How do we work with our neuromuscular patterns in practice?
Something I often talk about is our neuromuscular patterns. What are they? How do we develop them? Do they help us? Do they harm us?
The truth is, that at present, the most popular way to interface with the long tradition of yoga is through our physicality. This is not a bad thing. Personally I believe that the journey toward acquiring self-knowledge is ultimately inevitable. Who’s to say where one is on their path and whether it is right or wrong for them?
Because we’re interfacing through the physical, it would help to use this to understand how the practice can actually lead to self-knowledge. I’m not suggesting that pigeon pose will bliss you out. I’m suggesting that the way we approach the practice has the potential to lead us further down this path.
I think it’s very easy as one evolves in yoga through asana and then perhaps pranayama and then to meditation to then look at everyone who is just beginning their journey and say: “Oh, don’t bother with the asana, you’re trying to get here anyway, why bother to waste your energy on asana?”
This can happen more microcosmically as well, with the advanced asana practitioner asking someone who is more of a beginner in their practice to do advanced asana work. I’m not talking about just making them do an advanced asana. I’m talking about asking them to move, feel, or experience the pose in a way that is advanced when they’re a beginner.
Dare I say that this is sometimes the crossroad of injury? The neuromuscular patterns in the student have not been sufficiently developed yet that then lead them to the next level of understanding of a particular asana. This can be true on both a physical and mental level. Mental anxiety can bring about excess effort and struggle to do something. To be fair, mental anxiety may be needed to overcome perceived limitations. Knowing when one is appropriate requires intelligence.
Our physical patterns are created through a combination of elements in our body. They don’t live in the mind, or the body but in both. The truth is, no one knows where these patterns exist in our bodies, but they definitely do exist. In workshops I often give the example of a stiff person going under general anesthesia. Under general anesthesia, all of his or her physical stiffness and limitations will disappear while under. After coming out of anesthesia the patterns of stiffness come right back in.
This certainly clues us into the relationship between the nervous system and our physical patterns. Yoga is very much about working with our nervous system. It’s not just about working on the most gross physical level, but the work of pranayama and meditation all work with this same system.
Without getting too far into the depth and details of the variety of sensory receptors, it is sufficient to say that movements repeated create a pattern. I often liken this to learning to drive a car and how conscious this effort must be when we first learn this new skill. After a number of months, the thought required to change gears or change lanes is almost automatic and requires less conscious effort.
The same could be applied to learning a complicated or difficult asana. When we place the effort in the right place, we can take advantage of previously learned patterns. If there is some method of evolution in the asana sequencing, then each asana is made up of movements and techniques that are acquired in earlier asanas.
From here it is important to observe your own or your student’s patterns of movement and try to see where it is taking them. Will it lead to more advanced patterns? Will it lead to injury? If I meet a student who is having difficulty with a more advanced posture, I ask myself, what pattern is missing from all of the asanas they’ve done?
Each time a muscle contracts in a particular way, it is recorded. This recording is created in both the motor aspect of the movement as well as the sensory aspect of feeling what one is doing. Together they create a memory, a patterned way of doing something.
As we practice, shouldn’t we have in mind where this is leading us? It’s easy to get sucked into going through the motions of a practice without the awareness of what or why we are doing it. In fact this itself can become a pattern. Going through the motions just to get done and be finished. This type of pattern leads nowhere.
Other more physical patterns that constantly stress an area or part of the body can definitely be harmful even though they don’t give any indication of pain or trouble. The difficult question is to know when this is happening. We tend to trust our own perceptions of our body, which usually serves us well. The more ingrained we are in our pattern, the less likely we are to respond to a perspective outside of our own. It begs the question: do I trust what I feel or do I trust what the outside perspective (the teacher) is saying?
There is no answer for every time this scenario comes up. If we trust our teachers, their own experience, and their understanding of our body, it is an opportunity for us to change our patterns. There is value in shifting patterns. Shifting patterns keeps things fresh, provides continued positive stimulation to the nervous system, and maintains an openness to change.
It also feeds our experience of ourselves. This is where asana shines and why even just doing a physical practice can affect us on so many levels. There is no physical without the more subtle parts of us. The mind and body are not separate. We are all of the koshas at once, not separately. The great yogis new this.