowman’s “Movement Matters” a few years ago. I bought “A Guide to Better Movement” around that time, and it has sat in my book box (regrettably, I can’t keep my books displayed on a bookshelf in Bali as they quickly become degraded by dust and mildew) waiting to be read until I picked it up a month or so ago.
I enjoyed Hargrove’s book even more than I expected to. The focus is not on the specifics of biomechanics or kinesiology (which I usually find to be boring, dogmatic and fallacious), but more about the “top-down” influence of the nervous system on our experience and performance of physical movement. I appreciated that he avoids reductionist and dogmatic principles of what constitutes “safe” movement and alignment, and instead focuses on a more general consideration of the multitude of factors beyond anatomy and physiology which constitute the whole of our experience of body movement and comfort/discomfort.
One drawback to his approach is that he does perpetuate a clear distinction between body and brain, whereas I prefer a more integrated and “enactive” approach to human experience which discourages the artificial and imagined separation of the component parts of the human organism. Nonetheless, the book was enjoyable and I look forward to reading his recently released second book, “Playing with Movement.” I appreciate the optimism and absence of fear mongering in the perspectives of movement therapists like Hargrove and Greg Lehamn (who’s recovery strategies pdf book is also well worth reading).
Hargrove’s book is not at all about yoga, but while reading it, I found myself interpreting many of his ideas and principles in the context of Ashtanga Yoga practice. I began to share my interpretations and reflections of certain passages in the book on my Spacious Yoga facebook page. I have collected those facebook posts here for archival purposes and for those who do not use facebook or follow my Spacious Yoga facebook page. Each photograph below is a passage from Hargrove’s book, with my commentary directly below each photograph.
Can a paralyzed person practice Ashtanga? Can a zombie practice Ashtanga? Absolutely. I see people practicing intermediate, third series and beyond as paralyzed zombies. They are the practitioners who are most resistant to feedback – from the practice, from their teachers and from their own somatic experience.
Practice can be a way to dissolve paralysis, or it can be a way to deepen paralysis. It all depends how we use the tool of practice.
This is bandha. Note that it has nothing to do with gripping, squeezing or holding certain muscle groups, as many Ashtanga practitioners are erroneously taught to do. Aligned fluidity creates energetic efficiency.
As a teacher, I would say that the most capable students are not the strongest or most flexible ones, but those who are most receptive to, and able to assimilate new information. This may include information from their external environment (including their teacher) and their internal environment. Students who are strongest and most flexible are often the least capable in this respect.
Those who have cultivated bandha are able to intuitively adapt to changing internal and external conditions with fluidity and effortlessness. Bandha represents a seamless relationship with one’s environment.
Physical techniques and information are of very minor importance in the process of deepening one’s practice. Teachings which focus on physical techniques and an overload of information often end up being a distraction from actual practice.
Cultivating meditative phenomenological awareness of embodied breath and sensation is the key factor in deepening one’s practice and one’s relationship with oneself.
This is why a good Mysore style teacher will demand mastery of the foundations contained in the first part of primary series before moving students on to more advanced postures and vinyasa.
Advanced postures are simply novel and more complex combinations of fundamental movement patterns. For those who have truly mastered all of the fundamental movement patterns, the advanced postures will come easily and with little need for instruction or support from a teacher. Those who have failed to learn fundamental movement patterns will struggle endlessly and need a teacher to put them into more difficult postures.
Rather than continue to adjust students into a number of difficult postures that they cannot perform without assistance, a good Mysore style teacher will ask the student to go back to a more basic practice until the prerequisite movement patterns are mastered. This may feel frustrating and less immediately gratifying for the student in the short term, but will produce a much healthier, independent and empowering practice in the long run.
For hundreds of thousands of years, our homo sapiens ancestors skillfully moved through the forests and savanah in ways that would probably make today’s Olympic athletes envious. The intuitive animal intelligence of the human organism does not need rational, intellectual instruction in order to learn how to move in efficient and functional relationship with it’s surroundings.
It mystifies me that so many modern yoga practitioners and analysts assume there is a necessity for the modern science of anatomy and physiology to inform our postural yoga practice. To me, “99 percent practice and 1 percent theory” refers to the relative contributions of phenomenological, intuitive, animal intelligence (99 percent) vs rational, scientific anatomical knowledge (1 percent) to our practice experience.
The suggestion that all yoga practitioners and teachers should be trained in anatomy and physiology is as absurd as suggesting that babies need to study anatomy and physiology in order to safely progress in their learning of movement skills as they develop and mature in their first years of life. Our pre-scientific era ancestors did just as well at mastering movement skills as babies do. What has caused us to forget this obvious fact?
Postural yoga is a beautiful opportunity to rekindle flame of the embodied, intuitive, animal aspect of movement intelligence which we all are born into this world with, but so many modern humans tend to neglect and discard with their maturation into the adult world of civilised domestication. Reducing postural yoga to anatomical formulas and prescriptions strips it of its very heart and soul…..as we have already done with so many other aspects of our lives.
It is relatively rare that pain experienced during a particular postural movement (in yoga practice or otherwise) is directly caused by poor alignment or soft tissue damage. There are multitudes of interconnected and interrelated factors from all layers of our being, which contribute to our conscious experience of any given phenomena, including that of pain.
I find pain and discomfort to be a fascinating opportunity to observe and transform various layers of my own reactive habit patterns (samskaras/sankaras) during practice. Slight and subtle shifts in my the structure of my conscious awareness in the embodied state can completely transform my experience of asana practice, including the perception of pain (or more often generalized unpleasantness). This provides fuel for a fascinating journey deeper into myself on the mat every morning.
I can’t recall the last time I addressed my experience of pain with a shift in alignment or superficial technique (though this can certainly sometimes be appropriate). The relationship of how the various body parts are organized with respect to one another and with respect to the earth is only one minor ingredient in the complex soup of our conscious phenomenological experience at any given moment.
It baffles me when I see many yoga teachers and practitioners focussing solely on one superficial aspect (alignment/tissue damage) of our multidimensional experience of yoga asanas and vinyasas. I’ve witnessed several teachers who claim to understand the source of a student’s pain before even watching that student practice, let alone inquiring into other dimensions of the student’s being. This is usually followed by application of whatever dogmatic alignment principles the teacher happens to subscribe to. Needless to say, this approach is usually ineffective.
In this chapter, Todd Hargrove discusses the protective mechanisms of the CNS, which prevent us from ever reaching our full potential in strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.
I deeply appreciate and enjoy Hargrove’s perspective on human movement, which recognizes the multiplicity of factors aside from simple biomechanics which contribute to the whole of our experience of physical movement. One shortcoming to his approach is usage of language which suggests that the brain/CNS and body are distinct entities. In my own explorations, I have come to the conclusion that the tendency to separate components of humanness – such as body; brain; mind; spirit, etc – represents a fundamental flaw in human reasoning, which has been exacerbated by the scientific reductionism which has proliferated since the time of Descartes. Entities are wholes whose parts are seperable in theory, but not in actual functionality. Unfortunately, modern science does not yet have language which can effectively support exploration within this framework.
Sharath Jois is fond of stating that the body is okay, and the mind is stiff. This is similar to what Hargrove is getting at here, and is certainly an underappreciated aspect of performance – in asana or anything else in life.
As I have matured over 16 years of daily Ashtanga practice, I have come to understand that physical biomechanics are of very minor importance in comparison to the perception of the conscious and subconscious mind in terms of what is and isn’t possible in physical movement. The fuzzy boundary between the perceptions of the conscious and subconscious are particularly fascinating and this is where the real “openings” are taking place which allow the physical expression of difficult asanas to manifest over time.
Cultivating equanimity towards all of our embodied experience – especially towards the experience of our perception of what is and isn’t possible – is a golden key to unlocking potential. When I step on the front of my mat at 2:30 am, feeling fatigued or achey, and think “I can’t….” My very next step is to stop reacting to that thought and to enter a non reactive state of “let’s see…” And then, 99 percent of the time, I find that I can…..