“Why should you study and practice Magick?
Because you can’t help doing it, and you had better do it well than badly.”
-Aleister Crowley 666
Part 1: Posture and Prana
The use of static postures as exercises is common to both Hatha Yoga and systems such as Qigong and various internal martial arts such as Tai Chi Chuan, these postures are often recommended to be held for extreme lengths of time for example 3 hour headstands and stories of Internal Kung fu masters who would not accept a student unless they could hold a posture such as “embracing the tree” for 2 hours. To people familiar with only typical exercises involving repetitive gross movements, these static practices often seem odd, masochistic, pointless, or even insane. However if we think about the body in greater depth these practices might turn out to be wily and wise.
There are two main types of muscle fibre in the body, type 1 slow contracting fibres heavily reliant on oxidative metabolism, possessing high quantities of mitochondria (the cellular organelles responsible for energy production), these type 1 fibres possess a rich capillary network and are red in colour, these muscle fibres are those which must be active for extended periods of time, maintaining posture or engaged in continuous but hopefully not too strenuous activity. The type 2 fibres, of which there is a further variety of subtypes, are less reliant on oxidative metabolism, making greater use of glycolysis, a less efficient form of energy production that produces less ATP than oxidative metabolism and more lactic acid, they contain fewer mitochondria, these fibres are generally white in colour as they have less blood supply, these fibres contract quickly and powerfully and are used when bursts of explosive power are required. Muscle tissue exhibits a high degree of plasticity, up regulation and down regulation of the different fibre types occurs in response to use and disuse. Nerve impulse patterns, neuromuscular activity, and mechanical loading play roles in the maintenance and transition of muscle fibre phenotypes. The type, intensity, and duration of changes in any of these factors, can cause muscle fibres to shift their phenotype to respond to the altered demands. Fibre transitions result from multiple changes in gene expression involving up and down regulation of genes involved in producing different myosin types in the fibre types (Pette 2001). After inactivity the slow red (type 1) fibres decrease leaving an increased proportion of fast white (type 2) fibres. Paraplegic subjects develop uniform fast fibre muscle composition within 6-12 months of injury (Polla et al. 2004). Both endurance and resistance exercise can cause the conversion of 2X fibres to 2A fibres, type 2A fibres are better supplied by capillaries and have more mitochondria and greater oxidative metabolism than 2X fibres but the 2A are not as metabolically active as type 1 fibres. From all the available studies it appears much more difficult to increase type 1 fibres than other fibre types, extreme endurance exercise can do it but I think that can be problematic. However I suspect that if exercise such as Yoga posture and qigong standing practice were to be studied it might be found that they increase type 1 fibres. In addition to the long holds used being likely to stimulate type 1 fibres, there are studies which show that stretching appears to signal the conversion of type 2 muscles into type 1 (Goldspink et al. 1991). The muscle in this study was stimulated while in a stretched position , this is similar to the kind of activity in many yoga asanas where muscle must be active while stretched, this is not an eccentric contraction (where a muscle stretches while bearing a load, eg. walking downhill) which can damage mitochondria, but isometric contraction while the muscle is already stretched. The muscle in this study grew rapidly as much as 30% in 4 days. Muscles deprived of stretch will not differentiate into type 1 (Goldspink et al.1992). The slow controlled movements used in Tai Chi and qigong involve rhythmic waves on contraction and subtle stretching and would be expected to stimulate type 1 slow red postural muscle development.
Patterns of activity can reshape the organism, type 1 fibres can become type 2 fibres if subjected to either disuse or if activity patterns change from continuous slower more controlled movement to rapid contraction, these changes involve a decrease in innervation, slow myosin is turned off when contraction speed increases and the fibres become innervated by only single motor neurons.
Physical activity is known to have a trophic effect on the brain, it seems likely that the increased innervation of type 1 fibres would mean that activities that maintain and cultivate these muscle fibre types should have an increased trophic effect on the brain, the more challenging balance and inverted postures of yoga seem especially likely to have such an effect, the slow controlled movements of Tai Chi should function similarly, as should dance, and multiple other activities climbing seems likely to cultivate type 1 fibres and have an increased trophic effect on the brain as the climber actively imagines routes up a rock face.
The postural muscles also seem likely to play a role in the organism’s energy level, in addition to containing more mitochondria than type 2 muscle fibres, type 1 fibres express more of an enzyme that converts T4 into the active thyroid hormone T3, type 2 iodothyronine deiodinase (Marsili et al. 2010). It seems possible that postural habits may be capable of signaling up or down regulated metabolism, if postural muscles are inactive this might lead to increased circulating T4, there is some evidence that increased T4 can suppress metabolism through conversion to reverse T3 suppressing mitochondrial respiration (Goumaz et al.1987).
Diabetics have reduced type 1 fibres and increased proportions of type 2 fibres (Oberbach et al. 2006). Cultivating type 1 fibres through exercise and lifestyle might be therapeutic.
The increased metabolic activity of type 1 fibres is also likely to contribute to softer and more fluid connective tissues, as the increased carbon dioxide, produced from oxidative metabolism, will interact with the amino groups of proteins and glycoproteins that make up the connective tissues altering the way these proteins interact with water leading to a more fluid and flexible body.
As people age they tend to experience muscle loss and become more prone to falls and consequent bone fractures, during aging blood flow and the capillary to fibre ratio decreases, promoting the development of the type 1 postural muscles would seem to be of importance in avoiding the increasing danger of medicalisation with age.
Increased activity of the postural muscles will support structural integrity of the body at multiple levels, blood flow efficiency will be increased, the increased innervation will also make body fat accumulation less likely as denervation can increase lipogenesis (Youngstrom and Bartness 1998).
Continual cultivation of perpetual poise discourages development of such sicknesses as hernias and haemorrhoids.
Part 2 Asana and Attitude
“Some see Nature all Ridicule & Deformity, & by these I shall not regulate my proportions; & some scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.”
In addition to effects on muscle phenotype posture has other subtler effects, different postures involve different patterns of nerve activity which will affect the endocrine organs, including the thyroid a master regulator of metabolism, conscious shifts in posture will change innervation patterns and endocrine function. A study examining the effects of posture on hormone function found that adopting an expansive posture for even a minute or two could lead to elevated testosterone and decreased cortisol (Carney et al. 2010). The same study found that individuals who adopted open expansive postures were more likely to engage in risky behaviour, individuals who adopted collapsed low power postures showed decreased testosterone and elevated cortisol and were more risk averse.
It seems likely that posture can affect every hormone produced, systems such as yoga and qigong all emphasise the importance of the spine, and seek to cultivate strong, flexible spines, they also emphasise keeping the spine straight during meditation, with yoga emphasising postures such as padmasana (lotus) and siddhasana (adepts/perfect) both of which encourage a very straight alignment of the spine, with the back of the neck kept long, this alignment seems likely to encourage production of the youth associated neurosteroids, pregnenolone, progesterone, and dhea. This sort of alignment is intensified during pranayama performed with mulabandha (contraction of the pelvic floor), uddiyana bandha (vacuuming the abdomen in and up under the rib cage), and jalandhara bandha (contraction of the throat with the chin dropping in towards the space between the collar bones).
Given these effects of posture on biology it should be possible to make therapeutic use of postural play to transform multiple challenges individuals are faced with, even conditions where it is believed an individual has encountered an impassable genetic wall in the developmental unfolding might be capable of change, Down’s syndrome, caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 might seem like one of these impassable genetic walls, but this attitude seems inherently limiting. Individuals affected by Down’s syndrome generally show some common postural features, including a forward head posture and generally poor muscle tone, if affected individuals could be encouraged into new postural habits some change might be possible. The forward head posture likely alters blood and cerebrospinal fluid flow to the brain inhibiting its full development. Seeing the trophic effects of exercise on the brain as well as the trophic effects of the brain on tissues, there is clearly considerable inertia to overcome in this condition but change may be possible if skillful means are used to encourage new postural patterns, and other supportive therapies are included that focus on optimising metabolism.
Shifts in postural muscle use over generations seem likely to be a significant factor driving speciation, changes in environment would lead to shifts in how the organism interacts with its environment and moves through its environment. New patterns of muscle activity will change nerve activity reshaping an organism’s consciousness as it actively imagines new ways of relating to its environment. This means that the world we inhabit is inherently dynamic and ever new, attempts to impose the patterns of the past onto the present and future add inertia to the system inhibiting evolution.
Part 3: Diaphragmic Diabolism
“Concentration is the root of all the higher abilities in man.”
The diaphragm is major postural muscle in humans and has great significance in preserving our highest functioning. The diaphragm is a uniquely mammalian structure, reptiles and amphibians have only a non-muscular membraneus septum separating the lungs from the digestive organs, or in some a pseudo diaphragm. Reptilian lungs have relatively coarse structure, larger air spaces and less surface area than mammalian lungs, amphibian lungs are simpler still, often little more than simple balloon structures, some amphibians lack lungs and breathe through their skin. Mammals have highly lobated alveolar lungs, with very large surface area and high diffusion capacity but low compliance, it is our muscular diaphragm which enables them to function efficiently through the creation of negative pressure allowing for fine control of ventilation. The structure of our lungs and diaphragm is key to maintaining our intense metabolism. If these structures degrade then systemic degeneration is inevitable unless function can be restored, the organism will be forced to function at a lower energy level, one that is incapable of maintaining the complex structures we have developed over the course of our evolution.
Small mammals (such as shrews and mice) have high metabolisms, the fibre composition of their diaphragm is in some cases uniformly made up of type 1 slow red oxidative muscle fibres, dense in mitochondria. Large mammals (such as cows) have a proportionally lower metabolism, their diaphragms contain a higher proportion of type 2 fast white glycolytic fibres, with fewer mitochondria.
Small mammals breathe more times per minute than large mammals, these breaths will involve much smaller movements of the diaphragm, meaning that a relatively constant isometric tension is maintained throughout the diaphragm, promoting type 1 slow red fibres. Large mammals breathe more slowly, but these movements are larger and less isometric tension will be maintained through the diaphragm, favouring type 2 fast white glycolytic fibres (Gautier and Padykula 1966).
Does the metabolic activity of the diaphragm reflect the overall metabolic intensity of the organism? A tendency seen in evolution appears to be a movement to generally finer muscle fibres, amphibians and reptiles tend to have thicker muscle fibres than birds and mammals, type 1 fibres are thinner than type 2 fibres, this suggests that as organisms evolve and raise their energy level they become more finely woven.
Cultivating the function of the diaphragm might be capable of raising our energy level, I have seen a few claims that the diaphragm cannot be exercised but I think the individuals who made these claims have not thought them through sufficiently. In addition to its function in respiration the diaphragm is also a postural muscle one that plays a key role in maintaining our characteristically upright posture, stabilising our body during a range of movements (Hodges et al. 1997). Activities that require complex postural stabilisation; dance, hand balancing and some of the more demanding postures and transitions of yoga should all strengthen and tone the diaphragm.
The traditional pranayama practices of Hatha Yoga will also train and cultivate the diaphragm, the practice of uddiyana bandha combined with kumbhaka (breath retention), will both stretch the diaphragm and tone it through isometric contraction, both of which cultivate type 1 muscle fibres. The type of breathing emphasised in some qigong systems, a very fine, long slow, and super subtle breath, without retentions should also work similarly.
If there are activities that can cultivate the diaphragm there are likely activities that do the opposite generally unconscious postural habits might lead to the degeneration of some of the diaphragm’s function, if it is not needed then tissue tends to degenerate, fear furniture.
While extreme endurance activity tends to promote type 1 muscle fibres in most skeletal muscles, I think in the diaphragm it might have the opposite effect. Extreme endurance athletes have been found to show increased rates of asthma (Helenius et al. 1997). This might be a result of the increased oxygen demand during exercise leading to increased ventillaton, and larger coarser movements of the diaphragm, resulting in the phenotype of the diaphragm muscle fibres shifting away from the slow red type 1 towards increased fast white type 2 fibres, this would also result in decreased innervation to the diaphragm making it difficult to control breathing at rest, promoting hyperventilation, carbon dioxide loss, decreasing the Bohr effect and so decreasing oxygenation of tissues at rest. If people insist on that sort of endurance exercise then it might be useful to also practice breath control at rest to promote type 1 muscle fibres as well as being attentive to breathing during exercise.
Increased type 1 fibres are found in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), however other pathological alterations to the respiratory system have also occured here, the lungs become inflamed, functional surface decreases, the lungs lose surface area, airspaces enlarge, the lungs swell and the diaphragm becomes chronically shortened, the muscle fibres lose sarcomeres, now the diaphragm can only make small rapid movements, and other muscles of the chest heave in an attempt to overcome the lost function.
Another activity that will lead to a degeneration of diaphragm function is breathing exercise performed badly due to misunderstandings that may have been introduced into traditions over time, I have met a few people who seem to have made their breathing habits worse through breathing exercises, you must be attentive when you practice notice what is happening. People often talk about practicing deep breathing, they mean here breathing with large movements of the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles, exchanging large volumes of air, and massively altering the internal atmosphere of the lungs, carbon dioxide and water vapour are lost, and the highly sensitive membranes of the lungs become damaged and inflamed losing their efficiency. Often these individuals will have been told pranayama is good because it increases the elimination of useless waste products of metabolism such as carbon dioxide, a completely mistaken idea. These usually fairly large respiratory movements, will not support type 1 slow red fibres, and will encourage a less innervated diaphragm, decreasing control of breathing, these sorts of exercise often presented as yoga are really an anti-yoga that lead to degeneration and the lowering of an organism’s energy level, the exact opposite of what pranayama is meant to do.
It is because of these misunderstandings in much of contemporary yoga, that when people ask me about breathing I usually recommend Buteyko, as the importance of carbon dioxide is understood, and the basic reduced breathing exercise of Buteyko will develop the diaphragm to some extent, however I suspect that more complete diaphragmatic development will occur through sensitively applied traditional yoga breathing methods, that incorporate bandhas and kumbhakas, however I may be mistaken (I’m still learning).
The way the diaphragm is used during breathing can effect blood flow dynamics, the use of uddiyanna bandha, seems to increase venous return to the heart, and likely stretches the heart causing the release of the heart hormones (natriuretic peptides) that further raise the organism’s energy level.
A safe focus for breath control is to seek to make your breathing ever finer and subtler, ideally at rest it should be imperceptible, if you were to place a hand directly beneath your nose the breath should not be felt, it should be silent, and the muscular movements should be so slow and subtle that only a sharp eye would notice. Breathe through your nose, when you mouth breathe you enlarge your airways allowing for large shifts in the internal atmosphere of the lungs, losing carbon dioxide and water vapour. The reduced breathing exercises of Buteyko are safe for most people focused on improving health, the simple “ujayi” breath used in Astanga Vinyasa is also useful, the increased awareness of the breath caused by the gentle contraction at the base of the throat and the resulting Darth Vader type sound, can be useful but when practiced when still, the goal should be to reduce the sound produced until it is inaudible while still maintaining the contraction in the throat, of course during more challenging asana and vinyasa the breath will be louder. Sensitivity to the breath can be increased using ear plugs or inactive headphones, allowing you to hear the breath as it travels through the nasal turbinates and refine it further.
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