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Why learn muscle control

I've used it to deal with pain, improve flexibility and to "be present"
Published: 2020 04 17

A while ago (2 or 3 years back) I injured my right knee. I was playing catch, jumped and then landed awkwardly. The resulting pain and injury was pretty much like what I experienced in my left knee after a motorcycle crash even further back in the past. The challenge was teaching yoga with the new knee injury since it tended to hurt at odd times.

Now, previously dealing with residual pain in my left knee, I found that poses like lotus and pigeon where quite painful. I left lotus out for the most part but found that with pigeon (the hip lifted version) if I moved into the pose slowly and carefully while:

  • adjusting front foot position (I think it may have involved pointing the foot rather than flexing it so that my shin wasn't torqued at the knee)
  • and from there pushing the pelvis (or pulling it) back, away from the knee as if to decompress or open the knee as opposed to press into it.

then I could do the pose without knee pain.

With this new knee injury, sometimes just standing or walking caused pain. It felt like the ligaments and/or tendons would jump out of their tracks at inopportune times. I would then have to try and shake the leg or lever it to somehow get everything tracking properly.

(Sometimes I found that just standing and relaxing helped. )

That wasn't going to help me while teaching.

Activating thigh muscles so that my knee didn't hurt

What I found while teaching was that I could activate the thigh muscles (in particular, the long hip flexors) in such a way that the knee didn't hurt.

What was really cool was that this same activation actually helped me to get deeper into my forward bends. It was a type of active stretch.

In this case I was learning to use the opposing muscles to help stretch the target muscles.

A muscle activation that helped with knee pain and improved hamstring flexibility

Activation of these same muscles (the vastus muscles, the long hip flexor muscles (tensor fascia latae, rectus femoris and sartorius) helped me to deal with my particular type of knee pain, and helped me to get more flexible, particularly with respect to hamstring flexibility.

Note that I won't say that these activations healed my knee. That took time and a couple of trips to the Chinese equivalent of a chiropractor to help on the few occasions where my knee "fell out of joint" and I couldn't get it back in.

Using muscle activation to learn the body

Even after that injury got better I still had other knee problems (and hip problems) too. But in general, for each of these problems, I learned different muscle activations and in the process got a better understanding of my body.

It was not always easy. Dealing with the different pains in my body (mainly knee and hip) has been a long and involved process. It's been very challenging sometimes. Sometimes I'd deal with an injury, or thought I had dealt with it only to have the same symptoms come back as if I'd simply been moving the problem in a circle around my body.

In these cases I was eventually led to deepen my exploration of the body. And generally in the process, not only did I deal with the pain, I also had better awareness control and understanding of my body.

The interesting thing is, that while teaching these techniques to my students, I found that no single technique worked for everybody. In fact, I had a lot of difficulty teaching some techniques, particularly to students who were very loose or "floppy". (These are people who can "flop" into the splits or a forward bent, but they can't lower into either of these poses or come out of them with control) . So I had to come up with other methods to teach them how to activate the muscles used.

And even with my own body I found that on different days I had to resort to different techniques even within the same poses to get to my maximum depth within that pose.

(and sometimes I can't get to my "maximum" no matter what technique I use.)

Why I teach muscle control

So why do I teach muscle control, and why do I use it?

My practice isn't totally pain free. Nor my body. I still do have to be careful with my knee on occasion. But, I'm fifty years old and I find that while not totally pain free, I can walk without low back pain. I can kneel again and can even do virasana. And more recently I've started to do lotus variations again. I'm squatting more, and with more weight and my hips don't hurt when I squat down outside of yoga class. I'm actually figuring out how to use my body more effectively when lifting weights and doing other things. And if nothing else, because I can feel and control my muscles, and the bones to which they attach, I can use the sensation that my muscles generate as a way of becoming present within my body.

For myself, I got a better feel and control for my own body. It's helped me to improve flexibility, body awareness, and deal with pain. I'm not super strong, but I am stronger. And I can move more smoothly.

Basically, what muscle control is is a tool that you can use to help yourself get to better know your body and better use it.

It gives you body awareness and body control all in the same package. (You can't have one without the other. They are yin and yang.)

But scientists say that focusing on muscle control is bad

And while there may be scientists who say that focusing on particular muscles is not helpful to overall performance, I'd say that the problem is that with muscle control, you have to learn it first to use it. It's like learning to drive a car. You don't try to learn while driving on a freeway. You take lessons so that you can learn how to steer, slow down and speed up in the relatively safe environment of, say, a carpark. You learn these things to the point that you can do them without thinking. Then you can drive in traffic.

With muscle control, you don't focus on particular muscles while "performing". Or if you do, you've learned how to feel and control that muscle in relative isolation first. So that while feeling a particular muscle while performing, you can do it without having to think about doing it. YOu can simply feel it and adjust the way that you use it.

It's like me getting on a motorcycle and trying to ride it the very first time. I didn't know how to steer or brake, all I thought about was going up the gears. And so I crashed the bike. And wrecked it.

When I later took lessons, I learned how to operate the bike controls to the point that I could use them without having to think about how to use them. And now I can ride, and if I want to monitor (and adjust) the way that I use the brakes, I can do that, while dealing with whatever is happening on the road.

Now why bother, if you aren't interested in using it to improve flexibility or deal with pain?

Better movement maps

In better movement the author talks about basic movement patterns that the brain resorts too.

All of these patterns involve the whole body.

When you learn to control individual sets of muscles, you brain stores the relevant sensory and motor control data. It has to otherwise you wouldn't be able to control these things without thinking.

You effectively give your brain better maps of your body.

It could be akin to computer programming. Do you do one huge block of code or do you divide it into classes and functions and structures so that you can reuse different blocks as required?

With muscle control you could give your brain the ability to store new movements faster (and perhaps learn them) simply as the sum of smaller muscle control components.

So for example, the same muscle control technique that helped me deal with knee pain also helped me to improve flexibility.

Rather than doing a particular pose or exercise to work on a particular muscle or set of muscles, I can now activate them at will in any pose or action (given their availability in that particular pose or action).

Going overboard

Now there is of course the danger that I do this excessively. It's potentially the equivalent of always training for a competition or even without ever dong the competition or the event.

But you can learn to recognize that and deal with it when the time arises.

Sometimes it helps to have an overall goal. And actually, that can help to determine the effectiveness of your muscle control efforts.

It's a way of doing yoga

Are there other reasons for learning muscle control or using it?

One of the simplest reasons is based on the idea of what yoga is. Not everyone will agree with this definition, but it's the one that I use.

Yoga is the state of mind where you are present. This is the state of mind where you sense "change" as it happens. Another way to say it is that it is the state of mind that is "absent of thought". A Japanese expression that is translated as "no mind" could mean the same thing.

It doesn't mean that you are being dumb. It's just that the portion of the mind that focuses on thinking is turned off. This is the same mind state that jazz musicians enter into when they are really in the flow. And that is another name for this mindstate, the flow.

When you don't have to worry about outside influences, or change that is going on outside of the body, muscle control gives you changes that you can focus on inside of your body. It gives you a way of sensing what is happening now inside of your body.

When teaching muscle control I generally teach activation and relaxation with a slow and smooth rhythm. Muscle activation then becomes a lot like a breathing exercise.

So how are the two (breathing and muscle control) related?

The connection between muscle control and breathing

Most breathing exercises are muscle control exercises. You focus on the sensations generated by your respiratory muscles.

And most breathing exercises are used as means of becoming present.

Muscle control is the same thing. You could say that muscle control includes breath control as a subset or special case. But what can often happen is that with smooth and rhythmic muscle control, smooth and rhythmic breathing follows.

Note that this is an active process. You consciously activate and relax muscles. The resulting change in sensation helps you to target where your muscles are (though you do have to be pointing your awareness in the right general direction.)

So if you are getting into yoga to get out of your thinking mind, muscle control is an option. Most people get into flow yoga for the same reason, to stop their thinking mind. But with muscle control you could think of the flow not as movement from pose to pose, but as the flow of change within your body. That change is generated by muscles activating and relaxing, and generating changes in sensation as they do so.

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