Reciprocal Inhibition

I can still vividly remember a yoga class, years ago, where the teacher was talking about reciprocal inhibition: the concept of one muscle flexing so its opposite can extend. For example, if I am standing, and I want to lift my right leg straight out in front of me, my hip flexors (the fronts of my hips) have to engage, and in response to that, my lower back and glutes need to release a little to give some slack to allow for that engagement in the front. Conversely if I want to send that leg back, the front of my hip needs to be the thing to do the releasing, so the glutes and low back can take up the slack, providing lift.

One might not expect a brand new word combo like “reciprocal inhibition” to roll around in a person’s head for days afterward, but it did… the concept really resonated with me. Not just that, it brought me a bit deeper into anatomical understanding, the inner workings. I like to be in that space of deep understanding, because that’s where it goes from knowledge to practice, and from practice to real strength and leverage. 

She was introducing this concept to teach us how to get a deeper stretch out of our hamstrings in a forward fold. The trick is to fire the quads, the fronts of the legs, using all the strength of this huge muscle group, to coax a deeper stretch out of the backs of the legs. By focusing your attention in the direction of your strength, the weaker parts, the parts that need some love, will receive it in kind as a matter of course because that’s how reciprocal inhibition works. It’s the law. 

Reciprocal inhibition is a concept that is not only related to anatomy. It’s found in psychology too, and if you think about it, it’s actually everywhere in life. 

Harness the Wind

My sailing partner used to say that one reason he loved sailing so much is that it’s basically a microcosm of life. Every lesson there is to know in sailing, has a practical purpose in real life, and vice-versa. They say that sailing takes a day to learn, but a lifetime to master… and I think the same could be said about life. Honestly it’s relatively simple, there are not a lot of rules to life. But what rules there are, are strict. They are law.

When sailing, you’re using the wind as well as the water to work with the concept of reciprocal inhibition. The sail goes up into the air, and the keel hangs down below the boat. They balance each other. The sails are set relative to the wind such that the wind travels over the sail and collects in the “belly” of the sail. To the untrained eye it may seem as if the wind is pushing the boat, but it’s actually pulling it. The keel below, acting as a sail of sorts too, counterbalances what’s happening above, allowing the boat to go straight where you’re pointing it. It’s all in perfect balance.

Ebb and Flow

Adjusting your sails is really just a matter of keeping up with what the wind is doing. Paying attention to, and being present with, what is actually happening right now. Tweaking things ever so slightly so that you keep moving forward. Making big changes when those are needed too. Sometimes your wind just dies. Sometimes a boat goes by and takes the wind out of your sails. It’s actually not the end of the world; as soon as they get out of the way, your sail will fill again. 

The ocean has her own ways of teaching us to ebb and flow. She does it herself all the time. Tides come in and they go out, and each of these states are necessary to give balance to Earth as a whole. They are sort of like the longest, slowest waves you’ve ever seen, nearly imperceptible, covering more shore and less shore, as the gravitational force from the moon herself ebbs and flows. The tidal swings get bigger and bigger the further from the equator you go, and that too is exactly how it should be, relative to conditions. 

Yin and Yang

The moon exerts her gravitational force on Earth, and creates these huge shifts in the great bodies of water that cover more than 70 percent of our planet. And though to a lesser extent the sun affects the tide too, he’s got bigger fish to fry. The sun is a great ball of fire in the sky, and without the sun there would be no light. No food. The sun and the moon, they are their own reciprocal inhibitionists, providing the light and the dark, the hot and the cold. We need them both, and we need them in balance, in order to thrive. Too much sun, too much heat, too much fire… causes drought, starvation, and destruction. Too much darkness, and nothing grows either. Death and destruction happen but in a different way due to a different set of circumstances. But it happens exactly as it should, given the conditions.

Balance in all things, is what that simple yin/yang symbol is showing us. Ebb and flow.

Male and Female

Yin, in Eastern philosophies and practices, traditionally is associated with female qualities, and yang with male. Yin is cool and dark, yang is hot and bright. A yin yoga practice will have you holding stretches and sinking into them for a long time, 3-5 minutes sometimes in one pose. A hot yoga class is a great example of one with a more “yang flair”: they tend to be fiery, hot and sweaty, in some cases the instructor literally barks commands at you. It’s not relaxing. But it can be energizing. It really comes down to what you need for your body today. The trick for many of us is asking our bodies what they need, listening honestly, and then actually doing what they asked. 

Oftentimes a breakdown happens here. We want to power through that spin class, or keep with our training schedule. Meanwhile, perhaps our bodies are injured. Or our hormones are ebbing and/or flowing, which can be a female or male thing, and we zig but we should have zagged because we didn’t listen. Now we’ve deepened that disconnect, we’ve caused a greater imbalance.  

Be The Change

It’s likely that at some point in your life you have heard the phrase “be the change you wish to see in the world”, which is basically another way of saying what all of these principles are saying: pay attention to what’s happening, and use your powers to tweak it. If you want to. Where you see oppression, be a liberator. When your friends are down, support them. Where you encounter darkness in your day, shine a light. A smile counts as a light. In fact it doesn’t just count, it has the potential to brighten someone’s entire day. Shine that shit everywhere.

You can be the change in the world out there, and you can be the change in your own world too. “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of”. In yoga, this concept is known as “pratipaksha bhavana”: cultivating a positive thought every time a negative one pops up. You yin to its yang, ebb to its flow. In the excellent book The Upward Spiral, by Alex Korb, this concept involves redirecting your energy from a downward spiral to an upward one. Thoughts become things, that’s a fact. The average person has more than 6,000 thoughts every day. So make ‘em good. 

You take care of me and I’ll take care of you? 

That internal connection and conversation… the constant observation of where your head is at, and how you’re feeling, what kind of person you woke up as today, is crucial. You can’t adjust your sails if you haven’t taken account of the direction the wind is coming from. You can’t possibly hope to be the change, or to cultivate the opposite feeling, if you don’t know what is needed to begin with, if you aren’t listening and observing honestly what is happening. And if you’re not doing that observing, the asking, the connecting, you’re putting that imbalance out into the world and it does no one any favors.

So we have to take care of ourselves, honestly, and with love. We can’t give the responsibility to others. We can’t ask them to be our source of strength without knowing how to flex our own muscles. But we certainly can ask them to support us, when our strength is used up… to lend us some strength when we need to let go. To help balance us.

Other people aren’t a part of our being… they are part of our world, but they aren’t us. With their own “stuff” to keep track of, they are their own. Other people have their own selves to make better, to bring to the world, to be the light and the change and the wind.

It has to be “I’ll take care of me for you, if you take care of you for me”. In that way we are bringing our whole selves to the game, complete in ourselves, ready to contribute in meaningful ways. Because we have been contributed to, cared for, nurtured and loved, the right way. We know this to be true because we did it ourselves. We became the change, and now we’re in the game the way we want to be.

Make The Rules. Make It Easy.

In many ways our brains are the driver’s seat of our being, so it’s important that we learn its nuances. Thoughts do become things. Every single action you take, began with a thought about doing it. So when our actions are borne of thoughts that are out of alignment with who we want to be, the change we wish to see, the balance we need to feel, in order to be the best people we can be, for each other… that’s a recipe for disaster. That’s you, not in the flow of life. Going against the grain, working harder, not smarter. But so many of us do it all the time, just like we beat our bodies up in spin class. 

Finding a connection and an understanding of our brain and how it’s working is crucial to a life well-lived, no matter who you are. There isn’t anything “wrong” with your brain as it is. It is functioning exactly as it should be, given the conditions it finds itself in. Your job is mostly to decide if that’s working for you, and if it’s not, tweak it. Whether that involves tools and techniques like meditation, exercise, and diet changes, or the best thing for your brain is in fact some kind of pharmaceutical intervention, the point is to know you. Understand how and why it’s working like it is, then flex… or extend. Yin, or yang. Make adjustments as needed. Drive this thing. It’s yours, and you’re worth it.

“You are perfect just as you are, but you could use a little improvement.” – Shunryū Suzuki


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