This article focuses on the body’s movement system. It includes a brief overview of relevant anatomy, the nervous system, and how the brain ties it all together in a chosen activity, resulting in greater efficiency and movement quality. We break down the stages of learning new movements and provide simple tips for how to engage this learning and why it is important. We offer examples and movement explorations to highlight how yoga therapy helps you work more skillfully with the nervous system in order to create more options in all of life’s activities.
Overview of the Movement System
We move all the time. Many of our movements may be unsound, habitual, and automatic, but they are still movements. We even move in our sleep. What is the system that guides and informs those movements? What we believe about the movement system has not changed in roughly 100 years. What has changed is our view of how much each component of the movement system contributes to the entire action. The movement system has three fundamental parts:
- Muscles (muscles, tendons, fascia)
- Skeleton (bones, joints, ligaments)
- Nervous system (central nervous system, peripheral nervous system)
Here is how movement occurs: The muscles connect to the bones through tendons, the bones connect to each other by ligaments, and the nervous system tells the muscles to fire, which pulls the tendons so the bones move. Simple, right? Well, it appears that movement is not that simple.
As we improve our ability to look into the body in noninvasive ways, we also improve our understanding of movement. Our view of the interactions between components of the movement system has changed. While we still consider the three fundamental components to be the same—muscles, skeleton, nervous system—we now know that many internal and external factors influence our movements and especially the way the nervous system works.
Lifestyle factors that affect the nervous system, such as sadness, nutrition, anxiety, sleepiness, anger, motivation, and other stressors, also alter the way we move. We might move faster, slower, more carefully, or more aggressively based on the context of our situation. The signals the nervous system receives from the internal and external environments and the signals it sends out affect our movements much more than previously believed.
This new view about how the movement system’s parts interact is more difficult to comprehend because it is more complicated to visualize. It is easy to picture the muscles moving the skeleton based on a message the brain sent to the muscles through the nerves. It is more difficult to imagine that the context we are in actually changes the impulses the nervous system sends to the muscles. The good news is that the nervous system is more or less ready to act in a variety of those internal and external contexts even though countless influences on the nervous system affect each action. It is difficult to fathom the complexities that go into creating movement. The nervous system’s job is to solve the puzzle of the context and how to conduct the most effective, efficient movement in that situation.
If the nervous system cannot find a solution to a movement puzzle or select the appropriate action in a certain context, the result might be pain or an unconscious avoidance of that particular movement. The more movements you avoid, the more you avoid living a fulfilling, active life.
Even when you think you have performed an action in the same way as before, the nervous system may activate muscles in a different way based on the context you are in. We take the viewpoint in this article that movement is largely influenced and governed by the nervous system. Thus, to stay active throughout life, you must not only work the muscles, but also make sure your nervous system is fit and ready to learn. We look at yoga therapy as a form of somatic education (learning through the living body) and at yoga poses (known as asanas in the yoga community) as a way to teach the nervous system to solve movement puzzles.
Yoga therapy can make you more aware of changes in the nervous system and other aspects of the movement system. When you use yoga therapy, you become more sensitive to movement—how it changes based on your context and habits and how you can create more options. By bringing awareness to the movement system, activities become more enjoyable, you perform them with less effort, and you are able to consciously adjust the way you perform the activity based on the current context.
To ensure these benefits of yoga therapy, the following is essential:
Pay attention to the movements and actions.
Practice a variety of yoga asanas.
Do the asanas in a variety of ways.
We now know that variety is what maintains the health of the movement system and will keep you active throughout life. Variety keeps the nervous system healthy and happy. Performing yoga asanas the same way day in and day out is no better than performing any unvaried movement. Remember that the nervous system is a puzzle solver, and if it doesn’t have a problem to solve it becomes “lazy.” Varying your movements creates challenges for the nervous system. When the nervous system solves the movement puzzle, you can observe changes not only in movement patterns, but also in your behavior! A changed movement or behavior pattern is a sure sign of learning in the movement system. Before we delve further into what we mean by learning in the movement system, let’s look a little deeper into the components of the movement system.