Sermon on Reciprocal Inhibition

So often our bodies are the best teachers.

For the past three weeks, I’ve endured the moans and groans of teenagers who expected to lay around chanting when they signed up for my yoga class.  They staged pouty mutinies every time I asked them to perform a leg lift or plank.  And then, because they’re lovely creatures, they stepped up to each challenge, albeit with giggles and sighs.

I wasn’t trying to torture them or play the tough coach.  On the contrary, I care about their young bodies, already so beaten and bruised by 15 pound backpacks and hours spent in front of screens and windows: iPhones, computers, televisions, windshields, and blackboards.  I also teach over-achieving, and therefore, high-anxiety kiddos.  Plus, they’re teenagers and body conscious as a rule.  The last thing they feel comfortable wearing is their own skin.  Getting them to just close their eyes and breath deeply requires me to have the patience of Job.

What poses do you want to do today? I’d ask.

The inevitable chorus of voices: Savasana!!!  (for those of you not familiar with yoga, that’s the pose where you lay on the ground and do nothing)

But in my yoga teacher training, one of the first things I learned was the concept of reciprocal inhibition.  Reciprocal inhibition describes the relaxation of muscles to accommodate the contraction of opposing muscles.  Our bodies understand this yin and yang already, but we can help them along as well.  For example, if you want to get your tight hamstrings to loosen up, you don’t stretch them as common knowledge would say.  Instead, you strengthen and contract the opposing muscles–your quadriceps–and your motor neurons will send some quick text messages to your hamstrings telling them to CFD (Calm the F-ck Down).   Flexibility requires strength.   Strength requires flexibility.

So before I sent them into savasana, I asked my students to fatigue their muscles in various ways.  And it worked: tighter muscles began to ease open their rusty gates.

In anatomy the flexed muscle is referred to as the agonist, and the “opposing muscle” is referred to as the antagonist, which pleases me to no end as a writer and teacher of English.  The antagonist.  The adversary.  The foe.  The nemesis.  My impossibly wound muscle fibers have a face–The Joker, the orc, the mean girl.

There’s a bigger wisdom here past the warrior and pigeon poses, a lesson literature teaches as well.  Our bodies instruct us: if we want to have more flexibility in our own views, we must strengthen our understanding of the opposing views.  Likewise, if we want our opponents to relax their positions, we will need to strengthen our own arguments.

The concept of reciprocal inhibition might serve us in so many important ways off the yoga mat.

If I want my students to experience more ease with vocabulary or grammar, maybe I need to strengthen my expectations and lessons.

If I want to have a calm and relaxed space in my life to write more, maybe I need to tighten my discipline at other tasks that require time from me, become firmer in saying no to requests for my time by other people.

If I want my husband to speak his feelings to me more freely, maybe I might contract my own voice a little.

If I want my friends to confide in me, maybe I should build up my listening skills.

If I want to stop thinking about my ex-boyfriend, maybe I should find a hobby and dedicate myself to it.

If I want to stop hating that pretty, popular girl in the front row in my Algebra class, maybe I should hang out with her.  Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man.  I must get to know him better.”

If I want my child to stop throwing fits, maybe I should become more grounded and dependable.

If I want Congress to pass my proposed bill, maybe–ahem, Mr. President–I should not compromise it so much as firm up its merits.

And as all of us tighten up, maybe we will lose our inhibitions, release our grip on our antagonists, all those small and big enemies we face down everyday.  Maybe we can breath easy and let them go, confident in our strength, and set ourselves free in the process.

The light in me recognizes and honors the light in all of you.


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