What Message is Your Body Sending to Your Mind?
Without moving, take a second to think about your posture as you’re reading this. Is your spine curved? Your head and shoulders sloping forward? Okay– feel free to sit up straight and roll your shoulders back now if you’d like.
Many of us have a natural tendency to draw inward toward our core. It manifests itself in our posture (especially for those of us who spend a significant amount of time sitting) so that we’re curled up into ourselves.
Just think of the impact that this has on us, both physically and mentally. When we live in a contracted posture, we’re denying our physical bodies the alignment and muscle engagement they need to be healthy. We’re also sending signals to our brain that since our bodies are closed off and curving inward, our emotions should be too. Not only do our bodies ache from being misaligned, but as our emotions slump and become closed off to others, we get an even deeper sense of inner discomfort.
Countering this requires us to cultivate extension and expansion.
Extension & Expansion in the Body
When practicing yoga, we often reach outward from the core. Movements like Vrksasana (Tree pose), Virabhadrasana (Warrior pose), and Ustrasana (Camel pose), among many other common poses, require us to stretch outward through our limbs, extending our bodies away from our core, which we utilize as our center of gravity and source of stability.
Through these movements, the core engages with the periphery of the body, opening itself and lending its power to the rest of our body’s ability to engage with the space around us. Each pose stretches our muscles and connective tissues as we energetically extend ourselves into the world.
In Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom, BKS Iyengar describes this function of extension and expansion by saying:
As you stretch, in turn the periphery relates messages back to the core. From head to heals, you must find your center, and from this center you must extend and expand longitudinally and latitudinally. If extension is from the intelligence of the brain, expansion is from the intelligence of the heart. While doing asana, both the intellectual intelligence and the emotional intelligence have to meet and work together. Extension is attention, and expansion is awareness[...]
Giving attention to our movements allows us to extend into each asana, but as we do so, we also pick up on important signals from the rest of our body. For example, as we bend into our front leg in warrior pose, our knee might let us know that it can’t bend as far as we’d like in that moment. Early on in one’s yoga journey, it’s tempting to ignore these messages from our knee and force ourselves into the full expression of the pose for the sake of keeping up with those around us. Learning to listen to our body’s periphery as we extend outward, however, is how we cultivate awareness; it’s where extension meets expansion.
Extension and Expansion in the Mind
Since we talk so often in yoga about the unity of the body and the mind, it shouldn’t come as a shock that BKS Iyengar expanded upon his explanation of extension and expansion by teaching that to understand extension and expansion in the body is to understand extension and expansion of the mind.
Think again of the example of listening to your knee as you lean into Warrior Pose. In that moment, you’re intuitively interpreting signs of discomfort and having to make the decision whether or not to continue with what you’re doing. As we get better practiced at that, we start to be able to expand our understanding beyond our own bodies. Much like we discussed in our blog post on cultivating awareness, the expansion of the mind allows us to be more receptive to the world around us, and to approach it in a more peaceful way.
In my own yoga journey, that’s one of the things I’ve come to love about the asanas we consider “heart openers.” I love that imagery of an open heart, and the sense of compassion that comes with having one. In poses like Camel or Saddle, I’ve found that taking on the posture of having my chest fully expanded– my heart fully open and exposed– is something that can help me reframe my mood and outlook when I’ve been feeling down or negative.
I can tell when I haven’t been allowing my body or mind to extend and expand because that’s when my work-related stress is built up, and I lose my patience with those around me. Taking a step back, I’m able to recognize that it’s because I’ve been spending all of my time hunched up in front of a computer, with my heart physically and emotionally closed off. On a physical level, my body reacts to the stress and poor posture with discomfort. On an emotional level, my heart is expecting conflict rather than being open and receptive to opportunities to help someone.
Luckily, a few yoga classes each week can help hit the reset button when you’re feeling closed off. Both Hatha and Yin classes will help with extension and expansion, but I recommend giving them both a try for a holistic body-mind reset. You can book your classes here, or contact Your Yoga Louisville for more information.