But it has nothing to do with aesthetics, so we all but miss it in every single workout.
— Bryan Kest (via my memory), talking about the psoas muscle during navasana in one of his Power Yoga DVD practices
I may not have every word right, but the basic sentiment is accurately portrayed. And whether a lot of people are particularly likely to need psoas strengthening, the idea, I think, applies to physical fitness more broadly.
First, and this is applicable to my psoas, I tend to ignore stretching some muscles that don’t directly affect my appearance — or that I don’t think of as directly affecting my appearance. For example, I know I have some stiffness in the muscles along the sides of my ribcage. While I do make an effort to stretch them at least a little each day, I’ve never sequenced an asana practice to target the release of those muscles. One part of the reason for that is because my tightness there, while not comfortable, doesn’t really affect the aesthetic shape of my body.
Contrast that with the muscle tightness I feel across the front of my shoulders and chest. Not only have I sequenced personal practices specifically to open up that area of my body, but I’ve also attended a number of classes and used a myriad of videos with the same stated purpose. In some of those instructional practices, the teacher brought in the idea of aesthetics. Having a tight chest and shoulders can contribute to back pain, yes, but I’ve also witnessed plenty of yogis demonstrate the hunched shoulders and rounded spine and remark on how that isn’t very attractive.
Although I’m not sure I’d “all but miss” my heart center if it weren’t a factor in creating what I consider an aesthetically pleasing line to my body, I can’t deny that aesthetics plays some role in the muscles I choose to stretch.
Similarly, aesthetics also plays a role in the muscles I choose to strengthen. Regular readers might have noticed my recent-ish (in the grand scheme of my practice) fascination with feet. For the past few years, I’ve experienced intermittent foot pain in my standing postures. I chalked this up to my foot anatomy and the increasing frequency, duration, and physical intensity of my asana practices, deciding it must be a side effect that comes with the territory. Until I stumbled on the idea online — while researching another topic only tangentially related — it had never even occurred to me that I could stretch and strengthen the muscles in my feet — the way I did the rest of my body — so they’d be better able to support me in standing poses.
Again, I don’t think aesthetics is the only force at play here, but if it were my butt or thighs hurting in the postures? I probably couldn’t avoid knowing how to strengthen or tone those if I wanted to. However, strong, supple feet are really not a showcase image in most people’s conceptualization of the aesthetic ideal.
But it goes deeper — or maybe broader — than that. Recently, the blog Living ~400lbs posted The Fitness Question, asking readers if the benefits of exercise would be worth it if they never lost weight. Weight loss is only one aspect of aesthetics, but I sometimes wonder if there’s a similar principle at play on a grander scale — that is, if a major motivator in people’s exercise habits is the hope or expectation that it will help them to look a certain way.
The expectation can take a number of forms; “tone” is one I hear often — that regular exercise will increase the appearance of muscle definition (which may or may not include muscle mass) while decreasing the appearance of surface fat. Of course this doesn’t happen with every body: on mine, the muscles arrive where they will, but the surface fat that’s always been there I now acknowledge as a permanent fixture of my form.
I also sometimes interpret “tone” as “flexibility” — that is, a truly toned muscle will stretch as well as contract. For a long time, I hung on the hope that if I toned and stretched my muscles enough, I’d eventually develop the flexibility to get into every single yoga asana (or at least every asana a teacher might reasonably demonstrate in class). It took some study of anatomy and even more self-study to understand that:
- There’s more to it than that. Bone shapes, sizes, and angles vary widely — and they also play a significant role in what a particular asana looks like — not to mention how it feels — for any given individual’s body.
- Sometimes — like in the case of arm binding — regardless of muscle flexibility or the shape of my spine or shoulders, it ain’t ever gonna happen, at least not in a way that is beneficial for me.
Of course it’s good to use anatomical- and self-knowledge to determine what’s causing any particular limitation and whether it’s helpful or harmful to try to push a given edge. And in the course of that determination, it’s empowering to recognize the pressure (from self or society) to strive for a particular aesthetic and to name that hangup for what it is.
There are aspects of movement, meditation, and health that have nothing to do with aesthetics. It’s a rewarding challenge to find the space for them.