Just a couple of weeks ago, I could barely hold a forearm plank while propped up on my knees. I collapsed, shaky, after about one and a half seconds. It was not a pretty sight. Forearm plank was the pose assigned to me as part of our “Least Favorite Pose” assignment with Jonathan FitzGordon in the current Yoga Teacher Training class. Jonathan aptly assigned me a pose that requires well-toned abdominal muscles, glutes, shoulder and back muscles, as well as arm and leg muscles. Basically, every major muscle group.
I have never been particularly strong, nor have I paid much attention to muscles in general. I guess I always assumed if I ate the right foods, walked plenty, and stayed relatively active, my body would do the rest of the work and the necessary muscles would develop. I did not take into consideration that poor alignment and lazy postures would incidentally create weakness in my body, and that my body would compensate in less than favorable ways.
After attempting forearm plank, I knew it would be months of strengthening work before I could properly hold the full pose. I got started right away, working on accessible poses and exercises that would strengthen and tone the most important muscle groups (I focused primarily on the shoulder & back muscles, especially the rhomboids, as well as the abdominal muscles, especially the transverse abs). I could only afford a few minutes each day for this project. I also spent some time studying the function of the muscles involved and trying to get a sense of their location in my body.
Less than a week later, for the heck of it, I tried forearm plank again. I was baffled when I successfully got into the pose and held it for several seconds (without my knees). How could I have accomplished this so quickly?
In a recent class, Jonathan showed us a diagnostic exercise for testing the strength and tone of the multifidus muscle. If you haven’t heard of this muscle, you’re not alone. It runs along the spine from the neck to the tailbone and helps to support and stabilize the spine. This simple exercise involves getting onto all fours and lifting one hand and the opposite knee off the floor a tad (no more than an inch). The first time I attempted this, I wobbled this way and that. I switched sides and shook and wobbled even more. I was surprised how difficult it was. Jonathan assured us when we tried it a second time, it would be significantly easier. Sure enough, when I repeated the test on the first side, my body stayed much more stable. Clearly, I had not already strengthened the multifidus muscle! So what changed?
A dear teacher of mine, Dr. Claudia Welch, has taught that “wherever your attention goes, prana follows; and wherever prana goes, your cells follow.” An example of this concept can be seen when “breathing” into various parts of the body that may be neglected and consequently may be tight, stiff, cold, painful, or may have no sensation at all. By using deep breathing and awareness, one can focus attention on any particular challenge spot and bring prana (life force) into that area. This is a profound practice for breaking up stagnation and increasing blood flow, reducing pain, and creating suppleness in the body (download Claudia’s audio guide for this healing practice). What exactly is the mechanism at work here?
I’ve learned from my recent experience with forearm plank and the multifidus test that we can “turn on” neglected muscles relatively easily. Slight movements, breath, and awareness can awaken the body’s intelligence. By activating a muscle, we’ve brought consciousness and awareness into the tissue and it quickly responds with increased function. That is why I could find my way into forearm plank so quickly – I only had to introduce myself to the muscles. This is also why the multifidus test gets easier on the second try.
We have beautiful bodies that function in brilliant and complex ways, giving us access to all kinds of amazing experiences. Why not take a little time to get to know each part, each organ, each muscle, each system?
As a mother and a wife, I’ve noticed that our household functions much more smoothly when I spend a little time offering mindful attention to each person every day. It doesn’t even take much effort or time. Just a smile, a hello, a hug, a silent moment of listening and seeing one another. My body is not unlike my family. It doesn’t take much time to give each part a little bit of breath, attention, prana, and awareness. Why not boost your own cellular intelligence with a little love and attention? You may be surprised by the changes that unfold. For example, I’m now able to hold forearm plank for 45 seconds; a feat I would have thought impossible just a couple weeks ago.
To read more of Rebecca Pellerin's work go to her website here.