yoga and the quest for the true self_stephen cope_fullBy Sara Calabro

Yoga and acupuncture have a lot in common.

The most outward similarity between yoga and acupuncture is the clientele. An extremely high percentage of yogis seem to have at least some experience with acupuncture, and vice versa. A common sensibility pervades both practices, attracting people who are curious about the intersection of physical, emotional and spiritual healing.

However, dedicated yogis and those who receive regular acupuncture understand that this intersection is as mysterious as it is a reality. Yoga and acupuncture, in helping cultivate awareness, ultimately help us conclude that there’s always more to learn.

For those who are committed to this ongoing education, Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the Quest for the True Self is highly recommended.

To be clear: This is a book about yoga, not acupuncture.

In fact, aside from a passing mention of how yogic nadis correspond with acupuncture meridians, Cope seems to be unaware of the overlap between acupuncture theories and those expressed in his book.

The overlap, though, is extensive and should be of interest to both yoga and acupuncture fans alike.

Don’t skip ahead—Cope intersperses the sometimes dull sections on yoga theory with personal anecdotes, making the whole book an enjoyable, enlightening read—but the author really taps into the intersection between acupuncture and yoga in part four.

The section focuses on how emotional experiences, particularly stressful or traumatic ones, manifest physically. Cope says:

“When groups of muscles are repeatedly contracted as a reaction to an unrelenting stressor, especially traumatic emotional experiences…[T]he stressed group of muscles may over time become shortened and chronically contracted. The body’s responses to these muscles do not complete: muscles contract but do not fully release. As a result other muscle groups, which would normally work in opposition to those tensed muscle groups in order to create balance, become weak and flaccid through underuse. Eventually, we may be unable to voluntarily relax the habitually contracted muscles.”

This is a very acupuncture-esque understanding of musculoskeletal dysfunction. In Acupuncture Physical Medicine, acupuncturist Mark Seem offers an explanation for pain that echoes Cope’s:

“In assessing the patient, it is crucial to look at the neuromuscular and skeletal changes, realizing that these changes in the body represent a record of the person’s attempts to adapt and adjust to the stresses imposed on the organism. The repeated postural and traumatic insults of a lifetime combined with the tensions of emotional and psychological origin will often present one with a confusing pattern of tense, contracted, bunched, fatigued fibrous tissue…[T]his is the holding pattern of a person: a holding pattern consistent with the person’s experience of illness and distress over time.”

Digging further into how emotions are held in the body, Cope refers to Wilhelm Reich, a psychiatrist whose teachings on character armor are well known in acupuncture circles.

Character armor refers to, again, this idea of postural holding patterns that develop as a defensive mechanism against whatever stressors a person needs to be protected from.

Cope talks about fascia, the connective tissue that links all bodily structures, to clarify Reich’s theory.

As we build up defenses, the fascia becomes rigid—it becomes our “armor.” When the fascia and muscle fibers harden in this way, not only does it cause pain, but nerve currents are prevented from conducting properly, which means decreased strength and range of motion.

Yoga, like acupuncture, loosens the fascia and stretches shortened muscles so that they can return to their normal resting state. Acupuncturists use a variety of techniques to achieve this, ranging from traditional practices such as cupping and ashi needling to more Western approaches like trigger-point release.

In addition to alleviating pain, through the process of releasing contracted fascia and muscles, people become more aware of their held patterns—which, as Cope points out, often are involuntary and unconscious. This awareness makes room for self-care techniques, such as breathing exercises and stretching, to help release tension before it reaches critical levels.

Yogis and acupuncture enthusiasts in search of a deeper understanding of their like-minded ideas should read Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. On the unending journey toward discovering what health really means, this book stands among the worthy guides.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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