Have you ever noticed in the yoga and fitness worlds that some muscles seem to garner a lot of attention? Muscles can even become “trendy” among anatomy geeks. For whatever reason, some muscles just seem to receive more than their fair share of attention.
Take the psoas, for example—a long muscle that flexes the hip and stabilizes the spine. The psoas is the recipient of much ballyhoo. Frequently referenced in yoga classes, it is often pointed to as a culprit for back pain, groin pain, sacroiliac dysfunction, and more.
The transversus abdominis, the deepest layer of the abdominal “corset,” is another muscle that attracts a lot of attention. Its activation is often touted as a sort of universal remedy for whatever ails the body. And similarly, the under-activation of the rhomboids, in the upper back, is often pointed to as the clear explanation for achy shoulders. As a result, yoga students may find themselves unwittingly overly squeezing together their shoulder blades. Multifidus, on the low back, may well be on its way to becoming the next celebrity muscle.
Science employs a strategy of reducing things to their smallest units: muscle, tissue, cell, atom, proton, neutron, electron, etc. Scientism is the belief that the assumptions of science—and its methods of research—are equally appropriate to all other disciplines.
The tendency in the Western world to fixate on individual muscles reflects a leaning toward scientism. Those fascinated by the body, myself included, may think of the human form in terms of its individual parts (bones, muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments, etc.). This mindset—called Cartesian dualism—dates all the way back to the seventeenth century philosopher Descartes.
(Perhaps you’ve heard of another influential dualist named Patanjali? Patanjali famously drew distinctions between subject and object, or mind and matter, in his Yoga Sutra.)
Gil Hedley, a well-known anatomist who leads cadaver dissections for students of anatomy, further explains, “Anatomy literally means to cut up with a knife.” That’s precisely what anatomists do: cut the body up, and compartmentalize it, in an endeavor to better understand it.
There’s lifesaving value in differentiating and naming individual parts. Consider the precision a surgeon must employ. If you’re unlucky enough to wind up on his table, you’ll probably hope his exactitude is meticulous!
But sometimes the body is even described as a machine, and this can be problematic.
Have you ever heard the word biomechanics? Biomechanics is the study of the action of internal and external forces on the body—especially forces on the skeletal system. Well, mechanics means having to do with machinery.
Knowing how our individual parts work is all well and good; however, as the emergency room nurse practitioner who attended my yoga teacher training last year pointed out: Living tissue is not neatly partitioned, diagramed, or labeled. It is continuous and conjoined. The insides of living people do not look like illustrations in anatomy books.
Kinesiology is the science dealing with human movement. In some ways, kinesiology has also historically treated the body like a machine. Envision the stereotypical strongman doing bicep curls with a barbell at the gym, attempting to isolate his targeted muscle.
He’s not really isolating his biceps. He’s also impacting his triceps and using muscles in his hand, forearm, shoulder, and core to perform the exercise. His rotator cuff is busy stabilizing his shoulder. His triceps lengthen every time he bends his elbow. The flexors in his hand and forearm contract to grasp the weight, while the extensors elongate. His core stabilizes his entire body as he moves.
The truth is that no muscle is an island. They cannot be isolated.
That’s not to say it’s never helpful to zoom in on particular muscles. There are therapeutic applications that involve targeting specific muscles in order to create greater stability and mobility around joints, and facilitate better neurological communication. This is especially useful in the earliest stages of rehabilitation after injury.
That’s not to say it’s never helpful to zoom in on particular muscles.
However, more and more, the trend in the world of therapeutic movement is to preference compound exercises (exercises that involve more than one major muscle group) over isolation exercises (exercises that focus on only one muscle).
It’s also important to think about movement as something that we do in everyday situations, as opposed to being exclusively the domain of athletes in a gym (or yoga studio). This kind of movement, which few of us get enough of, is called functional movement. Functional movement is effortless, pain-free movement that we do in mundane situations, with good biomechanical muscle and joint function.
We would do well to remember that the individual parts the anatomist cuts up with her scalpel are connected. The human body is not a machine. It’s sentient, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This understanding is right in tune with yoga’s holistic, integrated approach and message of interconnection. If you’re reading this article, you probably already know asana is more than just exercise, even when you break a sweat on your mat.
No matter how fascinated yogis may be, or may not be, by a tight psoas, we should remember to place it in the context of the body’s larger community. We might contemplate the psoas in terms of its relationship with the diaphragm, the lumbar curve, the pelvic floor, the abdominals, the muscles of the low back, the neck and shoulders, the central nervous system, or our emotional well-being.
No matter how fascinated yogis may be, or may not be, by a tight psoas, we should remember to place it in the context of the body’s larger community.
Modalities that help people feel more awareness and sensation, like Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Rolfing, visualization techniques, and, of course, hatha yoga, may offer as much, or more, therapeutic benefit than mechanical approaches. Hatha yoga offers an opportunity to explore the body’s constellations of consciousness; to breathe more deliberately and comprehensively; to develop greater awareness; to identify our feelings, physically and emotionally, through the unique combination of breath and movement; to experience the rewards of commitment to a discipline; and perhaps most importantly, to experience the particular ways individual parts yoke together.