Monday, March 4, 2013

The Goldilocks' Position (Bernie Clark)

Happy March, everyone!
I wanted to start off this month by posting a great article by one of my mentors-from-afar, Bernie Clark. His article is targeting the yin yoga practice, but this approach can be helpful for any practice, and the middle path is a concept the Buddhists use for living. I am posting this with his permission; please check out his website, for more great information by him.

The Goldilocks' Position by Bernie Clark

This is not a posture, but rather advice about how deep we should go in our poses to ensure we achieve optimal health. Note, we are not talking about optimal performance! That is the trade-off we have to understand. Whenever we practice yoga, we need to be clear about our intentions: are we striving for optimal health, or are we working toward some performance goals? Athletes, dancers, and gymnasts may well be trying to maximize their range of motion, but this does not mean that they are getting healthier. Quite the contrary: many athletes and dancers have significant joint issues in later life because they dangerously stressed their bodies to obtain maximum performance when they were younger.

The optimal position for health is the Goldilocks' position: not too much and not too little. This can be shown graphically: below you will see a classic n-shape curve that illustrates the danger of being outside the optimal bounds.

If we apply too little stress to our tissues, they atrophy. All living things require some stress to be healthy! If we apply too much stress, however, tissues degenerate. There have been many scientific studies verifying the n-shaped curve shown in the above graph [see "Lower Back Disorders" by McGill: page 32 for several references.]

Remember the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Goldilocks found the momma's bed too soft, and the papa's bed too hard but the baby's bed was just right. To obtain maximum health, we also need to find that place where the tension in our poses is "just right". Not too deep, which creates degeneration, and not too little, which creates atrophy.

As important as it is to find the right depth to any pose, we also have to consider how long to stay in the pose to get optimal health benefits. Every body is different, so we can only offer a generalization, but in general, every stress of tissue brings down the tolerance level of that tissue. This is what exercise is all about: we stress tissues to make them weaker, at least initially. Once we release the stress, the tissues recover and become stronger. If we apply too much stress, or hold for too long or do not allow enough rest, then we are in danger.

The graph below shows how these three variables work together. The red curve at the top of the graph shows the level of tolerance the tissue can take before becoming damaged. (These tissues could be muscle tissue, which we target in our normal Hatha (yang) practice or connective tissue such as our ligaments or deep fascia, which we target in our Yin Yoga practice.) The green curves show the degree of tension or stress being applied through either repetitive stresses or one prolonged steady stress. The horizontal axis represents time.

Notice how the amount of stress that our tissues can tolerate decreases with increased stress and increased time. Eventually, if we continue to stress the tissues to the point where the two curves cross, damage will occur. However, notice the next graph. Here we see the recuperative effect of rest.

If we stress and then rest the tissue, the tissue's tolerance level increases above what it was before. The key then is to not over stress the tissue either by having too much stress or holding the stress for too long, but rather allow the tissue enough time to recover and grow stronger.

Find the Goldilocks' position in all your poses, whether yin or yang. Don't go where it is too much (unless your objective is performance and not health.) Don't be where it is too little either. Remember, in Yin Yoga practice, time is the magic ingredient not intensity. To go deeper in Yin Yoga means to hold longer, not necessarily to move further into a pose. As long as you are feeling it, you are doing it.

Also remember, you can do too much of anything. Don't hold your Yin Yoga poses so long that you start to exceed your tissue's tolerance levels. Find the middle path!


Please see the Events page for more information about these upcoming special programs:

  • Sunday, March 31 (Easter): OM for Peace
  • Saturday, April 7 - Sunday April 8: Yin Yoga 14-Hour Immersion
  • Saturday, April 7 - Sunday April 8 AND Saturday, April 13 - Sunday April 14: Yin Yoga Teacher Training
  • Sunday, April 28: Yin Yoga 1-Day Workshop