Peep into any of the thousands of yoga classes across the globe and you will find that students are donning more than just yoga outfits. In addition to the latest leggings and tank tops by (insert your favorite designer here) you’ll also find students of every age, both male and female, sporting a different kind of accessory. These, however, are not made from lycra, mala beads or precious metals, but rather from an overzealous nervous system.
Glance around the room after the teacher calls out “Twisted Half Moon” (Pavritta Ardha Chandrasana) and you’ll see students with arms akimbo, clenched toes, fingers curled and faces contorted beyond recognition. These students are “accessorizing” their poses with parts of their body that don’t actually need to be involved.
An unconscious mind overflows
There is a neurological phenomenon known as “overflow.” Simply put, the brain thinks it needs more help than it actually does to accomplish a task and sends messages throughout the body to recruit muscular contraction far from the locus of stability. So when this happens in a pose, it is essentially excess nervous energy, as if these other body parts were worried and felt that they too needed to contribute to the pose.
You see this in daily life a lot — a person biting their lip when they step onto the dance floor, the guy at the gym who scrunches his eyebrows with every bicep curl, the fifth grader in the spelling bee who clenches her fists and seems to blink uncontrollably while spelling her word.
How to “de-accessorize” your pose
Overflow represents an unnecessary overexertion during a task. It can often be eradicated, but first you must become aware of where this occurs and attempt to preemptively block the tension from creeping into the body in the first place. Here’s a three-step solution for shedding your unnecessary yoga accessories:
First: Become aware of which body parts tend to think they need to be working. I used to raise my right shoulder towards my neck in almost every yoga pose, as if I were talking on my cell phone.
Second: Communicate to that body part that its “assistance” is not necessary (thank you very much!), then give it another task, such as “relax.” I conditioned myself to “send a breath” to my shoulder before I entered or exited a pose so that the shoulder minded its own business.
Third: Drive awareness to the part(s) of the body that actually do need to stabilize in order for the pose to be safe, secure and solid. Be aware that the brain may continue its efforts of overflow and that you’ll probably notice some new accessorizing. Soon after my shoulder stopped rising, I started pressing my tongue into my upper palate. That was definitely a new one for me!
Overflow is like the carnival game “Whac-A-Mole.” As soon as you strike one mole back into its hole, another mole pops up somewhere else! Your brain will seek and find any open conduit to distract itself with tension at its perimeter rather than stabilizing a pose at its core. Just remember, the more places the body disperses that accessorizing energy, the more energy you’re pulling away from the main balancing musculature.
Practice de-accessorizing your poses by infusing your practice with relaxation and awareness as a prelude to your movements. This will reduce your overflow, and deepen your practice too. Then you’ll have enough energy to go shopping for those other kinds of accessories!
So, how do you accessorize your pose?