Tension is bad, and tone is good, right? Wrong. Anatomically speaking, tension and tone are not only the same—they’re also neutral. We can think of tension as the pull between two forces, like that of a muscle between its origin and insertion. But tension or tone is also the tan in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) or Parsvottanasana (Pyramid), a Sanskrit root that can be translated as “to stretch” or “to go beyond.” So, what are we going beyond?
First, keep in mind that the body has a natural resting state of tension or tone—if it didn’t, your muscles would hang from your bones like sails without a breeze. Some anatomists refer to resting tone as biotensegrity, the matrix of bone, muscle, and connective tissue that allows stability and movement as we move through life. When we need something extra—to run, to lift, etc.—nerve impulses stimulate the muscles, increasing tone. It’s like pulling back the string of a bow in order to shoot the arrow. Tension propels us forward. We run, we tire, and afterward we rest, returning to that natural base state of tone.
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The problem is, modern life often comes with stressors that increase tone without the release of constructive work, or the return to the resting state. We remain stuck in the “ready to run” mode, and over time, the resting tone of the muscles rises. Day after day, habits and emotions shape our bodies, and over time, our movements may become limited.
This is where yoga comes in. In asana, we play with tension, moving bones and muscles into new forms. Again, think of the root tan in Parsvottanasana and Purvottanasana (Inclined Plane Pose). Asana has the potential to lead us beyond our limitations to explore new ways of standing on our own feet—or turning our usual perspectives upside down. We can emulate a warrior, a goddess, or even a fish.
Of course, we can (and often do) bring our limiting habits with us onto the mat. Fortunately, the nature of yoga is as much about un-doing as it is doing. Relaxation and awareness are essential to the eight limbs of classical yoga. In asana and other practices we learn that, like a warrior’s bow, we perform best when we’re neither too tight nor too loose.
As we explore the middle ground between too much (striving) and too little (withdrawal), we reflect the universal play of the three gunas. Between the restlessness of rajas and the inertia of tamas, we find sattva, the place of harmony and balance. And we learn that this place of balance shifts and changes from individual to individual and from day to day. What’s appropriate for you at any given moment is swadharma, your own path.
Appropriate tension can propel us forward in the spiritual sense as well. The pull between the past (what we’ve tasted and don’t want) and the future (what we long for but don’t yet have) can create dissatisfaction or even anguish. Patanjali addressed this in Yoga Sutra 2.16, sometimes translated as, “The only suffering you can change is the suffering yet to come.” In other words, the only place you can act—releasing the arrow—is the present moment.
Through consistent asana practice we develop present moment awareness, learning to recognize “center” and return to it again and again. This is how we find stability even in the midst of action. We use the body to go beyond the body—beyond the habits that have contracted our muscles, beyond the thoughts and emotions that have limited our perceptions.
How has yoga helped to propel you past a limiting thought or habit?