Mereology: the study of the relationship of parts to the whole 

Stomachs don’t eat lunch, mouths don’t talk and eyes don’t see… We would never use this kind of language because we know it doesn’t really make sense. However it is not unusual in an anatomy class to be told that a bicep flexes the elbow. These parts play a role in the functions described but they can’t elicit these actions on their own. This kind of thinking falls prey to the ‘mereological fallacy’, yet it runs deep in our study of anatomy – and nowhere is it more evident than in yoga anatomy books; often beautifully illustrated books showing exactly which muscle does what action, on a perfectly clean skeleton. Just in case there is any doubt, the origin, insertion, innervation and function are usually described on the same page.

There is something really appealing about these books and a satisfying and logical simplicity about this structuralist way of thinking. A way of thinking that, with a bit of thought, can put together a fully working human being by describing the contraction of the various muscles acting over levers, pulleys and fulcrums to facilitate balanced movement over joints. It derives from the study of cadavers; a body is dissected and a muscle is found, with its beginning and end noted. On careful inspection, the path of the nerves running from the muscle can be traced through the spinal cord and up to the sensory motor cortex of the brain. An obvious conclusion can be drawn: when the motor neuron fires, a signal will travel down the nerve and cause the muscle to contract and carry out its function.

However, like many things in life, it turns out that things aren’t that simple. The body is not like a machine, an assembly of various parts put together to create a greater whole, and we must stop thinking of ourselves like that. We are organisms that evolved in complex ecosystems, with layers of interdependence built on other layers of interdependence. There are no units that act alone or have any sense of autonomy – there are only relationships.

Through evolutionary pressure we all share – as human beings – a bipedal stance, uniquely shaped spines, opposable thumbs and highly evolved brains. But how we move and act will depend largely on our own unique history and on the environment we engage with on a daily basis. Whether we open fully to the world or shrink back from it will be dictated by the kind of world we have met, and the support, or lack of it, we feel we have had. These are responses of the organism as a whole, not of individual muscles – and these responses are laid down early in life. We might learn as children to hunch our shoulders, clench our buttocks or tighten our jaw in the face of difficult feelings, for instance. The muscles are simply at the end of a long chain of events that started way back in our personal history, so it is folly to blame a muscle when it tightens or exhibits pain. The muscle is the messenger not the progenitor.

If a child learned to brace her shoulders to help her survive the ritual humiliation she may have faced at primary school, it would be little wonder if she suffers neck and shoulder pain later in life if similar circumstances arise. Patterns of distress are always expressed through tightening and holding – the visible human responses of anxiety or fear. This will influence the way in which we walk, bend, sit or move in any activity because these movements will have been learned and practised in the context of the individual life lived. These things cannot be changed at the local level – they have to be thought of holistically. We need to zoom out, not zoom in.

What we may reasonably ask when an intention is carried out is, is the movement being carried out efficiently? Is the body compliant to the current wishes of the person? If the whole body does not fully comply, if some part of us does not participate in an action, we can wonder why doesn’t it? We can speculate that some part of that person’s story necessitated a holding or stiffening for some reason… until it has become embodied to the point where it is no longer noticed, where the stiffness has become them. An example might be when someone reverses a car and strains their neck trying to see out of the back window because they have ‘forgotten’ how to turn the trunk and the neck has compensated by overworking. Again we cannot resolve this at the local level by stretching or forcing that ‘forgotten’ area to move – it won’t change the way we hold ourselves. Think about it: if changing structure at a local level could influence movement at a global level, all those yogis with very long hamstrings and hip flexors would walk with enormous stride… and they don’t. They don’t because walking, like all other movement, is a neurological program set at sub-cortical levels.

If a part of a person doesn’t move so well, if it doesn’t participate in global movements, it’s likely that the holding and tightening patterns of that individual have caused the area to be ‘forgotten’ by the nervous system – a process that Somatics author Thomas Hanna describes as ‘sensory motor amnesia’. Our job as yoga teachers is to restore that part of the movement pattern. We need to find asanas that ask that part of the body to participate in the action or actions that most appeal to it. It is important that the movements make sense to the individual as ‘whole movement patterns’ rather than targeted exercises for a muscle or a joint. A common example is in forward bending, when the lower spine remains flat and seems unable to participate in flexion. What might be helpful here is to do another asana or movement that speaks more directly to the lower back, putting the feet up the wall and using the legs to draw the pelvis off the floor, for instance. Here the lower back will be encouraged to round out as part of the movement.

So, if in your classes you find yourself doing asanas to stretch a hamstring, strengthen the ‘core’ or open the hips… think again and ask yourself, ‘Is this really helpful?’

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