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?
Partner Yoga Poses: The Power of Connectivity
Want to heighten your yoga experience? Deepen your practice through body and mind with partner yoga: Partner Yoga Level One and Partner Yoga Level Two, led by instructor Pedro Franco, are perfect for yoga lovers. Partner yoga is a practice for any level of yogi. It can be done with a friend, loved one or acquaintance. Through this fun and connected series, you will learn to strengthen and amplify your practice by creating a greater sense of awareness in your own body while also paying close attention to the presence and movements of your partner. Partner yoga poses are great if you want to try something new or to spice things up in your relationship with more intimate couples yoga poses.
Things to Keep in Mind When You Start Your Partner Practice
- Partner yoga does not have to be complicated to be beneficial
- Partner yoga can simply be sitting back-to-back with your partner and breathing. It can be meditative. It can be as simple as massaging your partner’s sacrum after a stretch or wiggling your partner’s legs after a flying pose
- Partner yoga works on the same principles as individual yoga: Listen to your body and do what feels right. Challenge yourself, but only to a healthy limit
- If you’re new to partner yoga, take time to build strength, stability and flexibility in order to grow in the practice. Remember that in any form of yoga, there is no competition. For as many times as you stumble, you have just as many opportunities to try again. It is the act of connecting that matters most, not reaching a pose
Start with a Simple Partner Yoga Pose
Partner yoga can be a challenge for even the most advanced practitioner: It doesn’t matter how many hours you have spent on your mat, how many downward dogs or side crows you have done in your life. Maybe you are focused and resilient but need to work on your strength. Maybe you are strong and advanced in your movements but need to work on the act of giving yourself to your partner in a selfless manner.
Partner Seated Spinal Twist (Janu Sirsasana)
Begin by sitting back-to back in a comfortable cross-legged seated position
Each partner places their right hand on the other’s partner’s left thigh just above knee
Put your left hand on your own right knee
Coordinate your breathing by lengthening through spine on each inhale
During each exhale, twist a little more
Come back to center seated and repeat on other side
Learn the Art of Balancing with Your Partner
Partner yoga is not just about you. It is about the other person, too. Partner yoga poses exist to teach yogis and anyone interested in the practice how to gain better awareness and alignment of the body through precise adjustments and articulated movements.
Partner Boat Pose (Navasana)
Start by having each partner sit at the end of the mat facing each other
Each partner will bend their knees and press the soles of their feet together
Connect by clasping each other’s hands
While keeping the soles of your feet together, lean back slowly
Lengthen your legs and reach your feet upward to a bent-legged boat pose
Continue to breathe while you work on your balance
Create Greater Intimacy with Your Partner
Partner yoga can be as intimate as you allow it to be. Partner yoga is for anyone and everyone. It is about trust. It is about connection. It is about feeling the electric sensation between you and another person. It has the power to strengthen bonds between friends, unite strangers and fuse couples together in a new and stimulating way. Partner yoga has the powerful ability to create a profound level of intimacy between two people. The combination of breath, balance, trust and connection create for a unity that is unlike any other. It is assumed by many that partner yoga is purely sexual. This is not true. Yes, partner yoga can be a sensual experience if you want it to be, especially in couples yoga poses. It can also be an experience of unity in a completely different way. It can be whatever you want it to be. That is the beauty of the practice.
Partner Dancer’s Pose (Nataranjasana)
Start by standing up toward the back edge of your mat, facing your partner
Grab your partner’s right hand
Each partner will slightly bend the knees
Shift your weight onto your right leg
Bend the left knee and gran onto the inside of the left ankle or calf with your left hand
Gently pressing your shin into your left hand, open your back
Finally, reach your right arm up to balance
Repeat on the other side
Connect with Your Partner
Partner yoga is not just about you. Partner yoga has the word partner in it for a reason. It is a practice for two and is a practice that focuses on the unity of two. This is the idea that we should be incorporating in our partner yoga practice. Listen to your partner’s needs. Are they comfortable? Do they feel supported? Do they feel capable of holding you in a pose? Are they calm and present? Through the power of breath and touch, you will be able to sense your partner’s physical and emotional state. Yes, you need a partner to fly. You need a partner to pull your legs and lift you up. But your partner also needs you. It all comes back to unity. In these partner yoga poses and couples yoga poses, we rely on each other and so we must move in a way that represents that.
Double Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
Stand back-to-back with your partner
Leave about 6 to 12 inches between you and your partner’s heels
Each partner will bend at the waist and come to a forward fold
Reach your hands behind you
Grab onto your partner’s hands
As you increase flexibility, you may be able to grab your partner’s forearms, elbows or even shoulders
Walk your heels closer until your bottoms are touching and straighten your legs
Lengthen the spine, head dangling toward the ground
AcroYoga is the combination of yoga, massage and acrobatics. As with partner yoga, which often includes acrobatic poses, shown in the Partner Yoga Level Two video, it is important to focus on the building blocks of your practice. Start with what you know and allow yourself to grow through continual practice, one step at a time. Motivation and repetition are the keys to helping you excel at AcroYoga. A common misconception about AcroYoga is that the size of your partner matters. This is not always true. Believe it or not, you have the ability to lift someone twice your weight. It is all about your technique.
As an extension of partner yoga, AcroYoga relies on the same principles: trust, communication and connection. Once you master these skills, you will be flying in the air and lifting people up with your feet in no time. Here is a fun beginner’s partner AcroYoga pose to test out your skills.
Flying Plank (A)
Base lies on back
Base places legs up in the air, heels over hips
Flyer starts by standing facing the base, with their toes almost touching the base’s glutes
Base bents knees slightly to bring feet to the hipbones of the flyer
Base and flyer connect hands, palm to palm and fingers interlaced
Flyer leans forward into the base’s feet
With flyer’s body in a single line, the base will receive the weight of the flyer in their feet
Base will then straighten their legs and stack their heels directly over the flyer’s hips
The flyer should have an engaged core, and the base should have straight arms and shoulder blades firmly grounded into the mat for maximum support and balance
From Flying Plank, yogis can work into the variation below: the flyer leans into the base’s hands instead of feet.
Flying plank photo credit: Amy Goalen
Just as we protect our family, friends and loved ones, we must protect each other when practicing partner yoga. Emotionally and physically, we must rely on each other to reach the ultimate goal of unity and connection.
Thank you to Amy Goalen for providing the beautiful main article image!