Note: this is part one of a three-part series. This article will focus on teaching to the middle within our posture, breath, and nervous system.
When I’m working with students to increase mind/body awareness and re-educate their neuromuscular systems, I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Wow, that’s so subtle. That’s all I have to do?” We are a society of doers and non-doers, extremists in all capacities. There’s something to the saying that everything in moderation does a body good. In talking about movement, specifically yoga, this concept can be applied in all types of practice. It can be applied in all class levels from the heat-building flow class to the restorative, slow class. It can also be applied at the individual level—the student's need either to push harder or submit to minimal work.
In any yoga class, the student’s drive can come from many places. What I really want to discuss here is subtler than the student as a whole, it's what happens inside our bodies (specifically in our joints, muscles, fascia, breath, and nervous systems) when we live in the extremes. Finding the middle ground in our bodies and minds is really important for finding balance, ease, fluidity, and efficiency.
What "The Middle Ground" Is Not
The world of yoga itself is polarized, where you will find many classes focused more on the “workout” than on the practice, and conversely, the niche group of anatomically specific driven classes. Yoga teachers, in order to protect the sanctity of the practice and the safety of their students, should aim to teach to the "middle ground." The middle ground refers to that place of not too much and not too little. The space where joints are centered, muscles are at optimal length for function, the breath is full and easy, the nervous system is active but not overwhelmed, and the amount of effort is appropriate for the task at hand.
The psyche often gravitates away from the middle ground toward extreme comfort zones, places of overwork, or complete disuse. This is the case with the yoga students who often catch the teacher’s eye when it comes to their asana and pranayama practices. On the overwork side, they are the students whose ujjayi breath can be heard from across the room, whose fingers pierce the air in urdhva hastasana, or who sink deeply into their front hip and psoas in a lunge. On the disuse side, they are the students whose hands swing down in uttanasana far before the bottom of an exhale, whose asana often relies on resting into the joints as opposed to engaging the surrounding muscles, or whose tadasana displays a forward neck position and overlengthened trapezius muscles.
The psyche often gravitates away from the middle ground toward extreme comfort zones, places of overwork, or complete disuse.
We can easily find obvious examples of a body tending toward extremes and moving away from the middle ground within the shoulders, core, hips/pelvis, limbs, and on a deeper level within the breath and nervous system. In the shoulder girdle, it looks like the tendency to round and hunch forward or like shoulder blades that are pulled down and back too strongly. (Later, I will elaborate more extensively on how extreme practices manifest from the inside out within the breath and nervous system.) Regardless of whether or not a yoga practitioner regularly demonstrates tendencies of extreme practices, it is important to remember that these behaviors can happen to all of us, in all of our joints, connective tissue, habits, emotions, and posture.
What Does the Middle Ground of Posture Look Like?
The duality of our collective tendency toward extremes can be easily visaged by looking around while waiting for the train or sitting at your desk. Posture, how we hold our bodies in space, can be reflective of our tendencies toward overuse or underuse, our tendency to grip muscularly or to be too soft. Similarly, our posture can reflect our emotions (depression, excitement, eagerness, and overwhelm, for example). The age-old expression, “It’s written all over your face,” is only half of the story. The truth is, the day, week, month, or year you’ve had is probably written all over your body. The extreme of overuse is found in the edge-of-their-seat sitter who tilts too far forward on their pelvis, overarches their lumbar spine, flattens or reverses their thoracic kyphosis, or pinches their shoulder blades back way too hard. On the flip side, the disuse is found in the sloucher who sits on their sacrum, flexes their lumbar spine, or is overly kyphotic or rounded with protracted shoulders. Neither is optimal, and both are detrimental. The detrimental effects of extremes in posture can affect specific joint mechanics, muscle and other connective tissue length, stability and balance, and breath and the nervous system. Thankfully, there’s a happy place in the middle that suits us better.
How Posture Meets the Nervous System and Breath
Too much or too little effort in our posture has a direct effect on the function of the diaphragm and breath. Conversely, the breath also has a direct effect on posture. Not having a free, fluid, full breath can create postural dysfunction. When we try too hard to have "good posture," or when we have poor posture caused by suboptimal breathing and a restricted position of the diaphragm, there are a multitude of ripple effects that can be seen throughout the body and mind. The decreased excursion of the diaphragm can have direct implications on the effectiveness of the core to protect the spine, the pelvic floor to prevent incontinence, quality of sleep, and our ability to focus. Ideally, finding the middle with posture and breath is achieved simultaneously in order to gain long-lasting results.
A nervous system that isn’t sitting in the middle ground can manifest as a lack of body awareness, proprioception (sensing where we are in space from the outside in), and interoception (sensing the body’s position and inner sensations like heart rate or hunger, from the inside out), or it can look like a nervous system that is overloaded with external and/or internal information and stimuli. As a result, the nervous system cannot process the information. When under stress, whether driven from external forces like job pressure, family issues, money concerns, or an asana that is difficult on a body that is already working too hard or inefficiently, we can push ourselves into a fight-or-flight pattern.
This is facilitated by the sympathetic nervous system and accompanied by a suboptimal breathing pattern. Underutilizing or improperly utilizing the diaphragm during breath can drive a sympathetic nervous response. Additionally, simply being in a sympathetic state can cause us to breathe less fully and fluidly with the diaphragm. To neutralize this extreme situation you must recognize that the state of the nervous system affects the state of our breath and vice versa.
When in fight-or-flight mode, it becomes difficult or even impossible to facilitate mindfulness in the brain. All focus, instead, lands on the situation as opposed to the breath. If the mind does, in fact, turn to the breath during a fight-or-flight moment, the individual’s focus is often on the lack of access to breath as opposed to the fullness of the breath being driven by the diaphragm. In simple terms, fight of flight takes our breath away and puts the body at risk for overuse of the nervous system.
A resting posture that does not live in the middle ground and is too rigid can lead to decreased diaphragm excursion and decreased rib expansion leading to a lower volume of breath and, therefore, less efficient breathing. It can also lead to more accessory breathing (using the neck muscles and not the diaphragm). On the contrary, a resting posture that is more floppy (slumping and/or swayback) can compromise breath by putting the diaphragm and ribs in a position where they are unable to fully expand. This underuse of the body may also lead to an asymmetrical breathing pattern where one half of the rib cage can expand fully and the other cannot. Broader implications of a breathing pattern that is not balanced can include, but aren’t limited to, the following: core and/or pelvic floor dysfunction, pain, instability, weakness, and fatigue.
What the Middle Ground Is
The middle ground is the easeful place which allows for balance and fluid thought, breath, and movement. This is where mindfulness is present and breath is symmetrical and driven by our diaphragms. It is where movement is easeful and steady in all ranges of motion, and power can easily be generated and accessed without strain.
The Importance of the Middle Ground for Posture, Breath, and the Nervous System
When our movement quality is poor, we create muscle memory that deepens the body and mind's attachment to these bad habits. Changing our patterns takes time, subtleties, and patience but is worth every second because of the inherent benefits, including more stable joints and muscles that function optimally and appropriately, leading to lower risk for injury. In order to help people discover better quality movement, we should acknowledge that this work isn’t just about anatomy expertise, muscular strength, flexibility, or balanced fascial lines. Body awareness, healthy movement, and mobility are about the balance of mind and body—understanding pain, trauma, stress, and injury—and knowing the effects these contributing factors have on joint centralization, muscular activity, the autonomic nervous system, the diaphragms (the respiratory diaphragm, pelvic floor diaphragm, and vocal diaphragm), and our chemistry.
When we are in the middle, the physical body is at its optimal place for movement and the mind, nervous system, and breath are receptive and fluid. Movement that comes from a body that is stacked and aligned in the middle is quality movement. The thoughts that couple this alignment and movement are softer and more focused, the breath is revitalizing, empowering, and easy. It’s where mindfulness is present and breath is symmetrical and driven by our diaphragms. Acknowledging that our emotions and breath impact our posture and, residually, impact our movement is key. What this means is that while someone may generally rest in middle posture, an outside force could flip them to an overuser or underuser and new (undesirable) posture habits may result.
Stacked at Neutral
Neutral or middle posture is stacked posture. Stacked indicates that in our standing and sitting postures, our bones line up top to bottom in a way which requires little effort and creates little or no tension. Stacking aligns us in the way that nature designed.
When the nervous system is sitting in the middle ground and we aren’t overthinking our posture into too much rigidity, we are more receptive to proprioception and interoception. Being in this mental state creates space for clarity of thought, restfulness, and enhanced awareness—the latter of which is key to re-educating our neuromuscular systems and habits. On the mat, awareness tells us where the big-toe knuckle is in space, if we are getting too anxious about the next pose, or if we need a break. Off the mat, it helps us while we sit and stand, to generate signals for optimal posture, and to heal our injuries by taking our practice of stacking, alignment, and breath beyond our asana for optimal carryover and neuromuscular re-education.
Supporting Posture with Breath
Easeful, fluid, and balanced breath happens when we are stacked and are able to let go of muscular gripping. It is inhalation that is driven by the diaphragm that allows optimal expansion of the ribs forward, out, and back to drive air into the lungs, and exhalation that is generated from relaxation of the diaphragm and augmented by the abdominals when necessary. This breath sends appropriate signals to the nervous system to remain in a parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state and maintains appropriate pH and biochemistry balance and appropriate cardiopulmonary physiology. Utilizing the diaphragm via an optimal breath pattern helps facilitate balance, fluid strength, and stability to the core, and may have a direct impact on the health and function of the pelvic floor.
How to Teach the Middle
From these examples of rigidity, floppiness, gripping, or underuse in the breath, posture, and nervous system we see that these suboptimal patterns cause a cascade of negative implications. We get into these patterns from habit, biopsychosocial factors (the way our emotional, psychological, social interactions can affect our bodies and minds), and posture. But we can also get out of them by addressing habit, biopsychosocial factors, and posture.
Through a combination of thorough, full-body, static, and dynamic assessments, coupled with an education of what the middle is, we can achieve balance that is driven by conscious awareness and mindfulness.
Commitment from the student is necessary when pursuing the middle ground, because it is not overt work. It’s not "stretch this" and "strengthen that." The middle is more about letting go of habit and mental overwork and finding a more subtle strategy. For many it is uncomfortable, it doesn’t feel like "enough" and leaves them feeling like it's too difficult to master.
There are multiple mental barriers that yoga teachers should be aware of when attempting to teach the middle. Our society supports a culture of overworking in order to feel accomplished. As a result, many of us are uncomfortable with letting go of the grip. Letting go can trigger a fight-or-flight reaction causing feelings of vulnerability, uneasiness, or heightened emotions. It can also be very difficult to latch onto something non-extreme because it is often much easier to handle active work over passive.
There are multiple mental barriers that yoga teachers should be aware of when attempting to teach the middle.
Yoga teachers have a responsibility to help their students find the middle ground in their practices so that they can experience all the benefits discussed here. The loss of efficiency and poor movement and emotional strategies get carried over to the yoga mat. Help your students find the middle ground by instilling acceptance, non-judgment-based body knowledge, and awareness (proprioception and interoception). You, as the teacher, must devote to a self-practice of openness, patience, and respect for the practice. This will help you to prioritize the true intention of yoga by respecting truth, non-harm, and unity in the mind, body, posture, breath. It will look like prioritizing awareness, stacking, and optimal alignment, and re-educating rigidity or floppiness and unbalanced breath. You must have an awareness of your personal goals for class and be at peace with abandoning them for the greater good of your students and the purpose of finding the middle ground. You need to hone your eyes and your mind to gather information regarding the work your students are doing, what strategies they are using to do it, and how they feel about it. We must come back to the virtues taught to us by the eight limbs and offer these to our students.
Consistency in this offering will help us shape a practice that is less driven by extremism and more driven by truth, non-harm, and light. By attaining this level of self-awareness and discipline as teachers, we more strongly project the right message of inner peace to send to our students. We can create that in a class by using a slower rhythm, appropriate sequencing, and intelligent cueing. A slower pace, very simply, can easily imply that time is given to explore, find subtleties, and soften into the practice. Pace is a powerful tool, it allows for greater opportunities for interoception and peace. Your own comfort with slowing down will guide your students. Empty space can have much more impact than filled space because it provides time to explore, calm the mind, and center the breath.
Sequencing using a solid foundation of intelligence about alignment and movement transitions can set your students’ bodies and minds up for finding the middle during class. Intelligent cueing means knowing how students interpret your cues and what is actually happening in their bodies. Intelligent cueing means offering instruction that gives the optimal alignment or muscular action for a pose. It means not giving too many cues and overwhelming the nervous system. The mat can be a great place to teach the middle ground.
Within the breath, posture, and nervous system the middle ground is vital for protecting the inherent ease of the systems to create balance within our bodies and minds. In the next installment of this series, we will investigate the suboptimal physiological and biomechanical implications of living within the extremes of motion, alignment, and activation in the girdles of the hips and shoulders as well as the core.