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Centering and Self Expression

How grounding and centering can both make it easier for you to create the change that you desire
Centering and grounding by balancing on one foot. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

Grounding and Centering

Grounding and centering can often be thought of as leading to the same state of being. Here I'd like to focus on the idea of centering. But I will talk a little about possible symptoms of a lack of groundedness or a lack of centeredness as well as some symptoms of overdoing either of these two tendencies.

And I'll also talk about an idea that I'll refer to as "Expression." You could think of expression as the creation of a desired change. And it connects to the idea of grounding via "the center." You could think of expression as being the opposite side of center from grounding.

It may seem strange, this coming from a yoga teacher and all, but one of the places I first learned about grounding (and expression) was while I was in the army.

Bench Fitting while being Centered and Grounded

When I was in the army, part of my training involved filing pieces of metal very accurately.

This was called "Bench Fitting".

We were taught to stand with our knees slightly bent, feet a comfortable distance apart. We were also taught to keep our weight even on both feet. This would keep our center of gravity midway between both feet.

This gave us a stable foundation and that meant we could do our work a little bit easier, with less wasted effort.

You could think of it as helping us to ground ourselves. Or you could think of it as helping us to center ourselves.

And if you really want to get technical, you can think of center as including everything that it is the center of. So if you are centered, you are aware of your entire being (not just your foundation!)

Room to Move

We set ourselves up at a particular distance from the piece we were working on. Not too far that we couldn't reach the piece, but also not so close so that we didn't have room to work.

At the ideal distance we had room to work comfortably.

Note that a stable foundation would have been useless if we weren't close enough (but not too close) to do our work. Likewise, being close enough to do the work would have been useless without a stable foundation.

We needed both in order to do our work and create the required changes in the pieces of metal we were sawing and filing.

Foundation and Expression

In terms of filing pieces of metal effectively, we could divide our body into two parts, using our center of gravity as a dividing point.

A simple way to think of Expression is to liken it to an output of a system. It is the change that we create or cause by operating our body (or parts of our body) in a particular way.

The change that we create could be local, i.e. it can be confined to our own body. Or it can expand beyond our body.

It helps to think in these two cases of an inner environment and an outer.

  • The inner environment is everything within the border of our skin.
  • The outer environment is everything outside of that border out to the limit of what we can directly sense.

When we create a change, or an expression, we can affect our inner environment or both our inner environment and our outer environment.

In either case we could imagine change originating from the "center" of ourselves and radiating outwards.

Lead and Follow

In social dance the male part was often called the lead and the female part the follower.

One wasn't better than the other but one idea was that the role of the male was to provide a stable foundation so that the female could express herself. Both are important.

Together they express the idea of the dance.

Navigator and Driver

In rally driving there is a drive and navigator.

The navigator has a map of sorts, a list of corners and their degree of difficulty and as they go through each turn the navigator tells the drive what is coming up next.

To go as fast as possible, both parts are required.

In this case the navigator could be thought of as the grounding element since they inform the driver of what's up ahead so that the driver can express them to the finish line.

Unity: Sharing a Common Center

In all of the above examples there are two parts. With the dancers, the lead and the follow roles together create the idea of the dance. They potentially become greater than the sum of the parts. This center is between them and it unifies them.

Likewise with the driver and the navigator.

With the bench fitter, you could think of the person and the piece of metal as a unified whole. But you could also focus on the idea of the person in isolation.

In this case, center is what unifies the two parts of the body, the expression and the foundation.

Division and Greater Understanding

The idea of dividing the body between foundation and expression (lead and follow, navigator and driver) is that it can make it easier to understand what each part of the body is doing.

And it can be easier to train each part.

As an example, two dancers have to train individually as well as together. And the lead will practice playing the follower and vice versa so that each knows the experience of the other (as much as possible) so that they can play their own roles more effectively.

As well as practicing individually, they also have to practice together. One doesn't rely on the other, instead they learn to work together.

When working on the body, it can help to divide the body into parts so that each part functions better in its assigned role.

Of the two, the foundation is perhaps the most important to consider for most of us, since it is what allows us to express with minimum effort. And actually, it's important because we tend not to think about it.

As an example of this, I was once practicing with another yoga teacher. We took turns adjusting each other.

He had never been taught that in order to adjust someone effectively he should make sure that he himself is stable first.

Many is the time where I've been adjusted by a teacher where they used me to help keep their own balance.

Bear in mind that as a teacher, I've often been less than perfect also.

We tend to only think about the expression, what it is that we are trying to do without considering the foundation needed to support our endeavours.

And actually, this could be a symptom of someone who is a little too flighty. Their flights of fancy have absolutely no grounding in reality.

On occasion they can be a good thing. However, if someone is flighty all of the time, then they never have the opportunity to take their flights of fancy and figure out how to make them a reality (or to think about whether they really desire what they fancy or not.)

By the same token, someone who is too grounded, someone who is ever so practical, they can sometimes take the joy out of life. Or they don't get anything done because they are afraid to venture out of their center.

Center as a Concept

There are several ways to think about center as a concept.

The Idea of What we are Doing

Perhaps the most basic is that center is what holds the extremities together. It is what holds our foundation and our expression together.

Often, when meditating on the chakras, the logical place seems to be to start from the ground up. However, another place to start is at the center. This could be the solar plexus chakra. Why start here?

If building a building, the first thing that is created isn't the foundation. It's the plans for the building itself. The idea of the building. The foundation follows.

And so one way you can think of center is that it is the idea of what we are trying to do. That idea then ties all parts of ourselves together, unifying them.

Where we Return to so that we can Recover

Center could also be thought of as a home that we return to after work, after expressing ourselves.

Home is where we feed ourselves, nurture ourselves, rest, and even look back on the adventures or experiences that we've had so that we can learn from them, grow, or simply enjoy them in retrospect.

Returning To Center so that we can Venture Out Again

Another idea of center is that if we don't return to center (or go to the opposite side of center from where we are) we can't express ourselves.

As a sort of example of this, I once got to play a game that involved standing between three triangulated pillars. Each pillar had speakers and contact patches. Whenever a patch lit up you had to hit it. Any contact patch on any of the pillars could light up.

And so I found it best to continually return to center after each hit so that I was always ready for whatever patch would light up next.

A ruder analogy is firing a rifle.

After each round is fired you need to reload (or it automatically reloads). As a result it is ready to fire again.

On one occasion on a rifle range, I'd put my gas plus in the wrong way. As a result, after I fired a round the rifle didn't self reload. And so you could think of being "centered" as being ready to act.

A Balance Between Connection and Room To Move

Another idea of center relates to dancing, and to filing pieces of metal. While dancing my partner and I had to hold each other. That meant being close enough to connect to each other. But we also had to be far enough apart that we could move relative to each other. And so center in this case was just the right distance between too close and too far.

Likewise when filing pieces of metal I had to stand close enough to be able to connect to it yet not so close that I couldn't do any work on it.

In either case, being centered meant that I (or myself and my partner) could act.

In terms of controlling our body, and feeling it, the idea of center also has relevance.

Center of Gravity

One way to think of our body is as a collection of parts, with each part having their own center of gravity. When the body is unified, of if you like, integrated, then our center of gravity is the unified center of all of those parts. If you relax, then those centers can act independently. We become like a bag of sand. And we obviously wouldn't be upright. However, we can be partially relaxed so that parts of our body are integrated, say enough to keep us upright, but other parts are relaxed. Or we can be totally integrated so that all parts of our body connect to our center.

One of the cool things about this is that the muscle activity that creates the tension that ties all the parts of our body together can also be used to help feel our body. And so in this case, being centered can mean that we have just enough tension to unify our centers and feel our entire body.

When upright, we can use our foundation to feel where our center of gravity is. The point of greatest pressure (or if you like, the line of greatest pressure) is the point over which our center is located. The cool thing is, if we have a multipoint foundation in a non-linear configuration, we can also use our foundation to help control our center.

As an example, standing upright, if we feel our center moving forwards, and we don't want this to happen, we can press against the ground with our toes or forefeet in such a way that we stop the forward movement of our center and force it back to where we want it to be.

Most of us aren't trained to feel our feet. Most people don't know how to use their feet to feel their center or control it. However, not only is this a way of centering and grounding, it's a way of becoming present. What does being present mean?

It means noticing what is happening now as it happens.

For most people in our "normal" or default state of mind, we notice something, take the time to think about what it means, and then we respond. And by the time we respond, the event that prompted us to think may have passed us by. Oh, there's a pretty girl (or handsome boy). I should say hi. What will I say? I know… But by then it's too late. Sometimes you see them meeting up with a boyfriend or girlfriend (hah, they were taken anyway!!!) But sometimes not. And so an opportunity is missed.

Being present is simply noticing what is happening and responding without thought. Sometimes this can be a bad thing. But not always. And with training it can more often than not be a good thing.

So what can being present mean in terms of using our body?

It can mean noticing what is happening in our body now. And here again our muscles offer us a useful tool. Muscles create sensation directly and indirectly. Larger muscles create sensation in their bellies which we can feel. For instance, flexing the biceps or popping the pecs (a true gift for giver and gifted alike!!!) are easy to learn because those muscles create a lot of sensation when active. But we can't directly feel all muscles since some of them are too small or too thin. But we can learn to feel the effective of those muscles activating and relaxing simply by noticing the tension these muscles create in connective tissue. And there are very simple techniques (that feel good) for learning to feel both. These exercises are much like breathing exercises in that they bring us into the present because it gives us something to focus on as it is happening.

Most breathing exercises involve noticing the feeling of breathing. That can involve noticing the belly moving in and out, or the diaphragm moving up and down, or the ribcage expanding and contracting or the spine bending backwards and forwards or some combination of any of these. But in each case, what we are actually feeling is a result of muscles activating and relaxing. And something that few people point out is that if we can become present by feeling our respiratory muscles contracting and relaxing, we can also become present by learning to feel (and control) any other muscle by contracting it and relaxing it.

So would this be thought of as grounding or centering or being present? Well here's the interesting thing about muscle control. It could actually be all three. An important part of muscle control is creating stability for the muscles that you are trying to control. That often, in and of itself, is an act of muscle control. In a way you could liken "center" to the idea of what you are trying to do, turn a muscle on and off repeatedly. Expression could simply be the act of noticing that muscle activating and relaxing.

Can this idea be applied in other contexts?

If you are in a "conversation" and notice that you aren't really listening to what your partner is saying, instead you are thinking about what you want to say next… or something totally unrelated, then you aren't present. You aren't noticing what is happening now. To become present, notice the words your partner says as they are said. And let your response spring from what they've said as opposed to what you think they were going to say, or as opposed to what you want to say despite what they've said.

If you are driving and you find yourself frustrated by the actions of others, often because it catches you unawares, then that too can be a hint that you aren't being present.

In this case, pay attention to what is happening. You won't prevent the unexpected, but you'll see it earlier so that you can handle it easily and without getting pissed off.

Sure you might still want to be pissed off, but now you also have the choice of not getting pissed off, staying centered in your happy place.

And that could be a way to think of being grounded and centered at the same time. Not only can you create the change that you desire, you can also handle unexpected change easily while continuing to do (or not do) whatever it is that you are doing (or not doing).

Published: 2018 12 17
Updated: 2020 10 22
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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