Contra Muscles Working in Opposition

Originally written by Zara M on  11 September 2013

I love how these yoga classes open up my awareness of how the anatomy of my body works, and make suggestions for subtle changes and shifts in muscle tension and release that allows me to expand the movement of my body even further. It is a wonderful feeling to allow certain muscles to relax and expand by focussing on one muscle’s tension and on your breathing, and then feel yourself able to stretch even further into a pose. It is a constant reminder that you are always capable of more, and that only your own mind is hindering your body’s freedom.

Last week we focussed on what our instructor calls ‘contra muscles’. This refers to the fact that muscles act in pairs and in opposition to one another. We used this information to concentrate on the contraction of one muscle and the subsequent lengthening of the other.

To illustrate, we were all asked to sit on the edge of a platform with our feet planted flat on the floor, so that our legs settled at a right angle. We were then encouraged to explore which muscles in our thighs we could feel contracting when we alternately pressed our heels into the ground, and then our toes.

My personal experience of this exercise was that the differences I felt were very subtle, almost unrecognisable. I suppose this is partly because my leg muscles are not very well developed, but also because I am not used to having to differentiate between the different muscles in my legs and so the feelings were unfamiliar. As long as my legs are working and I can stand up and walk about, that is all I am generally concerned about.

By developing an awareness of how the muscles in your legs actually work though, you can then use this information to your advantage when dancing to gain a much better sense of grounding and fluidity. You will be able to recognise which muscles you are contracting and using for stability, and which you are then able to lengthen and allow for larger movement. The result, I suspect, is a much more dynamic dancing experience, for you and for your partner. Walking about in your day-to-day life is after all very different from walking on the dance floor!

I was interested to learn how many office-workers develop bad habits for their leg muscles by sitting incorrectly, which means that they are not engaging their hamstrings. This happens when the feet are not fully placed on the ground. I am a massive culprit! I tend to always sit with my heels pressed up against the legs of my chair so that only my toes are in contact with the ground. I also sit like this when I am on the bus, or on the tube. I have been sitting like this for years so it makes perfect sense to me now why I can’t touch the floor with my hands whilst keeping my legs perfectly straight – my hamstrings are way too short. I imagine that wearing high-heels for years has not exactly helped matters either! All is not lost though; apparently it is the perfect opportunity when sitting at the desk, to use one’s feet to practice engaging different muscles in the legs, in the same way that was demonstrated in class, with us all sitting on the platform.

The whole point of these exercises is to encourage us to be conscious of which muscles we are using. We can then transfer this awareness to the dance floor in order to help improve our Tango walk. In order to walk with elegance and be in control of the walk instead of falling into each step without thinking about it, we have to be conscious of how our muscles are working. In the same way, we can experiment with the use of our stomach muscles in order to help open up the body and keep it aligned. It is all about contracting one muscle, while releasing and expanding the opposing muscle at the same time.

It seems like quite a lot to think about while you are dancing, but I guess if you take your time to enjoy the experience of connecting with your own body whilst in your partner’s embrace, the result will eventually be instinctual. I don’t know about you, but I find that most of my focus goes into trying to remember to relax and expand, rather than contracting my muscles. Contracting and tension seems to happen without me thinking about or even being aware of it, often to the point of me suddenly realising that I am moving like I’ve got a stiff pole down the back of my neck! During the yoga classes the yoga assistant constantly has to readjust my body so that the tension in my shoulders releases and I can relax better into the pose. For me, developing an awareness of how sets of muscles react in opposition to each other will hopefully remind me to let go and lose the tension that builds when I am deep in concentration, trying to get something right.

Tango and Yoga is not about forcing your body to do what you want it to do, it is about playing with elements of control and freedom, and this all starts within the mind. Focus and free your mind first and let your body do it’s thing. Sometimes when I am practicing yoga I feel like there is a dance happening within my own body, muscles are responding to each other, my limbs are working in unison with my mind and my breathing. It is all one beautiful movement that can only happen when everything connects.

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