If you’ve ever gone camping and pitched a tent – then you’ve seen a key yoga concept in action. The concept is that of tensegrity, a word which is a contraction of the words “tension + integrity.” Tensegrity is essential if you want to nail every yoga pose – from beginner to advanced. Whether you want get stronger or get insta-worthy poses, tensegrity is the key.
The word “tensegrity” describes a way in which certain structures keep their shape. While some structures, like buildings, use compression to create structure and stability (think of one brick creating compression on the one below and so on), tensegrity describes a structure in which one component creates a frame and another component creates tension around that frame in order to keep the frame suspended in its shape. In the example of a tent, the poles meet the tension of the tent fabric in a way that allows the poles to “float” or rather, defy gravity. And these same poles create the structure around which the fabric can form a shape.
The human body can be thought to work in a similar way. Our bones provide the frame for our bodies, but on their own, bones cannot defy gravity and stand upright. Bones interact with connective tissue to create our shape – or any shape that we choose. One of these connective tissues is called fascia. Fascia is made up of thin sheets of tissue that surround every muscle cell and fiber and separates muscles from each other. It also surrounds every organ and every bone. All of the fascia in your body is connected to the other fascia, creating “trains” or lines of fascia. One of the functions of fascia is to transmit tension created by muscle activity. This is really important when doing yoga poses!!!
So far this post has been anatomy intensive, so let’s put this concept into action. Lift your left arm straight out to the side. Is your arm kind of limp? What’s happening at your elbow, wrist and fingers? Now, reach out through your fingers like you’re trying to reach for something that’s just out of reach. Notice a difference? When you just lifted your arm the first time, the muscles that cross your shoulder joint and attach to your upper arm lifted your upper arm. You used the minimal amount of effort in a concentrated area while the lower arm, wrist, hand and fingers all “went along for the ride.” When you reached out through your fingers, you engaged more muscles and therefore a whole line of fascia, creating more tension in the arm and employing that tension to hold your whole arm, hands and fingers up – helping them to defy gravity. You used more effort, but created a lot more stability. This extra effort may seem difficult at first – part of this is getting the muscles to be strong enough to defy gravity. But overtime, the muscles adapt and the extra effort seems very small.
While the example of lifting your arm may not seem that compelling a reason to employ tensegrity in your yoga practice, perhaps the examples of warrior 3, high lunge and plank/chaturanga will convince you. In yoga, when you use tensegrity to your advantage, you create more stability as well. High lunge is a great example of this. One of the reasons high lunge can be challenging is because it is a balancing pose. Stability in the lower body is crucial to be able to stay in the posture and work the upper the body. By straightening the back knee and reaching out through the back heel, we create more tensegrity/stability in the back leg. This stability allows us to then focus on lifting the upper up through the chest and arms without fear of falling.
Warrior 3 is another great example of tensegrity. In warrior 3, gravity is trying to pull down our back leg as well as our upper body. By reaching back through the back heel (like in high lunge), we not only create a more stable and suspendable structure, we create an anchor from which we can more easily reach forward through our upper body (also employing tensegrity). In this example, we aren’t just using tensegrity in one part of our body (i.e. the leg), we are using it across the whole body. Think of it like a rubber band or fitted sheet. If you want either of those things to be taut and straight, you have to pull from both ends, not just one end. The same is true in warrior 3 and many other yoga poses.
In the next few weeks, I’m going to be focusing on chaturanga. It’s a complicated pose that I see even strong and dedicated students struggle to get just right. And while it’s part of the classic vinyasa flow, there are at least a dozen variations that one could choose to do. The concept of tensegrity makes every one of these options easier and more efficient. It starts in plank pose – reaching everything from the hips down towards the back through the heels and reaching everything from the waist forwards to the front and out through the head and chest. Without this basic concept, gravity will win. Starting using tensegrity and with a little bit of time, all your poses will become easier and more graceful.
Head back to the blog next week if you want to learn all the tips, tricks, prep poses and modifications for chaturanga.