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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Action vs. Form: How to REALLY Engage Muscle Energy

It took me a few years of wrist pain to finally figure out how to really engage Muscle Energy. It turns out that getting the arm bone back is a result of Muscle Energy, not a substitute for it. Interestingly, you actually can get your arm bone back in the shoulder socket without really doing Muscle Energy at all. Muscle Energy has to draw from the periphery (in this case the fingertips) to the core, and I had been shortcutting all along.

It was just a form, with no action.

The difference between form and action is really important, because if you seek form, that's exactly what you'll get. Nice lines, perhaps. But there's more at stake in yoga, or there can be, because you'll only get as much as you seek.

To me, all action begins with some kind of longing, and usually if you dig deep enough you find a longing to connect, whether it be to yourself or to the world around you, and to self-express. So when we talk about action in asana practice, it's fueled by an inner longing, and form will naturally follow in the way of beauty. What's at stake is that you can create something that is truly expressive of yourself, if you choose. What's at stake is the possibility of art.

In Anusara Yoga, action is a balance between Muscle Energy (which draws you in to your core) and Organic Energy (the expressive extension out of your core). Last year I heard John Friend talk about Muscle Energy as not merely moving from periphery to core (as it does), but as the core, in its longing to know itself, drawing all of the parts of the self to it. I love this image, and it fueled my practice in a new way.

Whatever image works for you, whatever infuses your action with meaning, start there. And bring your whole self to it. Muscle Energy starts from a longing inside, and the longing is so strong that it pulls all the parts to it. Then the form you take is not just a form, but the highest expression of yourself.

And on top of that, it will really help clear your wrist.


Whether you think of it from outside-in or inside-out, Muscle Energy will draw all of the parts of yourself into your core. For the upper body, the most peripheral parts are the fingertips, so we start there.

Bring your hands into anjali mudra, with the palms together, and then turn the mudra upside-down so you can see the heels of your hands. If you're just gently touching the hands together, you'll see a gap between the heels of the hands. This is the carpal tunnel, and it's supposed to be there (it's called a tunnel, after all).

Now just press your hands up against each other, and notice how the tunnel can easily flatten. This is what often happens when we're weightbearing on the hands, and it can be the cause of all kinds of wrist, hand, and shoulder issues.

Still with the hands in this inverted anjali mudra, now just gently press the hands into each other so that the four corners of the hands (index knuckle, thumb pad, pinkie knuckle and outer heel of the hand) are touching, and then claw the finger pads into each other. You'll feel and probably even see a lift in the tunnel between the heels of your hands, and this is a healthy engagement. Also notice how the muscles around the underside of the wrist (where the retinaculum holds all of the connective tissue of the flexor muscles in the forearm in place) hugs to the bone. Again, this is a sign of a healthy engagement in the wrist.

When you're weightbearing on the hands, this is the kind of engagement and action you want to create: the four corners of the hands evenly pressing into the earth; the fingertips clawing so that the muscles of the underside of the forearm tone and lift; and the carpal tunnel (i.e. the heel of the hand) light.

The thing is, for many of us, the muscles on the underside of the forearm (flexors of the wrist and fingers) are weak, and so the muscles on the backside of the forearm (generally extensors) get bound up trying to compensate. When they are tight like this, they can pull on the carpal bones in the hand, getting the carpal bones locked up. More significantly, when the flexors are weak, the wrist will get jammed (and carpal tunnel syndrome is one of the results).


  • Open to Grace includes setting the foundation of the pose, and when the hands are part of the foundation, that means the creases of the wrists (where the forearms meet the carpal bones in your hands) should line up parallel to each other. It also includes anchoring the 4 corners of the hands: the index knuckle (the knuckle where the index finger meets the palm or the first metacarpal), the thenar eminence (cool term for the heel of the thumb), the pinky knuckle (again, where it meets the palm), and the hypothenar eminence (that's the outer heel of the hand).
  • Muscle Energy is the action of longing, drawing all of the parts of yourself to the core. In the hands, it starts from the fingertips and flows evenly through the arms all the way to the active focal point. (Or you could look at it inside-out, as the core of yourself calling all the parts of yourself into service.) As a result, the head of the arm bone will move back into the shoulder socket, but remember this is a result. If you prioritize this as a form, you could easily not do the action.
  • Shoulder Loop brings you deeper into the heart, and you can go there once a strong Muscle Energy to the core is established. When you activate the Shoulder Loop (palate back, shoulder blades curling into the heart), the action in your hands should not really change.
  • Organic Energy is the balancing action of Muscle Energy. Without Organic Energy, which flows from the focal point to the peripheral parts, we can get too bound up, and the asana fails to find its fullest expression. In the hands, Organic Energy will stretch out through the fingernails, without losing the engagement of the undersides of the arms.
  • Hands and knees: just feel where the weight falls on your hands if you don't add any action. For most people, it will sink into the heel of the hand, flattening the carpal tunnel, and the index finger knuckle will be lighter than the other corners of the hand (if not lifted altogether). Just like you did in anjali mudra, anchor the four corners of each hand, and then draw Muscle Energy through the arms by clawing the fingertips to the floor (without lifting the ridge of knuckles where the fingers meet the palm). You will feel the muscles on the undersides of the forearms fire, and perhaps start to burn. As I said above, these muscles are generally weaker, and when you first learn to engage them, it will be intense.
  • Downward facing dog: When you shift back from hands and knees to dog pose, notice what happens to the weight in your hands. Does it fall to the heels? Does the index knuckle get light? Feel what it's like to lift the armbones up toward the sky and then soften the heart. That's effective, to some extent, in aligning the shoulders, but if it's just a lift, it's not an action, it's a change in form. Now draw actively from the fingertips all the way up into the core of the heart. The weight will shift toward the fronts of your hands (fingertips and the ridge of knuckles where the fingers meet the palm), the undersides of your arms will tone and lift, and the arm bones will move to the back plane. Keep that, and then actively press the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into the heart (chest toward your thighs). As you engage more of this shoulder loop, watch that the weight in your hands doesn't shift to the heels of the hands.
  • Surya namaskar: move through plank, caturanga, and cobra pose keeping this engagement.
  • Pencils: This is a trick I learned from the wise Ellen Saltonstall. On hands and knees, place the tips of pencils in the carpal tunnel (at the heel of each hand) to remind yourself that this part should energetically lift when you're weightbearing on the hands. Then try to move through a round of surya namaskar with the pencils there. It will give you a sense of how much you can draw in and up from the hands to the core.
  • Handstand: Feel in handstand where the weight falls. Get the four corners of your hands rooted, and then claw into the floor to lift more the undersides of the forearms in this pose. You can do handstand on ridgetops (up on the knuckles where the fingers meet the palm, with the heel of the hand lifted and the thumb kicked back for support) or even on fingertips to build strength and tone.
  • Vasistasana
  • Bakasana
  • Mayurasana: in preparation for mayurasana, come onto hands and knees and turn hand out so that the fingertips point back toward your knees. Now lift the heel of the hand off the floor and claw the fingertips into the mat. As you do, bend your elbow back and watch how as you engage Muscle Energy, the retinaculum (around the wrist) will draw in. (To see the difference, just flatten the heel of the hand to the floor and see how it will tend to puff out.) Now, keeping the engagement in the hands and forearms, soften again in your upper back and then extend back out through the arm, bringing the heel of the hand toward the floor without losing the muscle tone. You can watch the retinaculum (it should stay toned and flat against the bones) to make sure you've kept good engagement. Do both arms, and then try mayurasana.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana (OK, do some thigh stretches first): on your way up into the pose, stop on the top of your head and find the engagement of Muscle Energy from the hands all the way in. Notice the difference between pulling your arm bones back into the socket (form) and drawing from the fingertips all the way up into the core (here the palate, but it shifts to the pelvis when you're in the pose). The arm bones will go back, and the result will be more powerful.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana #2: Go up into the pose, and then draw in from your fingertips to your pelvis so much that the heels of your hands start to get light, and the arm bones tip back toward your pelvis. Keep that much engagement in the arms, and then pump your chest through your arms (shoulder loop) to bring your chest and arms more vertical.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana #3: By the way, this is how you prepare for ticktocks (jumping from wheel through handstand to downward-facing dog). The armbones have to stay back from Muscle Energy, and then the chest pumps through.
  • Handstand scorpion: Why not? OK, scorpion will really open up if you can get the weight out of your wrists and more forward onto your fingertips and the ridges of the hands. Try it.

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