The Principles of Tensegrity
Tensegrity is a term that was first described by Buckminster Fuller as an architectural term. It is defined as a balance of discontinuous compression elements, which are connected by continuous tension forces, which allow any system to exist in balance. Expressed in a living form, Dr. Stephen Levine defined it, biotensegrity. In our case, as human beings, the fascial matrix and muscles form the system of tension and the bones float within the matrix creating relationships of discontinuous compression that connect through the whole system.
“A model based on Fuller’s Tensegrity…may also be utilized to demonstrate the structural integration of the body. All our previous concepts of biomechanics of the body will have to be reassessed in relation to this model and our therapeutic approaches to the musculo-skeletal system will have to be revised.” ~ Stephen Levine
I read that Dr. Ida Rolf used to say to her students that it’s not the bones which hold the muscles or the muscles which hold the bones but rather that the bones should float inside the flesh. I like this. Essentially, our bones are floating in our tissues. None of our bones actually touch one another.
A single breath creates dynamic relationships in 136 joints in the human body. When balanced, in relationship to gravity, movement transfers through our living systems evenly and there is no single place in the body, which needs to single-handedly support us.
Try this. Stand on your two feet and close your eyes. Visualize this idea: none of your bones actually touch…your bones are swimming around inside the tension of your connective tissue matrix. What effect does this have on the way you feel inside the ocean of your body?
This model of the human body differs from Newton’s model of the skeleton and joints like a frame, from which the soft tissues are suspended. We move, flow and breathe unlike mechanical structures, like a house, with right angles and parallel lines.
Examples of Tensegrity in Nature:
- DNA Helix structure.
- Old growth tree blowing in the wind.
- Bicycle wheel with spokes.
- Single Cell in the human body.
Tips for embodying biotensegrity in your yoga practice:
- Imagine softening and widening each joint in your body. Lie on your back with your pelvis on a block, legs in the air. It is easiest to begin without weight-bearing to feel the matrix of space around each joint. Explore bending and straightening your knees. Feel the circumference of your knee joints. Imagine threading a needle with a fine piece of thread. When the joints come into a place of balanced tension there is a “threaded” feeling, and the bones almost seem to disappear. Joints become waterfalls of moving energy rather than holding zones of compression within our fascial web of tension.
- Oscillating, varying, omni-directional movements are a great gift for loosening (or balancing) the braids of the fascial matrix. Have you ever had a tangled necklace in your drawer? In order to untangle the necklace, we must soften the chain and slowly jiggle/wiggle/oscillate the tissue 3-dimensionally, until it is ready to be untied. If we just pull the necklace strings in opposite directions, the knots just get tighter (and might eventually break). Have you ever felt this in a yoga posture; pulling, pulling, pulling (sometimes for years), and nothing is happening? The oscillation allows for holding patterns to soften, new neuromuscular movement patterns are programmed and hyper-flexible (or overstretched) parts of our bodies begin to re-integrate. Consider lying on your back again and moving your limbs like they are the limbs of an octopus slithering about in the ocean. Can you move in such a way so that the bones and joints of your body feel soft, light, fluid and hollow? Tensegrity structures feel light and strong, and yet they are relaxed and take up a comfortable amount of space (like a balloon or a bicycle wheel, light & strong).
- Rest into Ease. A tensegrity body rests, even through sequences of dynamic movement. Tissues appear soft and balanced. There is an evenness of tone throughout the entire system. At any moment, ask yourself, where is the ease? Rather than having an argument with your body or holding on for dear life in a yoga posture, choose to move towards the ease. At first, it might feel like you are doing less, when in fact the vibrancy of the relationships within the inner landscape of your body are only beginning to really shine through. As the armor of your outer body is beginning to let go, the magnificence of the inner world is revealed. Notice what happens to the breath through ease.
In moving towards the ease, layers of the body begin to slide and glide, we begin to feel the organ cavity of life in our bellies, and our yoga practice leaves us as open vehicles ready to receive whatever unexpected curveballs might be manifesting in our lives.
- Taoist 70% Rule. In the Taoist Qi Gong practices, it is often suggested to apply 70% effort. Rather than the attitude of no pain, no gain, which can lead to common overuse injuries, strain to the adrenal glands and unhealthy competitive relationships with our self and the world. The principle upon which the 70% rule is based is that exploration and growth (in life and in a daily yoga practice) must begin by considering your weakest link. Do not seek maximum performance, as that quest may both damage the weak link and cause the whole system (physical, mental, emotional) to contract and tense up.
Explore applying this Taoist idea in your yoga asana practice. Allow yourself to explore moving towards 100% and then backing off to a place where the body feels balanced and even. With a consistent daily practice, I feel much less prone to injury, my nervous system feels settled and I am more productive in relationships and other aspects of my life. What do you notice?
These principles have the potential to lay the groundwork for any mindful movement practice. As the foundation of my yoga asana practice, I was introduced to principles of embodied tensegrity, through Gioia Irwin 4 years ago. In diving between the layers of the body and embracing the spaces that emerge, our fascial web begins to untangle and become more even. The myofascial meridians begin to flow more freely and limbs become light and hollow, like bamboo.
The practice becomes an opportunity to maintain ease and fluidity in movement as the body goes through the natural changes of life. It is a practice of balance and patience, and it opens up a space for listening to the language of the cells in our bodies. Over time, a practice of space, balance, oscillation, ease and movement may also become a metaphor for the way that we live our lives. Perhaps our lives, as a whole, could even become integral tensegrity structures?
Yin Yoga Poses
This article is an exploration of 10 Yin yoga poses. Yin is a style that is practiced by holding poses for a long time in a relaxed state. Yin stands in contrast to other contemporary styles of yoga, such as Vinyasa or Hatha, which generally move the practitioner from pose to pose quickly. Yin yoga ‘asana’, the Sanskrit word for poses, are practiced by following the three principles that Bernie Clark explains in Yin Yoga with Bernie Clark.
Three Principles of Yin Yoga
- Principal 1: Play with your edge
- Principal 2: Stillness
- Principal 3: Hold for Time
Play With Your Edge
Yin is a lunar practice, which tends to be healing and cooling. Unlike solar practices such as sun salutations, yin does not call for heating postures, breathing styles, or sequencing. Therefore the muscles are typically not warm throughout a Yin practice. Entering into poses with cool muscles requires special attention to the first edge.
The first edge is found by gently getting into the shape of a pose and noticing where the body naturally wants to stop. Yielding the natural limitations of the body prevents injury. There should be no pain at the first or any other edge, yet there may be some discomfort. Discomfort without radiating pain is a sign that the connective tissue around the joints is stretching. Reasonable discomfort is a gateway to more flexibility and greater range of motion. Props can add additional comfort and accessibility to yin yoga poses.
You may experience strong physical sensations during a Yin practice such as heat or discomfort. Finding the first edge is a method of exploring the strong sensations and sitting with them. When yoga asana is briefly mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, they are prescribed to be Sthira sukham asanam, or done with steadiness and ease. Steadiness points to the second principal, stillness, which is explored later in the article.
About 30-60 seconds into a pose, or if and when the body shows signs of being able to go deeper, it is safe to move to the second edge (or third or forth). It is important that the body, not the ego, give the signal to deepen. This humble practice never asks the yogi to prove or force anything. There is no need to try to “achieve” or to look a certain way. Gentleness, acceptance and honesty are critical in a yin practice. If the body starts to tighten, it’s a sign to slowly come out of the pose.
Classical yoga was practiced as a means to still the mind for meditation. Sitting still in yin yoga poses lets the contemporary yogi dip their toes into the waters of deep meditation. One exception to stillness is when the body opens to a new edge. With the awareness that the body is ready to deepen, Yin yogis consciously move deeper and return again to stillness and breath. Another exception to stillness is the awareness of pain. In response to pain, it’s time to come out of the pose slowly.
Hold for Time
The third principal is to hold the poses for time. Poses can last anywhere from one minute to longer than 15 and in general are done for 5-10 minutes. Using a timer tells you how long you are staying still, which can be a way to gauge stillness from practice to practice. A timer can also ensure that both sides of the body get the same amount of time, which results in feeling delightfully balanced. The breath can continue to deepen the longer a pose is held. The lungs can expand seemingly forever. Counting breath is an interesting way to observe the expansive nature of the breath, which becomes possible during long holds. Profound experiences become accessible only when conscious and deepening pranayama is practiced.
Breathing expansively while remaining still presents the practitioner with what is rarely otherwise observed: the quiet inner dance of consciousness, an inner world so rich and mysterious, it is invisible most of the time. Holding (still) for time never seemed so tempting.
What Do You Need to Practice Yin Yoga?
- Yoga mat or as an alternative, a thick blanket or carpet.
- Yoga blankets and bolsters or as an alternative, towels and pillows nearby
- Blocks or (or books if you have none)
- Sand timer
- Soft music
10 Yin Yoga Poses
1. Chest and Shoulder Expansion
Sit cross-legged, your right side adjacent to the wall, reach your right hand back so the palm is flat against the wall at about shoulder height. Scoot your right hip in closer to the wall if you feel you can safely tolerate more stretch. Once the shoulder feels settled, bend the arm so you have the palm directly above the elbow at the height of your gaze. Sit and breathe for several moments. If you feel you can safely deepen, allow the left hand to come beside and slightly behind your left hip and press fingertips into the floor. Lift and open your chest. Slowly drop the left shoulder down and perhaps the chin and gaze point follow. Stay for 1-5 minutes breathing gently.
2. Lower Back Pose
Sit on a cushion if you have tight hamstrings or flat on the mat for more open hamstrings. Let the legs extend and relax so that the feet flop out gently to their respective sides. Knees can be slightly bent. Pressing the fingertips downward into the ground beside the hips, lengthen the heart higher in contrast. Then tuck the chin into the chest. Let the upturned palms fall to the outside of the thighs near the knees. Allow the upper spine to round. For your second edge, the hands may move down the legs closer to the ankles. Remember not to strive or do too much. Stay and breathe 1-5 minutes.
3. West-Facing Pose
This pose just like the lower back pose, sitting up legs relaxed and extended. Place one bolster over your thighs. Lift though the chest as you inhale and as you exhale fold forward and down, hinging from the hips so as to keep length in the low back. If you are not able to lay upon the cushion, add more props until you can easily lay your chest and face on them. Find your first edge. At this time you may determine to remove or reduce the props so that you can go deeper. Stay in the pose for 1-5 minutes. Note, this pose is called “west-facing” because it is cooling, like the setting sun, which sets in the west.
4. Wide Leg Child Pose
On your mat, add cushion beneath the knees using a blanket or towel. Bring the knees as wide or wider than the mat and big toes to touch or towards one another. Press your hips back toward the heels and walk your hands forward as you fold from the hips. Imagine a gentle anchor keeps the hips downward and the low back spreading wide. From there, stretch the arms, chest and head forward and down. If the head cannot touch the floor, put a block or folded blanket beneath it so it can rest. You may prefer to rest upon the forehead or to turn the head to one side and then the other. Let your arms and hands relax into the floor. Notice your edge and deepen if and when it feels right. Come out if the knees start to bother you, moving slowly. Practice for 1-5 minutes.
5. Wide Leg Child Pose, Thread the Needle Variation
From wide leg child pose, slightly raise the head and walk the right hand back. Thread the right hand under the left until the right shoulder is on the ground and put the right temple on the floor. Repeat on the left side. Practice 1-5 minutes on each side.
Come to your hands and knees with a folded blanket under the knees for padding. Bring your right foot forward so it is just to the right on the right hand, make sure your shoulders are over the wrists. The right knee stacks over the right ankle so your shin may feel as though it is moving forward in space. If the right knee pops out to the right, redirect it over the ankle, pressing down into the right foot and imagine pressing the shin forward.
If needed, bring your hands up on blocks, lift through the chest, curl the left toes under and squeeze the left leg so the thigh lifts off the ground. This will cause the thigh to rotate internally, which means the alignment is now safe for deepening. Now , bringing the left knee down onto the blanket and then flatten the top of left foot into the mat. You may stay like that or bring your elbows onto the blocks to deepen. You may end up with no blocks, elbows on the mat beneath the shoulders or you may end up staying high on blocks. Honor where the body needs to go and remain for 1-5 minutes before repeating on the other side.
Place a flat bolster horizontally across the mat or a folded blanket about halfway down the length of the mat. Place both knees on the bolster. Bring the right knee forward of the cushion in front of the right hip and the foot toward on left side of the mat. Place the palms on blocks beneath the shoulders and bring the left leg back so that the thigh and top of left foot are pressing into or towards the floor. Let the pelvis be supported by the cushion. You may stay upright, opening the chest, or choose to ease yourself down, perhaps deepening to the point where your head rests on blocks or on the floor. Remain in the pose 1-5 minutes and repeat on the other side.
8. Supported Reclined Butterfly
The use of props to recline makes this supportive and relaxing. To do so, place a block the tall way and another the short way so they make an L. Lay a bolster or supportive cushion over the blocks so that it a slanted toward the floor. Place yourself with your back against the lower part of the cushion with the souls of your feet touching. To keep the feet together and to allow the hips to relax, use a strap or a long rolled blanket to wrap the feet.
9. Supported Gentle Fish
Place a block at medium height near the top of the mat. Sit so the block is behind you with the legs extended and relaxed. Lay your back over the blocks so they land between your shoulder blades boosted your heart up. Let your head relax back onto a block, making sure the neck is supported. Allow the arms to pour open and drip into the floor on either side. Breathe into the heart and let the body seep down onto the props. As your edge moves, notice the chest may boost higher. Remain 1-5 minutes.
10. Corpse Pose/ Savasana
Lay on the mat on your back. Let the arms and legs relax. Arms by your sides, feet slightly flop out. If your lower back is uncomfortable place blocks or a cushion under the knees. Stay as long as you wish. Let go of doing and drop into being.
Photos courtesy of author Lara Hocheiser and featuring Blair Smalls.